When I cater, one of our signature dishes is Frijoles a la Olla. These are beans, usually either pinto or black beans (but really, they can be any kind of beans, garbanzos, favas, white beans… you name it) cooked in a clay pot. Since I am typically cooking for 50-100 guests (or more!), I look for bulk buying opportunities. But when I cook for my family, I had been buying beans pre-packaged in plastic bags, like you probably do. And guess what I noticed? A distinct difference in cooking time, not due to quantity, because I took this into account. But the bulk beans cook significantly faster; I can only assume this is because they are fresher, or at least, not as old (since these are dried beans, “fresh” is not the operative word).
Now, while I say that the bulk beans cook more quickly, its relative. We are talking about a slow-cook process that typically takes 4-10 hours, depending upon the quantity of beans and the pot used I have all different sizes). At Tres Señoritas Gourmet Mexican Catering we always use a clay pot (the “olla” in “Frijoles a la olla“) which imparts a subtle but perceptible flavor and cooks more slowly than a typical stainless steel pot. We also add Epazote.
Epazote is an herb found in Mexico and here, at Mexican grocers like Chicos Produce or Casa Lucas (I have noticed that Casa Lucas almost consistently has better epazote, it should not look wilty, but fresh and springy, like basil) on 24th Street near Harrison. If you decide to grow your own, a potted plant is probably best, this is an aggressive plant and is known to grow out of control. In fact, in Mexico it is frequently found growing between the cracks in the sidewalk! The name Epazote comes from the Aztec (Nahuatl) epazotl, which means “skunk sweat” so-named, no doubt, for its pungent odor, it was used by the Aztecs as a medicine as well as a culinary herb. Chopped epazote adds great flavor to albondigos (Mexican meatballs) and a few springs not only a enhance the flavor of pot of frijoles a la olla (claypot stewed beans), it is said to have gas-reducing properties as well. It’s also the secret to a great quesadilla, along with real queso oaxaca (not the supermarket variety, get this at Chicos Produce, theirs is closer to what you would find in Mexico) and handmade tortillas (available at La Palma, 24th and Florida).
There are so many ways to use your leftover beans that its an easy choice to make more than you anticipate you’ll need. In fact, I wrote an entire column on this (see Using leftovers a la Mexicana part 2: Beans). Plus, with a recent study in the Journal of Nutrition linking a “slow carbohydrates such legumes, lentils, broccoli, cauliflower and peas [to a ] a blood chemical linked to heart disease… C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation (It was lower among about 40 overweight or obese people [followed in the study] when they were on a slow carbohydrate eating pattern); you’ll probably want to start eating more beans, anyway. To learn more about a slow carb diet, I recommend My Slow Carb Experience (blog). BTW, I know this works from personal experience… it totally changed the body fat composition of my older son, permanently. If fact, he just returned from 2 weeks in Thailand where he couldn’t follow his diet and didn’t gain back even a pound! This after following this slow carb way of eating for over a year.