1, 2, 3, 4, cinco

by CSWSmovie

(photos (and guacamole) by Elena Parker)

It’s funny which holidays we Americans decide to celebrate, and which ones we tend to ignore. Why don’t we make a ritualistic meal out of MLK day, for example? Or feel more celebratory on any of the President weekends? It seems that the only benefit of these holidays (aside from the day off) is an extended sale at your local Toyota dealership. But the day the Mexican army was victorious over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1892? Epicurious breaks out menus. President Obama attends a celebration. Mexican restaurants are booked a month in advance. And margaritas – well – they’re had by many.

But here in my little casa, the focus was on food, less so on the drink. We cooked for a few hours and ate until we couldn’t move, and then flopped on the bed and watched the latest episode of Glee. (If this sounds like an awesome night to you, we should probably be friends.)

There were stuffed poblano peppers and layered chicken tostadas.There was great guacamole and yes, Mexican beer. But the real stars, in my opinion, were the basics – the rice and beans, the ultimate in budget eating. I’ve always thought that the best way to judge a Mexican restaurant is by the quality of the salsa and chips they provide in the beginning, and by the rice and beans that are inevitably placed next to your enchiladas. You can tell a lot by how good a cook someone is by the kind of rice and beans they serve. In fact, I’m going to go all out and say that I think knowing how to make good, simple rice and beans is an important life-skill that everyone should have.

As big a proponent I am for the canned variety, this hand-mashed version of beans dictates for the dry kind, and it is well, well worth it. The rice too, requires a bit more fuss than normal – but by fuss, I simply mean breaking out your blender to make a quick cilantro dressing, instead of just relying on your normal pot and spoon. A bit more time and effort for some humble sides, yes. But when you have Os Mutante playing on your Pandora station, and some helping hands and good conversationalists to keep you company, the longer the cooking time, I say, the better.

Hand-Mashed Pinto Beans with Cheese

from Bon Apetit, May 2003

  • 1 pound dried pinto beans, rinsed
  • 10 cups (or more) cold water
  • 2 cups chopped scallions (about eight)
  • a few tablespoons of canola or corn oil
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 cups (packed) coarsely grated queso manchego* or Monterey Jack cheese (about 8 ounces)

Place beans in heavy large pot. Add green onions, 1 tablespoon of oil, and 10 cups of water. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover partially, and simmer until beans are just tender, about 55 minutes. Mix in 1 teaspoon fine sea salt. Cover partially and continue to simmer until beans are very soft, adding more water by cupfuls if water level falls below top of beans, about 20 minutes longer.

Heat remaining oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add white onion and sauté until beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic; stir 1 minute. Using slotted spoon, transfer beans to skillet. Mash with potato masher to coarse, lumpy puree. Mix in enough bean cooking liquid (about 1/2 cup) to moisten, if needed. Mix in cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool 30 minutes. Cover beans and liquid separately and refrigerate. Rewarm beans over low heat, mixing in bean cooking liquid by 1/4 cupfuls if dry.)

Serve beans warm with tortillas (or as the first layer of your tostada).

Mexican Cilantro Rice

Adapted from Bon Apetit, August 2004

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 large white onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced seeded serrano chiles
  • 2 cups long-grain white rice
  • 3 1/4 cups low-salt chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

For Cilantro Dressing:

  • 1 cup (packed) coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon minced seeded serrano chile (depending on your spice preference)

This can be made with or without a rice cooker.

If you do have a rice cooker: make two cups of rice in it, but using only two cups of liquid (I liked to use broth isntead of water, to up the amount of flavor.)

Meanwhile, make Cilantro Dressing: Combine all ingredients in processor or blender. Blend until almost smooth. Season dressing with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; chill. Bring to room temperature; rewhisk before using.)

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and serrano; sauté until onion is translucent. Then:

If you don’t have a rice cooker:

Mix in uncooked rice; stir 2 minutes. Mix in broth and salt; bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and cook until rice is just tender and broth is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes.

Transfer rice to bowl; cool to barely lukewarm, stirring occasionally, about 1 1/2 hours. Add 1/2 cup Cilantro Dressing to rice; toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.)

Mix in semi-cooked rice, and stir in about another cup of broth. The rice should have a slightly creamy consistency. Season with salt and pepper, and transfer to bowl.
The rice is great as is, but feel free to toss in corn kernerls, salsa, some mild shredded cheese, extra cilantro, or anything else that you find fit.
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