Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mexican Bean Soup

I have a unique fondness for beans.

I didn't always like them.

My mother, a wacky, terrible cook, never realized that beans must be washed before cooking. So I grew up with the erroneous assumption that all beans tasted like dirt. And then one day, I ate my grandmother's Pinto Beans, slow-cooked, smoky and thick, with homemade cornbread on top, and I was hooked. Thus a lifelong habit of eating beans once a week ensued.

Now to the soup. For many years, I had trouble cooking beans. I would lovingly prepare them in the crock pot, in the morning, only to arrive home in the evening to al dente soup - and this is not how beans were meant to be eaten. Beans are supposed to be soft, tender, and buttery. I tried many different things to fix the problem - longer soaking time, longer cooking time, cooking them on the stove, salt, no salt, bottled water. But nothing worked. No matter what cooking method I used, my beans were always firm and undercooked. And then one day I came across an article about the freshness of dried beans, and how most beans we buy in the supermarket are old beans - meaning that they have been hanging around for a while. Often these beans are several years old by the time we buy them. Atrocity(!). Thankfully this article saved me from a lifetime of undercooked beans, and set forth an interminable quest for, fresh, dried beans. And yes, they are out there. But one has to look for them.

I finally found Rancho Gordo beans and they are the best. His fresh Napa Valley beans cook up tender and delicious every time. You can buy them online at

Recently at my local farmer's market, I hit pay dirt when I found a bag of fresh, dried Colorado Pinto Beans. I came home lugging this 10 lb. gunny sack like I'd won the lottery.

This is what I made the next day.

Mexican Bean Soup

The recipe is pretty basic. I always begin with a 'holy trinity' of some type of green pepper, onion, and garlic - along with some type of fat or oil - olive oil, a smoky piece of bacon, or some leftover ham will do. Next the spices: chili powder, dried red chile's, cumin, bay leaf, whatever your heart desires. Next, in a large dutch oven, add the presoaked beans and cover with water, or chicken stock, and cook on top of the stove until the mixture begins to bubble. Then, with the lid on, put the entire pot of beans into a 225 to 250 degree oven and cook until soft and tender. This can be anywhere from 2 to 4 hours depending on the freshness of the beans and how long you soaked them. I topped this bowl of beans with a squeeze of fresh lime, some cilantro, fresh chiles, and Cotija cheese.

The easy part of this recipe came one morning when I was in a hurry and asked myself, why am I chopping all these vegetables? So I drizzled some olive oil into the pot, threw in giant chunks of carrots, onions, and celery, heated things up a bit, added the beans and water, put the lid on, stuck it in the oven - and voila! - the best pot of beans I had eaten in a long time. And for some reason, my family really enjoyed these tasty chunks of vegetables in the soup.

This recipe is versatile. Just change the seasonings according to what type of beans you are cooking. For white beans, I like to add lots of olive oil, carrots, onion, rosemary, and celery. For black beans, or Pintos, I prefer green peppers in place of the celery. And for a mixed bean soup, freshly chopped tomatoes add a nice, bright touch. Always remember to begin with the freshest beans available, soak them overnight, cook them covered, low and slow, in the oven, and you will end up with a tender, flavorful pot of perfectly cooked beans.

One last note: many recipes call for salting beans at different times. I prefer to salt mine toward the end of the cooking process.

Please share with me some of your favorite bean recipes. I've got a lot of beans to cook here.


Vicki said...

I think a log of us have the summer blog-blahs, but hang in there, soup-weather's just around the corner! (I can't wait.)

I ran across this method for cooking beans in 90mins w/o soaking, haven't tried it yet, but very intrigued.

Michelle said...

That's the perfect word for it Vicki! Summer blog-blahs! This method for cooking beans looks very similar to mine, but even faster. I'm going to try that out! Thanks!

Proud Italian Cook said...

Hi Michelle, so good to hear from you! I hear you on the blogging thing. It's hard because life is so busy with all our obligations. I dont want blogging to feel like a job, and sometimes it does. Do what you can, and your peeps will always be there for you! I will..
Big hug,

Proud Italian Cook said...

Ooops, I as rambling on and forgot to tell you thanks for your tips on the beans, your soup looks delicious. I save it for my Chicago winter days.

Michelle said...

It's so good to hear from you again Marie! Every one is so busy, that it does get frustrating at times. I am looking at your blog for some fresh, summer cooking ideas. I have relatives staying with us and am making your Balsamic and Herb grilled chicken breasts. I hope they turn out looking as good as the one's on your site!

Elaine Warner said...

Who'd have thought there were dried beans and OLD dried beans? Thanks for the info and for the recipe. I'm going to keep my eyes open at the Farmers' Market in the morning!

Michelle said...

Hi Elaine!
Hope you have some luck at the market. Just so happens, I'm heading there myself. I'll keep my eyes open for you! And for more beans!

Linda said...

The only month I've had trouble keeping up with my blog is August - otherwise, writing is my passion and you'll see no shortage on my pages, lol.

August is busy with the return to school and other activities. My daughter loves soup ANY time of the year, so she will especially appreciate this new recipe.

Here in East-Central Illinois, we haven't really had the hottest summer on record - instead, it's been one of the coolest and wettest and I really don't like rain (it brings on migraines for me). Funny, how it's been an entirely different summer depending on where one lives.

Thanks for the recipe!