If you are having a Cinco de Mayo party this weekend, you have no doubt already bought the avocadoes for your guacamole. Perhaps you’re planning on impressing your guests with homemade fish tacos or tamales, or maybe you’re sticking to basics like quesadillas with pico de gallo. Either way, you probably see the Americanized Mexican holiday as an opportunity to show off your Americanized Mexican cooking skills.
But there is one humble staple dish that you are probably not planning to make from scratch, even though the homemade version takes almost as little time to prepare as the canned version. I’m talking about refried beans, the name of which is a mistranslation from the Spanish: Refritos means well-fried, not refried, and refried beans are in truth fried only once.
Even to say that they are fried seems like an exaggeration of how complicated they are. Making refried beans from scratch involves stirring and mashing—that’s it. You simply cook some chopped onion in a decent amount of oil (or, if you’re a traditionalist and a non-vegetarian, lard), add some spices, and then mash in some beans. If you’re really lazy (or if you don’t have a decent potato masher), you can use an immersion blender to process the beans. Once you’ve made refried beans from scratch—a process that takes 20 minutes tops (if you start with cooked beans) and uses cheap ingredients you probably already have on hand—the premade version seems like a major scam.
You can turn any type of bean into refritos; I’m partial to the customary pinto, which with their mild flavor and creamy texture lend themselves well to a rough purée. You should start with dried beans if you have a few hours to spare for boiling, but canned beans are fine—sometimes, canned beans’ soft texture is a drawback, but when you’re mashing, it’s an advantage. (Figure that two 15-ounce cans will yield about 3 cups of drained beans.)
Perhaps because of their unexciting appearance, refried beans are usually relegated to the side of the plate, a culinary afterthought, the Jack Antonoff to yellow rice’s Nate Ruess. But when Cinco de Mayo has passed and you’re looking for a quick, cheap, healthy, comforting weeknight dinner, look no further than a bowl of refried beans, maybe topped with a little sour cream or cheese, served alongside warm corn tortillas.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Time: 20 minutes
¼ cup canola or grapeseed oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
Salt and black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups drained cooked pinto beans, cooking liquid reserved
1. Put the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s soft and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the cumin, chili powder, and cayenne pepper, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
2. Add the beans to the pot, along with a few tablespoons of their cooking liquid (or water) if they’re very dry. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are heated through, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and mash with a potato masher or partially purée with an immersion blender. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve hot or warm. (Store leftover refried beans in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days.)