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Southwest Style : A Ham and His Beans

July 15, 1993|MARGY ROCHLIN

Good recipes can come from unexpected sources. I learned to cook frijoles, for instance, by watching a friend's husband.

He'd slow-simmer a pound of beige speckled pinto beans for about nine hours with vegetables, garlic, herbs and a ham hock. Then, instead of mashing them and frying them in lard like refritos , he'd serve them as a translucent stew, in bowls, in their own rich gravy. Before putting the beans on the table with some silky flour tortillas, he'd dust the top with crushed dried cilantro or a handful of grated yellow cheese. Dinner guests would take one taste of his superior mealtime contribution and start quizzing him about his bean-making method. To me, this was always a special moment. Almost everything else about him seemed to give people the total heebie-jeebies.

I guess there was reason to keep him at arm's length: Among other things, he had a plain-wrap name that turned out to be invented. A harmless hello could lead to him divulging biographical details that didn't really add up with anything else you knew about his background. On several occasions, I heard him telling people that he was a Comanche warrior. Once, after a week-long disappearance, he returned home and told my friend that he'd inadvertently fallen asleep in his Toyota pickup truck on some railroad tracks and was hit by a whistling train engine of the Southern Pacific that was hurtling toward Mexico. Oh.

My friend tried hard to make her marriage work; eventually, she got fed up and asked for a divorce. Everyone adjusted to his absence so rapidly it was as if he'd never existed. One of the only real traces he left behind was his frijoles recipe, which began to evolve among my friends and family in interesting ways: Someone came up with the idea of providing a hot, musky back-taste by dropping in narrow strips of roasted, skinned Anaheim chiles and cooking them until they disintegrated into the broth. (Sauteed chorizo, slices of bacon, chopped green onions or a few slugs of beer can also be added.)

Another friend discovered that the freshest, meatiest-tasting pintos are found at health food stores, from which--believe it or not--you can sometimes also purchase huge organic ham hocks, exquisitely smoky and sawed down into slimmer, more manageable hockey-puck-sized portions upon request.

After quizzing a few local bean experts, all of us went out and bought inexpensive electric Crock-Pots because it was the easiest way to cook frijoles at the lowest heat for the longest time without ever having to watch them.

With a few exceptions, most people agree that pintos must first sit overnight in cold water, or for an hour after they've been boiled for a couple of minutes. But an ongoing debate rages over what to do with the lukewarm soaking fluid once you're ready to turn on the Crock-Pot. One side insists that the after-wash is full of nutrients, while the other swears that it contains oligiosaccharides, the enzyme that makes leguminous seeds so hard to digest (which is how rinsing the soaked beans became known as "degassing"). For what it's worth, I've always sided with the group who drains, if only because after seeing the gray foamy residue that forms in the pot, not washing them off reminds me of heating food in dirty bathwater.

At some point, I developed the habit of scanning Mexican or Southwestern cookbooks in the hopes of picking up new bean secrets. This is how I came to learn that the flavor of beans are heightened after spending an air-cooled night in the refrigerator. And that beans salted in the first stages of cooking will remain as hard as ball bearings.

But mostly what my reading project has taught me is that people can go a little haywire when it comes to a simple, daily staple like frijoles --of which cowboy beans, charro beans, border beans, frijoles de olla , aguadas and enteros are all slight variations. Folkloric superstitions about bean-making abound, and if I were to choose my favorite it would be the bit about never ever stirring the concoction except with a wooden spoon: Metal utensils, it is said, will kick off a chemical reaction that will cause the beans to blacken as suddenly as a sky filling with dark storm clouds.

Not that long ago, I bumped into my friend's ex-husband and decided to ask him where he learned how to make frijoles. He explained to me that it was through his best friend Lobo, a bony long-hair who he said he met in 1973 during the famous Indian occupation at Wounded Knee. Of course, what he really meant was that he learned to cook beans from his mother.

Bean Cooking Instructions

Take a pound of pinto beans and spread them out on a flat surface. Pick out bits of gravel and the rotten beans, which you can easily recognize because they're a darker color than the others.

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