I remember sitting at my Gma’s dining table once, when I was living with her during college, reading M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating (one of her autobiographical books). Fisher’s husband had recently died, and she describes floating through life in a state of numbness. Normally a woman who relishes and treasures her food, she can hardly stand to eat. She goes on a cruise to Mexico, alone, and the crew seems to see the pain she’s in, and pays special attention to her.
She’s in the dining room one evening, and all the food seems drab and pretentious, and the waiter leans over to her and says, “There is an American kitchen and there is a country kitchen, side by side out there…”
He disappears, and then returns with a bowl of what the staff is eating, “light-tan beans cooked with some tomato and onion and many herbs.” She devours three or four servings, and relishes every bite, describing the “feeling of that hot strong food going down into [her] stomach [as] one of the finest [she] has ever known.”
I remember finishing that chapter… and then immediately making myself a pot of beans, and eating them with a warm flour tortilla and diced avocado while I dug in to the next chapter.
I have lived in Southern California all my life, which means that even though I’m a white girl, I have some decent experience with Mexican food. My mother makes great Mexican and Mexican inspired foods: tacos, enchilada casseroles… we even made big batches of (delicious) tamales together on occasion.
I’m comfortable with the onion-garlic-chilies trinity, and can usually whip up some Mexican-style foods without a recipe. Sometimes I just need a little inspiration, in the form of a meal at someone’s home or in a restaurant, and I’ll be off on a mission to replicate, simplify or build upon a recipe. (Do you ever obsess about food like this?)
This recipe developed over time, watching both my mother and mother-in-law make their beans, and seeking out the flavors I loved. I tend to used canned chilies for Spicy Beans, and fresh chilies for Spicy Citrus Beans, but either will work.
Spicy Beans / Spicy Citrus Beans
While I like black beans and pinto beans on their own, the addition of the onion-garlic-chilies trinity really makes them pop. The addition of the optional citrus changes the flavor profile significantly, so try them both. Using rendered chicken fat instead of oil really ups that richly satisfying quality of the beans.
- 1 tbsp. rendered chicken fat or pork fat ( alternate: Canola oil or vegetable oil)
- ½ poblano or whole Anaheim chili, diced OR ½ (4 oz.) can diced green chilies
- ⅓ medium yellow or brown onion, diced
- kosher salt
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 (15 oz.) can pinto (or black) beans, including liquid
- optional: juice of ½ a large orange
- Heat the fat in a medium pot over medium heat, and once the fat begins to shimmer, add the onions, chilies, and a pinch of salt.
- Sweat the chili and onion until softened, stirring occasionally.
- Add the garlic and cook a minute more.
- Add the beans and their liquid as well as the orange juice (if using).
- Stir to combine, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook 5 minutes until beans are the desired tenderness.
- Season with salt to taste.
The standard variation pairs incredibly well with Mexican-Style Rice and Mexican-Style Vegetables (drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and microwave until tender and hot – 3 minutes, stir, 3 minutes, stir, 2 minutes) as perfect sides for Chicken Tacos.
The citrus variation pairs delightfully with The Smitten Kitchen’s Huevos Rancheros (which are delicious, although entirely unlike any Huevos Rancheros I’ve ever seen).