Mexi-Cal Pinto Beans

Mexi-Cal Pinto Beans

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  1. Beans, Glorious Beans

    Like so many American boys, I was raised—partially, at least—on beans. I can’t say I ever enjoyed them much as a lad. Navy beans, green beans, red beans, garbanzo beans and the ever-infamous lima beans were tossed unceremoniously onto my plate, usually to be ignored, avoided and hidden, if possible. Not until I was older and began to experiment with authentic Mexican and other Latin-American foods did I come to appreciate the bean. And I did not fall in love (figuratively, of course) until El Polo Loco opened its first drive-thru restaurant in my neighborhood and I tried their pinto beans. I was hooked in an instant.

    While living in Humboldt County, where El Polo Loco did not exist, at least at that time, I craved their pinto beans; every time I visited Southern California, I gorged myself. It was during this time that I began to try to recreate their pinto bean recipe. Unfortunately, every attempt ended in failure.

    Since returning to Los Angeles, I was able to have my fill of my favorite menu item at the local drive-thru… until they stopped serving them. That was a few years ago, and it nearly led to a riot of one (they fervently ignored me as I marched back and forth in front of the place bearing a picket sign reading Bring Back the Bean!). I have learned that other El Polo Loco restaurants continue to served pinto beans, but not the one in my neighborhood.  So the experiments resumed.

    It took me three years to finally perfect my own formula that emulates El Polo Loco’s recipe satisfactorily. Because recipes cannot be copyrighted, even by fast-food giants, I will gladly share it with you.

    Thanks to my sister, I learned that my first mistake was not soaking the beans for a long enough period of time. Most cookbooks suggest soaking them for an hour or two, if at all. My wonderful sister, who is no slouch in the kitchen, said to soak them for a full day, or at least for 6-8 hours. She was right, so I do, and the results are terrific.

    Next, I had trouble discovering the proper seasoning. I tried a variety of combinations featuring some popular Latin American spices (cumin, oregano, chili powder, and cilantro) but every batch was a disappointment. I have often found that simplification usually leads to excellent results, but the beans still lacked the proper richness and flavor. Then, quite by accident, I discovered where I had erred all those times. The secret ingredient—are you ready for this? Do you have a pen or at least a dictograph standing by?—is my Simple Chicken Broth. So I hope that you all copied that recipe when we published it, because you’ll need it.

    These rich, savory beans have some heat, but are not precisely spicy, at least not by my standards. If you are extremely sensitive to even mildly spicy foods, you can either use only half a jalapeno pepper or substitute a milder fresh chili in its place (do not use dried chilies), such as “heatless” jalapenos or Anaheim peppers, though I do not recommend it. If you like your beans more piquant, add another jalapeno or substitute a hotter pepper (personally, I prefer Fresno chilies), such as cayenne or Serrano chilies.

    When serving the beans, use a ladle and dish out the broth as well, for it adds to the rich flavor. The beans reheat very well, retaining their magnificent flavor and can be stored for a week or more in the refrigerator and warmed in a microwave oven.

    I have one bit of remaining advice. This particular dish, while delicious, has one adverse effect of which I’m sure most of you are already familiar (especially if you have seen the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles). To avoid… explosive situations following the meal, take either Beano or charcoal capsules, available at your local drug store without a prescription. If you don’t, stay away from open flames and try not to smoke!


    Mexi-Cal Pinto Beans

    (Serves 6-8)

    For this you will need:

    • 2 cups dried pinto beans (pick out tiny rocks, discolored and broken beans)
    • 1 white onion, peeled and minced
    • 2 full heads of garlic, peeled and minced
    • 1 large jalapeno pepper, stem removed and minced
    • 1 Tbs. Olive oil
    • 2 cups Madwag Chicken Broth
    • 2 tsp. salt or to taste


    The procedure:

    1. After removing rocks and broken or discolored beans, place the beans in a strainer and rinse under cold water, then pour them into a deep bowl; add enough filtered water to cover by at least three inches, drape with a towel and let stand for 6-12 hours if possible (you can soak them for as little as 3 hours, though they may take a little longer to cook). As the beans plump, they will absorb most of the water.
    2. Bring your Presto multi-cooker or comparable appliance (if such a thing exists) to a medium heat. Add the olive oil, then the minced garlic. Stir nearly constantly, roasting the garlic until much of the aromatic oils cook off, but not until it is brown. Before the garlic browns, add a quart of water, the minced onion, and the minced jalapeno pepper, increase heat to high and cover.
    3. Place soaked beans in a strainer and rinse thoroughly under cold water, then add them to the pot. Once the water boils, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer; replace lid over the cooker. Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. 
    4. Remove the beans from the cooker using a slotted spoon or small strainer once they are tender; increase the temperature to high and allow the water to boil off until there is only 1/2 inch left in the cooker; then add Simple Chicken Broth.
    5. Continue simmering over a low heat, uncovered, for another 10-15 minutes until the fluid has been reduced by 1/3, then add the beans to the pot. Add salt to taste. Turn off heat and serve.


    For an even simpler recipe that is nearly as good and is considerably healthier—as long as you have the necessary condiments handy—just cook the beans without any of the other ingredients listed except salt to taste, then serve each bowl with a few tablespoons of my Simple Chicken Broth and a dollop of my Medium-Hot Cooked Red Salsa, which will add some zest, tang and heat to the otherwise bland beans.

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