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Friday, May 14, 2010

In defense of dried beans… and an ancient recipe

A friend recently said she didn’t see the merits of using dried beans. I used to feel the same way. Mostly I think because cooking beans seemed laborious and intimidating. It was so much easier to hurry the food prep process along by just cranking open a can. Then I stumbled upon Rancho Gordo and their amazing variety of heirloom beans. Almost instantly, I was converted. Yes, yes dried beans are economical and by cooking them yourself you can control the use of additives (like sodium or MSG). But beyond the well-worn black bean and pinto, etc., that are so easy to come by in a can, heirloom varieties offer a unique flavor and visual profile that hasn’t yet made its way to tins on grocery store shelves. If you want to partake in consuming these beauties, you’re gonna have to learn to cook them yourself.

There are many different methods/philosophies for cooking beans. But they all come down to a matter of simmering the pot until the beans are soft. A pre-soak speeds up the process but isn’t absolutely necessary. The cooking time will just take a lot longer. Adding a few savory vegetables, sautéed in some kind of fat or braised in stock, will make them more flavorful. Although, heirloom and heritage varieties really don't need a lot of fussing if they are used fresh. If you do soak the beans, keep the soaking water and continue to use it to cook the beans. It contains vitamins and flavor, leeched from the beans during the soaking period, so it’d be a shame to just throw that down the drain. I usually set the beans to soak overnight and then keep them at a gentle simmer in the background of morning spent doing other things. They hardly need any supervision and fill your house with a welcome, heady aroma. All this for the price of a little pre-planning! I’ve decided it’s completely worth it.

Last week, I cooked up Ayocote Morado beans, a rare Mexican runner bean, for use in a favorite Budín Azteca recipe I clipped from a Martha Stewart magazine several years ago. Budín Azteca, which translates into “pudding or pie of the Aztecs”, is a casserole-type dish that has roots as far back as the 16th century. My version has roasted poblano chiles and fresh, steamed spinach layered between corn tortillas dressed with a homemade salsa verde and bound with Mexican crema and queso fresco. I chose this because the Daring Cooks challenge this month was to make a stacked enchilada with homemade salsa verde:

Our hosts this month, Barbara of Barbara Bakes and Bunnee of Anna+Food have chosen a delicious Stacked Green Chile & Grilled Chicken Enchilada recipe in celebration of Cinco de Mayo! The recipe, featuring a homemade enchilada sauce was found on and written by Robb Walsh.

One look at the given recipes for this sent me straight to my personal cookbook shelf. Funny how a picture shapes your perspective on how appetizing food will be. No matter how much cilantro you sprinkle as garnish on top, drab colors just don’t photograph well!

I firmly believe that some things are well-worth bending/breaking the “rules”. So this month, I did things a little differently. Here's my interpretation of the challenge:

Roasted Salsa Verde
makes 3 cups

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
4 fresh Anaheim chiles (about 6 to 8-inches long)
1½ pounds tomatillos, husks intact
1 medium white onion, cut into ¼-inch thick rounds
4 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 serrano chiles
1 jalapeno
juice from one lime
cilantro for garnish

In a large dry skillet over medium heat, toast the oregano until fragrant, 1-2 minutes, then remove from skillet and set aside.

To the same skillet, add the tomatillos, onion slices, garlic cloves, and chiles. (If not all fit at once in the same pan, then roast in batches.) Place the garlic at the hottest part of the pan as it will take the longest to cook. Cook slowly, turning occasionally, until soft and aromatic. The timing for each vegetable will be different, so keep a close watch that they don’t burn. As each item is finished remove it from the heat. Once cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves, cut the stems from the chiles, leaving the seeds if you prefer a spicy heat to your salsa, and remove the husks from the tomatillos.

Meanwhile, roast the Anaheim chiles over the open flame of a gas burner, under a broiler set close to the element, or on a grill. Turn occasionally until evenly charred. When black and blistered, remove from heat and place in a paper bag. Roll the bag shut and set aside until cool, about 10 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, peel away the skin and remove the ribs and seeds.

Combine the chiles, onion, garlic, tomatillos, and oregano in a food processor or blender or molcajete. Grind until well blended; yet allow some texture to be retained. Add the lime juice and salt to taste.

Budín Azteca (stacked tortilla pie)
serves 8-10

1 lb dried beans, picked over; I used Ayocote Morado but any Mexican-style bean will do
1 small white onion
2-3 garlic cloves

4 fresh poblano chiles
18 (6-inch round) fresh corn tortillas
7 TBS olive oil
10 oz fresh spinach, rinsed and tough stems removed
1 small onion, very thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup Mexican crema or sour cream
2¼ cups roasted salsa verde (see recipe above)
1½ cups queso fresco, grated

Rinse the beans in cool water and remove any debris. Place beans in a large pot and cover with several inches of cold water. Set to soak overnight or at least 4-8 hours. When ready to cook, do not drain soaking water, it has a lot of nutrients and flavor. Instead top off with more water to cover the beans by several inches and add a small white onion sliced into 3 parts and 2-3 garlic cloves smashed with the blade of a knife. Bring to a hard boil over medium-high heat. Keep the beans at a steady boil for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to low and cover the pot. Cook beans for 1 or so hours. When you begin to smell them cooking and as they start to soften, gradually add a generous heap (about a teaspoon) of salt to the pot. (Waiting to add the salt midway through cooking prevents the beans from splitting.) It takes awhile for the beans to absorb the salt, so go easy. Cover the pot and continue cooking for about 45 minutes or longer, until desired texture is reached. If the bean water starts to get low, add hot water from a tea kettle. These can be made several days in advance. Keep the cooked beans in their cooking liquid in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Roast chiles under broiler or over gas burner flame, until blackened and blistered all over. Transfer to a brown paper bag and roll closed. Set aside for 10 minutes. Peel and discard skins. Remove stems, seeds and ribs. Cut into thin, bite-sized strips and set aside.

Preheat oven to 425°. Brush or spray both sides of tortillas with oil. Arrange on baking sheets and bake just until tortillas begin to bubble, yet still remain soft, 5-7 minutes. Reduce oven to 350°.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Wash the spinach and without drying add to skillet. Cover and cook until spinach has wilted, about 2 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, then squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Coarsely chop and then set aside.

Heat about 2 TBS oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Add sliced onion and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in poblano chiles cooking 1 minute longer. Transfer to a bowl.

Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Heat another 2 TBS of oil in the same skillet. Cook garlic for 30 seconds until golden and fragrant. Add beans and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, mashing and turning beans over in the pan to incorporate the garlic for about 2 minutes. If the mixture seems dry, add in a bit of the reserved bean cooking liquid and continue to mash until reaching the desired consistency. Remove the pan from the heat.

Line the bottom of a deep round baking dish with a third of the (~6) tortillas. I like to use two 6-inch round, 3-inch deep cake pans and stack 3 tortillas between each layer. Spread the chili-onion mixture on top of the tortillas, then distribute half of the bean mixture and half of the crema over this. Spread ¾ cup salsa on top and sprinkle with ½ cup of cheese. Repeat for the second layer using spinach instead of the chiles. Top with the remaining tortillas, ¾ cup salsa, and ½ cup of cheese.

Bake until heated through (45 minutes- 1 hour). Cover with foil if browns too quickly or is becoming too dry. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting and serve with extra salsa and crema.


Chris Martinson said...

I can't wait to try making the budin azteca! Lots of red and black beans are grown in the thumb area if you would like to try a source of Michigan beans:

Nigel Prentice said...

Great post and thanks for the advice! My wife is pregnant and we are trying to figure out how to eat more healthy with dried beans.