Family Stories and Frijoles

Today’s recipe is a tribute to my grandparents.  The recipe itself is very simple, but this is a special day: the 101st anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.  I grew up hearing my dad’s stories about my Grandpa and Pancho Villa in the Revolution, and I always imagined Grandpa as Villa’s close associate.  When I studied the Mexican Revolution in college, I looked for evidence of a connection and never found anything definite, but my dad always said his parents left Mexico suddenly after Villa was assassinated (that would have been 1923, a few years before my dad was born).

Although the historical record is silent and Grandpa didn’t talk much about it, once I caught just a glimpse of how the memories of long-ago experiences stayed with him.  My younger brother had a replica machete that he showed to Grandpa, who took it and clasped it to his chest.  His eyes filled with tears, and he murmured, “Ay, mis compadres, mis compadres, hace tantos años,” and then he got up and went outside alone (the word compadre translates to godfather and signifies a very close relationship – literally co-father, or a man you would trust to raise your children).  Grandpa didn’t say anything other than, “Gracias, mijito,” when he came back in, and then he put the machete away in a cabinet.  To my brother it was just a decoration to hang on the wall, but it carried a great deal of meaning for Grandpa.

My grandma was around 14 when the Mexican Revolution turned into a drawn-out civil war.  She used to talk of running to hide in the corn field whenever they heard the hooves of the Huertistas’ horses pounding on the road.   One day her father came home and told her to bundle up her change of clothes because he had arranged for her to be married.  Grandpa was about ten years older, and she had never even met him until that day.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like – in her father’s mind he was protecting her from the real risk of attack by the marauding federales, but she was suddenly living in terrible conditions away from home and married to a stranger.  Fortunately, the rest of the story is that over time they grew to love each other and were married for more than sixty years (and had nine children and fifty grandchildren).

When my Grandma passed away, I went through a time when I read everything I could find on the Mexican Revolution in an attempt to somehow feel connected to my grandparents.  Classic and modern novels of the Revolution were fascinating to me, and it was about that time that Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate was made into a film.  With the plot weaving together the revolutionary era, elements of Mexican culture, and especially food, I loved the book as well (both the original and the English translation).  I’ve always thought I’d like to make all the recipes, but the only one I’ve done is a traditional chiles en nogada (I did recently see this Chabela Wedding Cake on the Scarletta Bakes blog, and it is on my mental list of things to try).

My favorite character in Like Water for Chocolate is Gertrudis, AKA La Generala.  There really were some women who engaged in combat and commanded troops in the Revolution, but the more common female role was like my Grandma’s experience – as soldaderas who cooked, cared for the wounded, and provided other support.  For a number of years Grandma and Grandpa moved around with the División del Norte; movement was often on foot, and like the other women, Grandma carried her cooking pot and a sack of beans wherever they went.  In that situation, a varied diet wasn’t possible, but frijoles were always a practical choice.

Thinking about the magical realism of Like Water for Chocolate is giving me time travel fantasies – what if I could go back a century and give all those soldaderas a pressure cooker?  That’s how I make my beans.  If you don’t have one, it is still easy to make delicious and economical beans on the stove, in a slow cooker, or even in the oven.  My family always made pinto beans (still my favorite), but use whatever you like – pink or black beans or yellow peruanos are all good choices.  A pound of beans (about 2 cups dry) will yield 5-6 cups of cooked beans, and the recipe can easily be doubled or halved depending on your needs.

One of my cookbooks says to add salt only at the end of the cooking time so as to not make the beans tough, but my grandma always included salt from the beginning.  I’ve tried it both ways and think the beans have better flavor with salt in the cooking water, and I don’t notice a difference in the texture.  As for soaking ahead of time, I do it when I think of it but often skip that step.  I can’t tell that it makes a difference in the digestibility of the beans (trying to delicately address the issue of gas here – if it’s a big problem, try some Beano), but they will cook a little faster if pre-soaked.  If you do pre-soak, drain and rinse the beans before cooking.

You can omit the ham hock if you want vegetarian beans.  In that case, a little extra salt might be in order, and in any case, all of the seasonings are to taste.  My recipe is really pretty standard (like my grandma’s beans), and the only somewhat un-common touch is the addition of some dry red wine after the beans are almost all the way cooked (a tip I got from a Mexican friend’s maid, who got it from one of her relatives who used to work in the French ambassador’s kitchen in Mexico City).  The alcohol cooks away and leaves just a hint of a mysterious deeper flavor that is really delicious.


  • 2 cups dry beans (pre-soak as described above if desired)
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 ham hock or ham bone (optional)
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1 onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1-2 jalapeños or serranos, halved lengthwise
  • 2-3 sprinkles of ground cumin and dried Mexican oregano
  • 1/4 cup red wine

Pick through the beans to make sure there aren’t any little rocks or other debris; put the beans in a colander and rinse thoroughly with hot water.

Place all of the ingredients except the wine in the pressure cooker and follow manufacturer’s directions to seal and bring to high pressure.  The cooking time depends mostly on the freshness of the beans, but size is also a factor and small black beans will cook more quickly than larger kidney beans.  Start with 8 minutes for black beans and 10 minutes for other types.  Remove from heat and release pressure according to the manufacturer’s direction.  You want the beans to be almost tender; if they are not, reseal and bring to pressure again for another 5-8 minutes.  Add the wine and cook at pressure for 3-5 more minutes, or until the beans are done.  For these beans I used an inexpensive but very flavorful Sicilian syrah (dry – but I don’t think it matters what kind of wine you use).

If you want the bean broth to thicken up a bit, cook a little longer with the lid off.  Whatever you do, don’t throw the broth away….it is a great addition to any kind of vegetable or red-meat soup, and you will also want some of it if you are going to make refried beans.  If you don’t have an immediate use for the extra bean broth, put it in the freezer for another day.

For regular stove top beans, bring the pot to a boil and then simmer with the lid on, and it will likely take between 40-90 minutes depending on the beans.

To prepare in a slow cooker, it is recommended to boil the beans for 10 minutes before transferring to the slow cooker (to destroy a naturally-occurring toxin).  Cook on high for about 4 hours or on low for about 8 hours.  Add the wine during the last hour.

As for oven cooking, I’ve only done it once.  The results were good, but my oven is really small and when I’m making beans I often want the oven space available for cornbread or something.  Follow the method here, but use my ingredients and add the wine during the last half hour.

Every once in a while I have beans that never get tender.  I hope that doesn’t happen to you, but if it does, use any that are left in the bag for pie weights in the future or else toss them because they are too old.  Dry beans do last a long time, but the fresher, the better, so get them from a farmer’s market if you can, and if not, check the “best if used by” date on the package and buy the bag with the longest shelf life.

My next post will have a recipe to use some of the extra frijoles, and you can also freeze the beans in meal-size portions, so make a big batch!


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3 thoughts on “Family Stories and Frijoles

  1. Kelly says:

    I loved the story behind the beans! I just wanted to leave you a little note and let you know I’m a big fan. I tell Kara to pass my praise along all the time, but figured I could do it myself. I also loved the book Como Agua Para Chocolate, and in my high school Spanish class we had to make one of the recipes for a class project. With some help, I attempted the Three Kings Day bread. It didn’t come out half bad, but the poor porcelain thing we baked in it came out a little worse for the wear. Thanks for all of your posts, they make wonderful study breaks! I can’t wait to try some of your recipes!

    • Kelly,
      Thanks so much for your comment! Since you liked Como Agua Para Chocolate, have you ever read a story called “El Guardagujas” by Juan José Arreola? He was one of the first Mexican magical realists, and the story is hilarious…so very Mexican but somehow I think if it were set along the Volga it could be quite Russian as well. I know you probably don’t have time for recreational reading now, but maybe you can squeeze a short story in sometime.
      Best wishes in your studies and remember, mijita, frijoles are brain food!

  2. Kelly says:

    I haven’t read that short story, but as soon as finals are over, I’ll definitely seek it out. Thanks for the suggestion! Also, your new recipe for molletes looks like a good candidate for affordable study food 🙂

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