by Lucinda Hutson
Tantalizing whiffs of smoky bacon, piquant chilies, onions, oregano and the unmistakably rich and earthy scent of beans simmered with beer escape in steamy, aromatic puffs from the clay pot on my stove. I just can’t wait to ladle them into a big bowl and mound them with freshly chopped tomatoes (traditionally used year-round, but better when in season) serranos, green onions and cilantro, for added color and flavor. This method of cooking beans is called frijoles charros—named after the Mexican cowboys, or charros, who cooked them over campfires on the range. But I call my beans frijoles a la charra because this “cowgirl” makes them.
Norteños, those from Mexico’s northern states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila and Chihuahua, claim the origin of this recipe, savoring the spicy beans with barbecued meats and homemade flour tortillas, while those from Jalisco—Mexico’s foremost tequila-producing state—also like to take credit for the recipe. Whichever locale, bowls of frijoles charros accompany carne asada (grilled meat), quail, shrimp and quesos flameados (melted cheese dishes that are usually flamed, often tableside) typically found at parrilladas—mixed-grill barbecues served at large open-air, family-style restaurants. (It’s clear why frijoles charros fit right in with Texas barbecues, too.)
For generations, frijoles charros brought to work in lunch baskets, or cooked over open fires, have sustained hungry Mexican farmers and laborers. Street vendors offer clay cups of the beans to late night revelers—scooping from big pots heated on charcoal-fueled braziers. These frijoles are lovingly ladled into bowls in home kitchens, too, and treasured recipes have migrated to the U.S., making frijoles charros popular on many restaurant menus. I’ve even found cans of them on grocery store shelves!
Each cook adds a signature touch to heirloom recipes, of course, such as fried chorizo or sausage, ham hocks, salt pork or small chunks of meat. Some serve frijoles charros with more broth, while others prefer thicker beans. Some add dried chipotle peppers for a smoky flavor, or fiery chile pequín, chile de árbol, dried red New Mexican chiles (colorful and picante!) or roasted rajas (“strips” of poblano peppers). Even simple chili powder, cayenne or store-bought seasonings are good choices.
While cumin, cilantro and oregano are essential seasonings, traditionalists use dried Mexican oregano—a sweet, yet spicy, herb that grows on bushes in Mexico’s high desert states. You’ll find it in small packages at local Mexican grocery stores. Another Mexican herb, epazote, has a strong, resinous flavor and is used fresh or dried. Some believe that adding a few fresh sprigs to the frijoles toward the end of cooking prevents embarrassing situations associated with the musical fruit.
Many cooks simmer the beans in beer. This technique is sometimes referred to as frijoles borrachos (drunken beans), and some say it’s the best “medicine” for a hangover. I always add a generous splash of smoky mezcal or tequila to the pot towards the end of cooking, for added flavor.
Slow-cooker enthusiasts will love making frijoles charros. My friend Randy Henderson makes an especially tasty version by adding the fatty pieces of a smoked brisket that would otherwise be headed for the trash. He also adds small chunks of brisket and venison sausage to his slow-cooked recipe and the beans are delicious indeed! I’ve added thick slices of grilled (or sautéed) High Country Bison wieners to the beans at the end of cooking, too…yum!
Whether eaten by the bowlful, accompanying huevos rancheros for breakfast or as a side dish for barbecue or grilled steaks, frijoles charros make for satisfying, hearty fare—comfort food at its very best!