Things left undone :: {refried beans}

One of my sincerest regrets is not finishing my creative non-fiction class in college.  Regret is probably the wrong word, since withdrawing from that semester was not a bad decision, but a necessary one, as I was unfocused and, to boot, had tonsils which had become veritable anthills in my throat, complete with a civilization of hardy bacteria.  I had to get those cut out, and also had to find focus (which I eventually did, through a year away from school spent interning at a great graphic design firm and learning to tango dance).  Life went on, I went back to school, studied art, got married, lived in England, had a baby.  I never got to finish my story about Clarence, though, and I think about it all the time.  Really, quite often.

The assignment was to interview a more-or-less stranger, and then write about whatever we talked about.  As a Very Shy Person, this was a horrifying task.  I finally settled on Clarence, our neighbor across the street, who was an easy target because I had seen him around, and, more importantly, he was even shyer than I was.  I had my mother set up the interview.  Clarence was a real life Carson McCuller's character: a bit trampled by life (and wife, I daresay), with hobbies that existed out of his generation and vocation, and with a smile like a pleased little boy.  We especially saw the smile when he would offer us whole Shoo-fly pies, convinced that somewhere along the line we had told him that it was our favorite.  (It wasn't.).

Clarence and I lived on the street between Apple Tree Alley and Pear Tree Alley. (image from google maps).

We sat at his tidy kitchen table, me with a notepad, and both of us with a sugary drink.  The conversation was halting at first, me unsure of what I should ask, and he baffled at the idea that he would have anything interesting to say.  I don't remember asking him for his life story, but he gave it to me, because it was probably the first time in his life that he guessed someone might be asking.  He told tales of cooking on the back of a truck during World War II, how he started knitting, his special technique for apple pies.  He went on and on, occasionally getting up to tend to the canary in the window or to bring his wife a plate of food.  Clarence never knew that he was a great character, really his own person.  He just gently went through life, taking care of his rotund and infirm wife, and one day quietly passed away.  I wish my notes from his narrative hadn't been lost and that I could share his apple pie recipe with you.  It wasn't the best apple pie, but Clarence had spent years perfecting it, and that was Something.

 Best-ever Refried Beans

This isn't Clarence's apple pie recipe, but something equally as humble, and good whenever you need something comforting.  This is my favorite way to make refried beans.  It's probably not at all traditional, and that doesn't bother me a whit.
 {makes enough for about two bean-centric meals for two grown-ups and a toddler}

If you have time and foresight, you can put about 2/3 of a bag of black or pinto beans in your slow cooker with some water and salt and cook them til they're very tender (you will be mashing them, after all).  If you don't do this, use one big can or two small cans of beans.  I think black are the best here, but pintos are a close second.

Chop an onion, a 4 inch piece of Spanish-style chorizo, and a poblano pepper into smallish bits and add it to a medium-hot pan with a pretty generous coating of neutral oil.  You're not sweating the onions here, but properly stirring and frying them.  The chorizo fat is going to render out and the paprika in the chorizo is going to turn everything a very appetizing red color.  When you're almost happy with the tenderness of your onions (you don't want them crunchy), add a clove or two of chopped garlic.  Stir that around, being careful not to let the garlic burn.  Turn the heat down a bit and add a generous teaspoon* of cumin.  Stir it around to get it a bit toasty and then add your beans.  Add a small amount of water, bring everything to a bubble and start mashing the beans with a potato masher.  Add more water if you need to, just to get the consistency of a nice pasty bean mash.  Taste for salt, and if the flavor needs a bit of brightening, add a squirt of lime (or lemon, in a pinch).  I always end up adding lime, because I love it so.

Ways to use these beans:
  • Piled in a bowl, garnished with cilantro, jalapenos, crumbled cheese, hot sauce, sour cream, or whatever you fancy.  Eat with spoon while playing with your baby on the floor.
  • My new favorite burrito is a spin on a Mark Bittman recipe: beans, wilted kale (Try it! You don't even need to bother seasoning the kale because the beans are so awesome.), cheese, and salsa.
  • My other favorite burrito is a spin on something the Hollins University cafeteria used to serve up (inspiration can be found anywhere): beans, mashed sweet potato, cheese, salsa, sour cream.  If you happen to bake a few sweet potatoes at the beginning of the week to have on hand, this comes together so quickly.
  • As a side dish with whatever, even breakfast!
 * This I have corrected the amount of cumin because an unfortunate reader with very large hands said that a "palmful of cumin" rendered his beans inedible.  Thanks for the correction!  We're really only aiming for about a teaspoon and a half.