Thursday, November 6, 2008

Pintos: my favorite beans

I grew up about three hours from the Mexican border in S. Texas. We had a couple sit-down restaurants that served the usual meat and potatoes fare, a Mexican restaurant, a couple of hamburger places, and a little fast-food Mexican place. At home, dinner was usually steak, ground beef, or beans, specifically pinto beans. I don't think I even knew other types of dry beans existed until I was a teenager. So, it should come as no surprise that I love pintos.

Pinto beans are the typical bean used in refried beans in Mexican dishes like burritos, nachos, and tostadas (called chalupas where I grew up). Typically, cooked pintos are mashed and fried in lard for traditional refried beans, but since I've become health conscious in my adulthood, I've just been mashing and reheating the pintos in a skillet, adding water if necessary to keep them from sticking as they're heated.

If you're in a hurry, you can buy refried beans in cans, and at less than a dollar a can, they're not a bad deal. However, if you cook beans from scratch, you can make a lot more beans for the same amount of money. To save time, money, and propane, I cook up large amounts of pintos at one time, since three or four pounds of beans will cook in the same amount of time as one pound. Here's what I do ...

Get three or four pounds of pinto, whatever will fill your largest pot about 1/3 full. Sort through the beans to pick out any dirt clods or small stones that may have been missed by the processing equipment, then rinse the beans in a colander under warm running water. Put them in the pot and fill the pot with water until it is about 2/3 full. The beans will double in size as they soak. If you can soak them overnight, you can use tap water, but if you need the beans today, you can turn on the stove and heat the water. As soon as it boils, turn it off, and cover the pot. They'll be ready to cook in a few hours. I'd wait at least two hours for the hot soak, but if you have more time before dinner, don't worry, they'll be fine. The longer the soak, the quicker they'll cook, so soaking will save you money in electricity or gas. When I soak beans overnight in cold water and turn on the heat in the morning, they're done within 90 minutes to two hours. If you wake up in the morning and decide you want pinto beans today, it's cheaper to plan the for dinner, although with a hot soak, you could have them done in time for lunch.

Some people say you should dump the soaking water -- they claim you are less likely to have gas if you do that. I've tried dumping the soaking water or not, and I haven't noticed a difference, but then most of my family members don't get gas from beans, so I don't know what I was expecting to see by even trying the "dump the soaking water" method. If you have gas problems, dump the soaking water and let us know if it helped.

When it's time to cook the beans, they have doubled in size, so the pot is getting pretty full at this point, and I fill it up with water, coming to within an inch or two of the top. If you soaked the beans overnight, you don't need as much water, because the beans have already absorbed so much. Don't get wrapped up in being perfect. Beans are very forgiving. If the water level falls below the top of the beans, add another cup or two until the beans are submerged. As long as the beans are covered with water, they'll cook just fine. Cook them on your smallest burner on low, or you could have a mess if the beans boils over.

Once my big pot of beans is cooked, I generally put about four cups in my skillet and mash them for whatever dinner I was planning. Often we have a Mexican buffet dinner, which includes:

  • Burritos -- soft flour tortillas, shredded cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos.
  • Tostadas -- fried corn tortillas, and all the same ingredients as for the burritos. The chalupas I grew up with had beans spread on the tortilla, then cheese sprinkled on top and melted under a broiler. The chilled vegetables were placed on top of the cheese when it came out of the oven.
  • Nachos -- fried corn tortilla wedges, shredded cheddar cheese, and jalapenos. Real nachos look like lovely little canape-style appetizers with the refried beans nicely spread across each tortilla wedge, cheese sprinkled on top, then melted. A jalapeno slice tops each one.
If your local supermarket doesn't sell "tostada shells," you can make your own. In fact, it's usually cheaper to make your own anyway. Buy soft corn tortillas, put about an inch of oil in a skillet, and when it's hot enough, place a tortilla in the oil and leave it there until it's hard. If the bottom is browning faster than the top, use tongs to turn it over. When you tap the tortilla with the tongs, it should make a loud "tick" as it would if you hit something solid with the tongs, meaning it's done. Remove it from the oil with the tongs and place it on a paper towel to drain.

So, what do you do with all those beans that are left in the pot after you've had your Mexican buffet? Freeze them! We normally have five people for dinner, so we freeze four cups at a time using either freezer containers or freezer bags. Aside from the fact that freezer bags are disposable, so not very environmentally friendly, I do prefer them because when I'm in a hurry, I can pull a bag out of the freezer, stick it in the microwave for about two minutes, and the beans are soft enough that I can break the block into several pieces and drop them into the skillet. Add about a cup of water and once the beans start melting, you can start mashing with your potato masher. In less than 15 minutes, including the time it takes to chop vegetables and shred cheese, you can have another Mexican buffet ready to feed your family.

Mexican pizza is another favorite with refried beans. Spread the beans on raw pizza dough, sprinkle with cheddar cheese and cook in the oven as you would any other type of pizza. When it's done, you can sprinkle with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, jalapenos, and taco sauce. I recently had an amazing revelation -- why do we put cheddar cheese on Mexican food when it's from England? Since I make queso blanco, which is a Mexican cheese, I decided to put it on the last Mexican pizza we made, and it was delicious! If you have any tortilla chip crumbs in your pantry, you can sprinkle them on top of the pizza to add a little crunch.

For more money-saving tips, visit Frugal Friday over at Life as Mom.


Carolina Trekker said...

The Pintos are soaking. The tortilla's are napping in the fridge. Monday's Lunch!!
This is a 1st for me & will be something new that is good for us.
Thanks Deborah!

Deborah said...

You're welcome!

I forgot to mention that I usually freeze them without any spices, and then I add the spices when I mash them in the skillet. Just a few dash or two of garlic salt, chili powder, and onion powder.


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