Written and photography by Zak Hansen
Locals spill the beans on this must-have Southern New Mexican side dish
Throughout Southern New Mexico, beans have a guaranteed place at our tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and they have for centuries. What is it about beans—whole, refried, and otherwise—that make them perhaps the essential New Mexican comfort food?
Perhaps it’s their history. Beans have been a staple of Mesoamerican cultures dating back at least 5,000 years. As one of the Three Sisters—beans, corn, and squash, each a gift from the Creator—beans were a cornerstone of Native American cultures and, in many ways, one reason those cultures flourished.
Corn, on its own, can be toppled by the wind. The light, creeping vines of beans are fragile and need space. Squash vines, clinging to the ground, are easily burned by the sun and need a great deal of moisture to survive.
“…time and love are the essence of all Mexican cooking.”
Many generations before scientists could begin to define concepts like soil acidity, nitrogen, and vitamins—and long before cultures in the climatologically sound East began cultivating these crops—the people who inhabited the desert Southwest had perfected companion planting.
The sturdy stalk of the corn supports the twining vines of the beans, fragile tendrils eager to reach the sun. The beans, in turn, stabilize the corn stalk and fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the soil for the next crop. The shallow-rooted squash vines act as a sort of living mulch, shading and preventing emerging weeds and trapping moisture at the trio’s base.
Beans, corn, and squash also complement each other nutritionally. Corn is rich in carbohydrates and beans are rich in protein, the latter filling the lack of amino acids in the former. The third Sister, squash, provides both vitamins and minerals from its fruit and healthful oil from its seeds.
Given beans helped the area’s ancestral peoples not only survive but thrive, perhaps their importance runs deeper than dinner. It’s in the land, in the soil, in the mythology, making its way into our very DNA. Perhaps we, as Southern New Mexicans, know instinctively to leave a place at our table, always, for the Three Sisters.
Beans don’t only have their place in ancient history; for many families, the preparation of beans is a way to connect with family, both immediate and ancestral. Denise Chávez, an author, poet, and the founder of the Border Book Festival and Casa Camino Real, with deep, multigenerational ties to Las Cruces, calls beans “the food of our people, from this part of the world—the Chihuahuan Desert, the Southwest, and of the multicultural people of New Mexico,” and fondly recalls the omnipresent olla, or clay pot, always full of beans, either soaking or cooking, in her mother’s kitchen.
Denise, like most Mesillero and Cruceño, knows how important the process is in the preparation of proper frijol, a task that very often includes the whole family. Many from the area can recall hours spent at the table alongside mothers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins, brothers and sisters, meticulously sorting out rocks, chaff, and other debris from beans before their preparation.
“If you really want to prepare the beans, you lay them out, you clean them, you sort them, you take out the little rocks; you cook them, slowly and gently, in the proper manner and in the proper olla,” Denise says.
This time spent with family, preparing a meal together, is likely why refritos, the perfect Southern New Mexico comfort food, can conjure up so many memories of childhood kitchens and dinner tables.
As Denise puts it, “There’s food, and then there’s food,” heavy emphasis on the latter. “It’s a matter of how you cook it, the state of mind you’re cooking it in, and what your memory and knowledge is of what food is and how it should be.”
Or, as she says in describing her book A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture, “time and love are the essence of all Mexican cooking.”
This connection, between food and family and friends, is felt today. According to Kelley Cleary Coffeen, whose Las Cruces roots also go back generations, “Our New Mexican culture offers a sense of community. Part of the reason I love living on the border is that we embrace the culture of our southern neighbors: the generosity, the love of family, hospitality, and cuisine. Cooking is so enjoyable when shared with others…when making a big pot of beans, having family and friends there to help clean and rinse the beans spreads the joy of cooking.”
Kelley certainly knows her beans; she’s authored several cookbooks highlighting the best of the best Southwestern and Mexican cuisine that defines our area.
The Best Beans
So where does one find beans in Las Cruces, prepared with time and love, outside of the family cocina? That very much depends on what you’re looking for.
As far as the near-ubiquitous refried beans, it’s tough to find a favorite; every restaurant makes theirs a little differently, all of them appealing in their own ways. A few standouts, after a grueling, daylong taste test, are Andele, El Sombrero, Ranchway BBQ, and Nellie’s Cafe, along with Habañero’s Fresh Mex, which prepares their refritos without lard or animal fat, making them—and a number of other specialty menu items—vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, still largely a rarity in Las Cruces.
For borracho—“drunken”—beans, look no further than the Mesquite-area La Nueva Casita, renowned by residents for a take on these whole, stew-style beans. Slow cooked with green chile and chorizo along with onions and tomatoes and served in a spicy broth, La Nueva Casita’s borracho beans are largely unmatched.
Mesilla’s popular Andele Restaurante serves, in addition to its fantastic refried beans, frijoles churros, or cowboy beans, named for the traditional Mexican horsemen, or charro, and cooked slow with tomatoes, onions, and garlic then fried quickly in pork fat, before a touch of Andele’s chile de arbol salsa goes into the pot to spice things up.
Las Brasas Mexican Grill, a relative newcomer, prepares its spicy and unique ranchero beans—rancher beans, another take on cowboy beans—with ham, carrots, and whole pickled jalapeños.
For something a little different yet no less traditional, Mesilla’s Paisano Cafe serves black beans — somewhat uncommon in restaurants in the southern part of the state—cooked simply and from scratch with a pinch of salt, a few onions and a bit of epazote, a pungent herb with notes similar to anise, fennel, or oregano, used traditionally in the preparation of black beans for both its flavor and its carminative (gas eliminating) properties.
Every good New Mexican cook should know how to make a mean pot of beans. Kelley shares her tried and true recipes for making restaurant-worthy beans.
Taken from 200 Easy Mexican Recipes by Kelley Cleary Coffeen, Robert Rose, 2013
Basic Pinto Beans
Beans are one of the most important elements of the Mexican cuisine. Dried beans have always been a staple of the Mexican diet. Pinto, black, and kidney beans are all favorites. This simple
recipe of basic pinto beans can be used in salads, soups, and refried bean dishes.
Makes 6 cups
3 cups dried pinto beans
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. onion powder
1. Place beans in a large pot. Add enough water to cover by 4 inches and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
2. Reduce heat and boil gently until soft (see Tips), 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Let cool completely to room temperature, about 2 to 3 hours.
Tips: Test beans by smashing one bean between thumb and index finger. Store beans in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 4 months.
Variation: Substitute black beans or kidney beans for the pinto beans. Follow the same cooking directions.
Refried beans can be done quickly. A true authentic Mexican flavor is best achieved by refrying these beans in lard. They are delicious.
Makes 2 cups
2 cups cooked pinto beans,
drained reserving liquid
2 tbsp. lard
- In a large skillet, heat beans and 1/4 cup reserved liquid over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes.
- Reduce heat to medium-low. Using a potato masher, gently mash beans. Beans should be like a thick paste, not runny. If too thick, add more reserved liquid, 1 tsp. at a time, until bean mixture is thick, but not stiff. Repeat until all beans are mashed.
- In another large skillet, melt lard over medium-high heat. Add mashed beans and stir until well blended and bubbling, 4 to 6 minutes. Season with salt to taste.
Variations: Substitute 2 tbsp. vegetable or canola oil for lard.
Quick Refried Beans: Substitute 2 cans (each 14 to 19 oz.) pinto beans. Follow same directions.
Fresh Green Chile and Pinto Beans
This is my favorite quick pot of beans. They are so comforting on a cold day. The perfect combination of pintos and green chile accented with ham.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 tbsp. Lard
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, sliced into rings
¾ cup chopped roasted green chile peppers
6 cups cooked Basic Pinto Beans with liquid (recipe previous page)
1 ½ cups diced lean cooked ham
- In a large pot, melt lard over medium-high heat. Sauté garlic, onion and chiles until onion is softened, 4 to 6 minutes.
- Add beans with liquid and ham and bring to a boil. Boil, until ham is heated through, 6 to 8 minutes.
- Reduce heat cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours. If beans get too dry add more liquid. Serve in individual bowls.
Tips: Substitute vegetable or canola oil for lard. The lard gives this dish an authentic Mexican flavor. Substitute solid vegetable shortening for the lard, if you prefer, but the taste will be different. When I am pressed for time, I substitute 3 cans (each 14 to 19 oz.) pinto beans with liquid for the 6 cups cooked pinto beans.