Some traditions follow in the wake of grandiose events. Some stem from an ordinary occurrence.
There aren’t many things much more prosaic than beans. A simple bowl of them brought us together last Thursday, the day before Halloween. And we were inspired. Everyone agreed we should meet for lunch around the big classroom table once a month from now on.
It all started with kindling a student’s interest in the Spanish language. He hadn’t been taught Spanish before he came to the Louis Braille School. But he loves learning it now.
I’d been reviewing basic words and phrases with him for a couple of weeks. His favorite is the colloquial expression for ‘see you later,’ especially the version made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger and tagged with a word of English: Hasta la vista, baby!
One day I looked out the window at the Mexican restaurant across the street and thought of using the Spanish word for beans. “Amigo,” I asked, “have you ever had frijoles?”
“No,” he said.
“No? You’ve never had frijoles refritos? Refried beans?”
“I’ll have to make you some and bring them in for lunch, okay?”
It was more than okay. With each passing day he asked me when the frijoles were coming. I offered and now I had to deliver.
On October 30th I brought in the goods. One of the children wouldn’t be in on Halloween, so we all celebrated a day early. With a pirate on my right, a construction worker on my left, and others wearing spider hats and carrying bat hand puppets made from brown paper lunch bags, I placed the bowl of hot, refried beans on the table.
Portions were spooned onto plates. The purists ate the frijoles as is. Other enthusiasts liberally sprinkled the creamy mass with grated cheese (queso). A few diners didn’t waste time and said “yum,” others inhaled before digging in and said “ah!” Soon the room was made quiet by satisfied palates. I thought about the old saying, “Silence is the chef’s greatest compliment.”
After a while, Miss Jennifer said, “Isn’t it nice that we’re all sitting down together? We’re always off in different parts of the school doing different things. We should do this [sharing of lunch] more often.”
And that’s when someone proposed, and the rest of us agreed, that we all would have lunch together once a month.
A school tradition birthed by beans.
Recipe for Frijoles Refritos
1 cup of pinto beans (dry)
1 medium tomato
Scant ¼ C of canola oil
Non-iodized salt (sea salt , Celtic salt, etc.) to taste
Optional: 1 small onion and/or herbs (bay leaf, oregano, etc.)
Remove cracked and wrinkled beans, along with any small stones, from the dry measure. Rinse well in cold water. (If you like bay leaves, add a leaf or two to the cooking vessel.) Cook the beans, either in a pressure cooker or regular pot, until the beans are soft and are barely starting to split. Remove them from the heat and let them rest, still in their water, uncovered.
Chop the tomato—along with an onion, if you wish—and place it in a small skillet that has been heated with a tablespoon or two of canola oil. Sauté for a short time over medium-high heat, then turn off heat and cover the skillet, but leave it on the stovetop.
Drain the beans and save a few cups of the liquid separately.
Add the remaining canola oil to a large skillet over medium heat, then add the cooked beans. Add a half-cup of the reserved water. Using a potato masher, vigorously mash the beans. (You can use a large fork if you don’t have a masher, but it requires much more work.) Don’t be delicate. Render the beans to look as though they all have been roughly puréed. As you mash, the beans will absorb the water. Continue to add water as necessary to maintain a texture that is neither crispy nor runny, but thickly creamy. The mass should be slightly simmering as you work.
When the beans have been properly mashed and are of the right texture, remove the skillet from the heat
Add the sautéed tomato to the beans, along with any herb(s) you wish (oregano is good).
Add salt to taste. Quickly stir everything together. Serve immediately.
Note: Refrigerated frijoles will keep for a couple of days, but congeal when cooled. You may need to add a little water to the skillet or microwavable container in which they are reheated.