Adapted from an America’s Test Kitchen recipe
When Jan asked for chicken mole for her birthday, the email at the top of my list was from America’s Test Kitchen with a video about chicken mole and drunken beans. The beans sounded like a good side dish for the mole, so I decided to make it myself.
While I like many of the Test Kitchen’s recipes, they have some cooking habits that I find inappropriate. In making their beans, they tie the cilantro into a bouquet garni, which they then discard after cooking. Mexican dishes have few enough greens that throwing them out seems like a waste of good food.
The term “drunken” implies that you are using a large amount of an alcoholic beverage in the dish. The ATK chef used the technique of cooking out the alcohol before adding water to the pan. This allowed her to steam away all of the tequila’s alcohol.
Note: The chemistry for this is that when you mix alcohol with water, they bind together, and you can only boil away 95% of the alcohol. When you boil the liquor by itself you can eliminate almost all of the alcohol, leaving only the sweet flavor of the tequila.
To soak or not to soak, that is the question. Soaking the beans overnight in heavily salted water replaces some of the calcium and magnesium in the beans’ skins with sodium. This loosens the structure and softens the skins, making them more pliable and permeable. This allows the water easier access to bind with the starch inside the beans, as well as, allowing the skins to stretch as the starch molecules expand—preventing burst beans. It has the added benefit of driving the salt deep into the beans, enhancing their flavor.
The drawback of soaking is that much of the dark color—and minerals—in the beans’ skin gets washed away in this process. For refried beans this produces a grey and unappealing dish. For that dish, I soak the beans in the cooking liquid and I do not over salt it. In a making a pot of beans, however, this deficit is disguised by adding tomato and other ingredients which darkens the final product.
In Mexican cuisine, a lot of dishes depend on chilies for their main flavoring. You can get a wide range of distinct flavors depending on the type, and processing of these spicy pods. Fresh, dried, smoked & dried, dried and rehydrated in adobo sauce, or any combination of these choices can make or break a dish.
My main dish, chicken mole, depends on dried chilies as its foundational flavor. I wanted my side dish to be a counter point and decided to use fresh chilies. The ATK recipe that I was adapting simply chopped up some poblano chilies, before throwing them into the pot. Charring and peeling the peppers first adds a good bit of smoky flavor that is not to be missed. Also, since the chefs at ATK do not seem to like spiciness, they did not use any jalapeño—in my opinion another mistake.
After Dinner Note: These beans were a real hit. Most people took two servings and some even took three. From a large pot of beans there was barely a scoop left for anyone’s lunch.
Karl’s Drunken Pinto Beans
1 lb. pinto beans
3 Tbs. Kosher salt
2 Pobalano chilies
1 Jalapeño pepper
2 Tbs. smoky bacon grease (vegetable oil for Vegan)
1 large yellow onion, diced finely (about 2 cups)
1 cup cilantro stems, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup tequila
2 bay leaves
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1 bottle of Mexican lager
Serve on the side
½ cup cilantro leaves
½ cup cotija cheese, crumbled
½ cup yellow onion, diced
1 lime, cut into wedges
1. Sort and rinse the beans and put them in a large pot.
2. Add a gallon of water and two tablespoons of Kosher salt.
Tip: Soak the beans at least eight hours, but overnight is better.
Note: ATK chef says three tablespoons of salt, but most of this salt gets poured down the sink when you rinse the beans, so it seems like a waste to me.
3. Remove the stems and cut the Pobalanos and Jalapeño in half along the long axis.
Tip: Many cooks roast their peppers whole and then struggle to remove the seeds from the hot, slippery peppers. I find it easier to remove the seeds while the pepper is cold and raw. This technique also allows you to roast both sides of the chilies at the same time—saving energy.
4. Lay the chilies, skin side up, on a lipped baking tray and broil them for 10-15 minutes.
Tip: Until the skins are blackened and blistered.
5. Put the roasted peppers in a plastic bag and twist it shut.
Tip: By sealing the hot peppers in a bag, they steam and this loosens the skins further.
6. Peel off the skins and chop the chilies into a quarter inch dice, reserve.
7. Bunch the cilantro stems and slice then into ⅛ inch pieces, reserve.
Tip: Reserve the leafy cilantro tops for garnish.
8. Just before you are ready to start cooking, drain, rinse, and set the beans aside.
9. Heat the grease in a large Dutch oven, over medium high heat, and sauté the onions with the salt until they are starting to get well browned, about 10-12 minutes.
10. Add the chilies and continue cooking for 3-4 more minutes.
11. Add the cilantro stems and sauté for another two minutes.
12. Pull the vegetables to the sides of the pot and add the garlic.
13. Cook until the garlic is fragrant and mix it into the other vegetables.
14. Add the tequila and use the liquid to deglaze the bottom of the pot.
15. Continue cooking, scrapping the bottom of the pot frequently, until the liquor is completely evaporated.
Tip: With no water to bind to, all of the alcohol will be steamed away—leaving only the sweet flavor of the tequila.
16. Add three cups of water, the beans, and the bay leaves to the pot and bring it to a boil over high heat.
17. Cover the Dutch oven and move it to a 275º F oven for 45-60 minutes.
Tip: At that point the beans will just be just about tender.
Note: I had cooked my beans to this point in the morning—I have had trouble in the past with tough beans and I wanted to give myself some leeway. With six hours before dinner, I removed the pot from the oven and left it to sit on the cold stove. If anything, this only improved its flavor, giving it time to meld. I continued with the next step about 40 minutes before serving.
18. Add the tomato paste and the beer.
Tip: If you had added the tomato paste before the long simmer, its acid would counter act the sodium from the salt soaking and would prevent the beans from becoming tender.
Note: You do not want to add the beer too early either—over a long cooking period the hops in the beer would turn very bitter.
19. Continue cooking over medium low heat for 30-40 minutes.
Tip: Check seasoning and add more salt if necessary.
Note: Decide if your bean broth is as thick as you prefer. If it is too thick, add some more beer. If it is too thin, crush some of the beans against the side of the pot and stir them in. Continue simmering until the released starch thickens the broth.
20. Serve in the Dutch oven with the cilantro leaves, cotija cheese, chopped onion, and lime wedges on the side.