My Grandpa John was a fun-loving character who had all kinds of predictable one-liners. For example, if there was ever a mention of molasses, he would unfailingly quip, “How can I have mo’ ‘lasses when I ain’t had no ‘lasses?” This recipe for molletes really has a lot more to do with my other grandparents, but whenever I think of that word “mollete” (an open-faced Mexican bean “sandwich,” pronounced mō – yeh’ – teh) I imagine Grandpa John in his teasing West Virginia drawl: “How can I have mo’ yehtehs when I ain’t had no yehtehs?”
When I was growing up, Sunday afternoons had a predictable routine: we all piled in the car and went to visit my dad’s parents who lived about an hour away. Some of the aunts and uncles and 41 cousins on that side of the family would invariably be there, which meant lots of fun as well as plenty of food. Whenever I think of Grandpa I remember his garden and how proud he was of his bountiful harvests of tomatoes, chiles, tomatillos, and melons, all started from seed. Dad and the uncles were farmers, so there were always burlap sacks full of potatoes, onions, and beans in the storeroom. Although she made it seem effortless, Grandma always had food ready for all of us: I remember many meals of carnitas, tamales, or chicken with mole and sopa de arroz, and with every meal there would always be frijoles and tortillas.
Grandma turned out tortillas faster than anyone I have ever known. Coming from north central Mexico, she favored flour tortillas to use as a daily bread and reserved corn tortillas for enchiladas and tacos. I can still picture her there in her little kitchen, balls of masa (dough) ready to roll. Her rolling pin was basically a chunk of thick wood dowel, about ten inches long and not quite two inches in diameter, with no handles. No matter how many of us showed up, there was always a never-ending stack of tortillas, and to this day, I love to eat beans by scooping them up with pieces torn from a fresh soft flour tortilla.
I’ll probably post a recipe for tortillas someday, but that’s not where I’m going now. I mentioned the book Like Water for Chocolate in my recipe for frijoles, and there is one line in particular from the book that my Grandma truly exemplified: “… with a little imagination and a full heart one can always prepare a decent meal.” Molletes are a great example of that approach to food – they are simple, filling, delicious, nutritious, and versatile, perfect as a quick breakfast or an after-school snack (and they also make a good inexpensive customize-your-own party food).
First, the Refried Beans – the English translation of frijoles refritos notwithstanding, the beans aren’t really fried twice. The “re-” prefix in Spanish corresponds to the adverb “well,” and “refritos” means well-cooked (just as chiles or churros rellenos are well-filled chiles or churros – “lleno” means “full”….but I’d better cut the Spanish lesson short before I develop a craving and find myself in the kitchen frying churros).
To make frijoles refritos you simply take tender-cooked beans and heat them in a little oil, mashing them up with a potato masher or fork and mixing in a little of the bean broth to get the consistency you like. If you want some extra spice, you can heat a dried chile de árbol in the oil until it is soft, then remove it before adding the beans. Or you can use a powdered spice blend such as Don Enrique’s Pico de Gallo (my husband’s favorite seasoning that he puts on almost everything). I cook my beans with a clove of garlic, chunks of onion, and a couple of jalapeños. By the time the beans are done, the onions and chiles are very soft, and I usually mash them up with the beans when I make frijoles refritos.
Homemade frijoles refritos are super-economical and tasty, but I always keep a can of refried beans in the pantry for those times when I haven’t planned ahead, and they work just fine for molletes. If you are using canned refried beans, warm them up in the microwave or on the stove, mixing in a little hot water (and a dash of Pico de Gallo or other chili powder), and your molletes will still be delicious.
Molletes are traditionally made with a Mexican roll called a telera, or the telera’s cousin, the bolillo (AKA francesito or little French bread – a lasting effect on Mexican cuisine from the 1860s French Intervention). Any sturdy bread will work for molletes, and in the photo you’ll see I’m using brown-n-serve baguette-brötchen (so I guess this is a fusion version of molletes…especially since my cheese is a Russian tvorog, which is the closest thing I’ve found in Germany to Mexican queso fresco).
Split the rolls in half and spread each side generously with warm refried beans. Sprinkle with shredded or crumbled cheese (whatever kind you like) and heat under the broiler or in the toaster oven until the beans are hot and the cheese is starting to melt.
As I mentioned, these molletes are great if you want to entertain on a budget (seriously, the basic bread with homemade beans and cheese is about 25¢ per serving). Not only that, although molletes are extremely popular in Mexico, they don’t seem to be well-known in the U.S. outside of the regions with a strong Latino influence. Any time I have served molletes to friends, there has always been someone present who has never heard of them before. People always like to discover new authentic ethnic food, especially when it is so delicious and easy to make. Molletes are a good reason to have a party, so set out a variety of toppings and let your guests make their own. Anything you might put on a tostada is good: sautéed onions and bell peppers, diced raw onions or sliced green onions, pickled jalapeños, sliced avocados or tomatoes, sliced olives, fresh pico de gallo or other salsas, cilantro leaves, sour cream, etc. are all great choices for toppings. Just use your imagination, offer the meal up with a full heart, and ¡buen provecho!