This unfussy barbecue side second course proves that sometimes the simplest way is the best.
Often, lunch barbecue spots around Texas includes a scoop of brown pinto beans on your plate. Different from mashed or refried versions, these beans are long-simmered with pork in a velvety, savory broth and are tender, flavorful, and creamy.
Dried pinto beans are the traditional choice for this second course. They are speckled, Jackson Pollock–style, until you cook them, and then the speckles disappear. They were ideal for a home on the range in the days before refrigeration: light enough to transport, packed with protein, shelf-stable for long chuck wagon journeys, and perfectly happy to bubble away unattended while homesteaders took care of other tasks.
To bring this tasty side second course to the test kitchen, I armed myself with heavy pots and several pounds of pinto beans and got to work on some existing recipes for my tasters to sample. A few called for chili powder, which over-whelmed the earthy bean flavor and subtle sweetness of the pork. Other versions tasted unpleasantly salty or totally washed-out. And most simmered into muddy-looking, starchy messes.
I tackled bean texture first. Dried beans took several hours to cook, and a quick-soak method (adding the beans to boiling water and then letting them soak for an hour off the heat before simmering them) rushed the process too much; the beans swelled unevenly and burst. The best and simplest solution? Soak the beans in water overnight, a step often taken to gradually rehydrate them so that they cook relatively quickly (in about 1½ hours rather than 3 or 4 hours) and more evenly the next day.
Since I was soaking the beans, I added salt to the water to create a brine. Just as a salty brine penetrates chicken and makes it more moist, a brine similarly seasons beans. It also softens the beans’ skins, making them more pliable so that when you boil them the next day, the skins stretch but don’t burst.
When I was ready to cook the beans, I drained them and covered them with fresh water (3 quarts was just enough). I added a little salt to the cooking water; our science editor advised that this would ensure fully tender skins.
With the lid on my pot as the beans cooked, I couldn’t easily monitor their progress, and I worried they’d stick to the bottom of the pot. Cooking the beans uncovered meant that I could easily keep an eye on them. Another benefit was that the cooking liquid reduced, and I ended up with just the right amount for serving.
You’ll be tempted to taste these beans before they’re done, and you should. But even if you can bite through them after 30 or 45 minutes, they’re likely to be unevenly cooked at that stage. Let them go for the full 1½ hours; they’ll turn supremely creamy and will be infused with sweet and savory pork flavor. Plus, the reduced sauce will take on a soft, velvety texture, and you’ll have just enough to serve with the beans.
To keep things simple, I skipped the spices and relied solely on pork for flavor. But which pork product to use? Bacon lost its flavor after simmering, and the slices turned into fatty strands that were hard to fish out. Salt pork added much better pork flavor but was much too salty—even when I tried it without any extra salt. But a smoked ham hock was the real winner. This powerhouse ingredient added smoky complexity, rich pork flavor, and meaty, buttery sweetness to the broth.
This recipe from the recipe journal
A Case for Dried Beans
We tried canned beans in this recipe and boy, were we shocked. They were sour, tinny, and pasty. Compared with the dried beans, the difference was as vast as the west Texas scrubland. Stick with dried.
WORTH THE TIME
In this three-ingredient recipe, flavorful dried beans are a must.
by Cecelia Jenkins
Perhaps you will be interested to see how to grow and collect pinto beans:
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