Win Your Next Potluck With Frijoles Charros (Mexican Cowboy Beans)

20160605-frijoles-charros-5.JPG

Creamy, smoky, rich, and delicious. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Do side dishes at potlucks and cookouts ever give you trouble? They're trouble for me. The big problem is that with large, informal gatherings, it's hard to gauge how long a dish will have to be held before it's served, or to predict exactly how it's going to be transported. The results are something we're all familiar with: mushy, congealed mac and cheese, crusted-over dips, soggy fried chicken, and the like. The ideal potluck or cookout dish is one that is easy to make in bulk and inexpensive, and doesn't degrade with extended heating or reheating.

I nominate frijoles charros—Mexican cowboy beans cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes, salted pork, and chilies—as one superlative potluck dish. It not only hits all of those criteria but also adds on "extremely delicious" for good measure.

Like Texas-style chile con carne, frijoles charros (or frijoles rancheros, depending on who's talking) is a dish created by cowboys, for cowboys. As such, it's filling, hearty, and easy, requiring only one pot, some inexpensive ingredients, and a little time.

These aren't the spoonable refried beans you find at typical hot-plate Mexican restaurants. Frijoles charros are wetter, straddling the line between soup and stew. Often they're wet enough that they'll come served in a bowl, with a spoon instead of a fork. At the cute little Mexican fonda around the corner from my house, meals start with a small cup of soup that's nothing more than the rich liquid strained from the pot of frijoles charros. The beans themselves are served separately in shallow saucers with the main course, and even after straining, they're plenty soupy.

Spice and smoke are the key flavors here. The former comes from fresh chilies (I use jalapeños or serranos). There are a couple of ways you can achieve the latter. Depending on your situation, the first might be the easiest: Just cook them over a campfire. I'm serious about that—frijoles charros makes an excellent camping dish because, after all, that's essentially what the charros invented it for in the first place. Dried beans are lightweight; onions, garlic, chilies, and fresh or tinned tomatoes last a long time even at room temperature, as does a good hunk of salted pork. All you need are some hot embers, a nice cast iron Dutch oven, and time. Keep the lid ever-so-slightly cracked as the beans cook and they'll get plenty smoky in the process.

If you're making the dish indoors, you have a couple of other options for smoke. Most recipes just call for bacon and not much else. Some will also include canned fire-roasted tomatoes. Both of these options work great. But for even better flavor, I like to start with whole tomatoes and char them myself.

20160605-frijoles-charros-1.JPG

It's a really simple process. Just place ripe Roma tomatoes directly over the flame of a gas burner or on top of a hot grill, and use a pair of tongs to rotate them until their skins have blackened and started to peel away. If you have a handheld torch, it's even easier—place the tomatoes in a pan and torch away, turning them until they're blistered all over. (Folks without live fire in their kitchens have it a little tougher—I honestly just recommend using canned fire-roasted tomatoes in those cases.)

To start the dish, I sauté bacon in a Dutch oven until its fat has rendered, then add onions and chilies, cooking them in the bacon fat until softened. I add a few cloves of minced garlic—adding it after cooking the onions and peppers ensures that the burn-prone garlic doesn't brown too much—and the tomatoes. Once that aromatic base has reduced a little, I add beans, cooking liquid (I use chicken stock, though water works fine), along with a big pinch of salt (contrary to popular belief, salt will not cause beans to toughen as they cook, but in fact will help them tenderize more efficiently), a couple of bay leaves, and a sprig of epazote.

I tried cooking the beans a number of ways. Some beans (like black beans) don't require soaking, but unless your pintos are destined to be mashed into refried beans, I recommend soaking them, which allows them to cook up tender and creamy without blowing out or falling apart. If you're in a real hurry, using canned beans actually works surprisingly well in this recipe—I drain and rinse them, cut back on the total liquid by half, and make sure to simmer them with the aromatic ingredients long enough for them to absorb some flavor.

But the best way to do it is to soak dried beans overnight in salted water before simmering them the next day. Soaked pinto beans take only about 45 minutes to get to a completely soft, creamy consistency.

20160605-frijoles-charros-2.JPG

There's not really much more to it. Once the beans are done, you can adjust the consistency to suit your taste in a few ways. If you like it very soupy—think: broth with fully intact beans—just season and serve it as is (with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro). If you like it more stew-like, you can use an immersion blender to mash up some of the beans. Personally, I prefer to just simmer until the starch released by the beans thickens up the broth into a creamy consistency and the flavor is intensified. Whatever method you use, make sure to season the beans to taste just before serving.

If you're ever feeling down about yourself, here's a guaranteed cure: Get yourself invited to a potluck, bring these beans, and wait for the compliments and appreciation to start rolling in.