Sunday, 9 March 2008

Beans vs Rice

I am no great lover of routine.

Despite the fact that my life is measured out in school runs and "coffee spoons," I do everything I can to subvert the routinization of time which lets life slip by almost without our noticing.

I realize that most people thrive under the yoke of routine -- especially those people who have young children or like to get lots of things done. I suppose that routine can be a comfort: my own daughter, who is used to being fed at irregular times, was charmed by a recent visit to Nanny's house. There, she could be assured of toast and tea at 8 am; coffee and biscuits at 11 am; a light lunch at 1pm, and so on. Routine keeps life on the rails; I can see that.

However, while I may appear as conventional as the next person, inside I am like a wild mustang who likes to kick out now and then . . . just to console myself that there is still some open space there.

"Wildness" being a highly subjective term . . .
it's not that I want to chuck it all in and disappear to Goa; and I wouldn't even if I could 'cause my fantasies just don't work that way; but I like to create little opportunities of unexpectedness in my days, and I relish the little departures from the routine.

Last Wednesday, dear friend Jenni -- a frequent weekend guest -- had a justifiable work reason to make a pit stop at our house for the evening. As I was preparing dinner, it occurred me how unusual it was to be entertaining during the week. Dinner is usually a fairly brisk affair, no matter how much care I take with the food. The husband and children scarf it down, with minimal conversation, and then it's time to clean up, sort out homework and paperwork, and then coax everyone to bed . . . because the alarm goes off at the heinous hour of 5:30 am every weekday morning. This is not exactly life the way I want to live it, but school and work do have their own relentless groove, don't they?

(I resist, as much as I am able, any and all children's activities which are scheduled for the weekend. While this may not sound like heterodoxy, I assure you that is feels like it in my own little middle-class corner of the world. I firmly believe that weekends are for fun and leisure for parents, not just for children-- and neither can be found on the motorway or dismal waiting room or cold, muddy playing field.)

So how do beans fit into all of this? You might well ask.

A little bean preamble: Almost all Tex-Mex food comes with beans and rice on the side. I have never conducted a proper poll, but I have noticed that most people tend to prefer one over the other. In fact, I vividly remember a conversation (that took place about 13 years ago in San Antonio) in which one of my favorite all-time people revealed that she evaluates Mexican restaurants according to the quality of their rice. Revelation! I myself am not bothered by rice -- and that goes for any cuisine. I prefer pretty much any carb to rice -- whether you're talking potatoes, bread, pasta, or beans. I think that rice is a bland, dry food -- but many people that I love and respect seem to adore it, so viva la difference! My best Houston friend, Laurita, and I often shared the chicken taco platter at the Taqueria and that worked perfectly: one taco each, the rice for her, and the beans for me.

Let me define my terms, though: I'm not talking about refried beans; I'm referring to what some call "charro" beans -- spicy, savory beans that are brothy, almost soupy. I've tried making these beans at home many times, but I've never achieved greatness. While this culinary shortcoming was of little importance in Texas, where there are good beans a-plenty, it matters more in the English countryside. If you want to eat good food you generally have to make it yourself; also, you have to plan ahead. Pinto beans need soaking.

I've been wanting to try Homesick Texan's flour tortilla recipe, so Jenni's arrival for dinner was just the excuse I needed to give the pedestrian nightly ritual more of a fiesta flavor. I decided on the menu: chicken fajitas, chips and guacamole, beans -- with orange/lime ice cream for dessert. Last year for my 40th, Jenni and some other old friends helped me celebrate by gathering at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Covent Garden. The company was great, but the food was pretty dire. I was pretty sure that I could do better.

While flipping through my cookbooks, I found a recipe for "Lively Oaks Ranch Beans" from Flavors -- the San Antonio Junior League cookbook. With some trepidation, (due to previous disappointments), I decided to give it a go.

Well; I could hardly pat myself on the back enough. I ate beans (with some cheese sprinkled on the top, and a handful of tortilla chips for scooping) for lunch the rest of the week.

Lively Oaks Ranch Beans
(attributed to Mr. Earl Fae Cooper)
1/2 c diced salt pork (I used pancetta, and it worked out fine)
2/3 c coarsely chopped onion
1/2 c chopped celery
1/2 c finely chopped green pepper
3 quarts water
1 lb pinto beans, washed (and soaked for about 6 hours by me; maybe if you boil them long enough this isn't necessary, but I didn't want to take the risk)
1 14 oz can tomatoes
1 t chili powder
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1 T Worcestershire sause
Salt to taste

Bring first four ingredients to boil in the water; then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add everything else, but the salt, and simmer for 4-5 hours. Add salt to taste.

I only simmered for about 3 hours and they were really good; but the longer you simmer, the thicker the brown bean "liquor" will get, and the beans will become softer -- almost velvety.

I don't know if it was the gin and tonic; the presence of a beloved friend, who came bearing books; the flour tortillas; the novelty of conversation with dinner; or just the beans. But Wednesday night dinner -- usually a forgettable experience -- was far from routine this week.


Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...


I was waiting for the beer to be added! I was sure you'd say that was the secret.

Regular bacon is really good too.

I too, made Homesick Texan's tortillas. Mine weren't exactly perfect rounds, but nobody seemed to complain.

You can buy chili powder over there?

Beth said...

Dear Brave Sir Robin Hussein,

Next time I will add some beer; it could only improve what was a really good dish.

As for the tortillas, I would be tempted to call them "peasant" tortillas (being on the thick side), except for the fact that any self-respecting Mexican peasant probably has the forearm strength and wrist flair to roll out a paper-thin tortilla. My crowd still lapped them up, though.

By the way, have you tried HT's biscuit recipe? It took me about 3goes to perfect it, but now I am making them almost daily.

Yes, chili powder is no problem -- but you can forget about ancho, hatch, or chipotle peppers. And by the way, when I first moved here I couldn't find pinto beans! I actually had to buy some in Fortnum & Mason!

Anonymous said...

You mentioned biscuits from scratch in another post (or maybe it was a comment elsewhere). I wondered about that because last year I made some sourdough starter and tried many times to make biscuits. But although my starter thrived, the biscuits were mostly little tough things. Good to eat just out of the pan but not anyone's idea of a delicious biscuit. I just read through Homesick Texan's recipe and will try it soon. --Jenine

Bee said...


Try these biscuits! They are really wonderful. Home-Ec Bec (my mom) makes really great biscuits -- called Angel Biscuits -- which are, unfortunately, a palaver.

These are easy, and since they have buttermilk in them I have convinced myself that they are a health food. By the way, I needed to add a little extra buttermilk --does English flour have more gluten? -- and cut the time to 12 minutes to get perfection. I pass on these hard-earned tips knowing that your oven will have its own idiosyncracies.

By the way, I've been reading you, too, and it frustrates me that I can't leave you comments. Do you think that we are the only two of our "cohort" (as you so wonderfully put it) who never saw Ice Castles?

Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

Beth -

By the way, have you tried HT's biscuit recipe? It took me about 3goes to perfect it, but now I am making them almost daily.

No!! but I will! The kids are visiting their Mom this week, i may make them this weekend to welcome them home.

Wow, I would have guessed chili powder would be a problem.

No pinto beans??? I would have a problem!!

It's funny, when I first started regularly going to New England, (late 80's) there were no tortillas, or chili powder, etc. . . Now, it's all over the place.

Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

oh - in asnwer to your question about flour

Probably. Even over here, Southern Flour has less gluten than Northern Flour.

Southern = better for cakes and quickbreads

Northern = better for yeast breads.

Anonymous said...

Biscuits achieved! Today is Dan's birthday so getting up early and making scratch biscuits was my gift to him. And he was properly pleased. I used plain yogurt because I didn't have buttermilk. My dough was too dry and then it was too wet. But it all turned out and I look forward to making biscuits again soon.


Bee said...

Brave SRH --
Thanks for the gluten tip. I am going to be renting a house in NH this summer with friends and I was going to produce some biscuits as my party trick.

Jenine -- Give Dan my best. In my mind, he still looks exactly the same as he did in 1998!

By the way, did you know that you can easily make buttermilk by adding a Tablespoon of lemon juice to a cup of milk and then letting it ferment for a bit?