Refried Beans and “Flat Enchiladas”


Refried beans are a staple of so many Mexican meals, and there is nothing quite so good as those you make at home. Here’s a list of just a few of the meals you can prepare focused on this great dish:

  • Burritos–bean and cheese, bean, bean and vegetables (sauteed peppers, onions, and spinach or other greens is a great combination), bean and ground beef, breakfast (egg) burritos, etc., etc.
  • Enchiladas–pretty much the same list of variations as for burritos
  • Refried bean soup–if your family isn’t really excited about the old standard bean soup, this is a good one to try
  • Bean and cheese nachos–try this dip with apples and raw vegetables as well as with chips
  • And then of course there is the addition of a side of refried beans to any Mexican main dish, stretching the meal economically and nutritionally.

If you start with a bag of dried beans, this is also one of the most frugal foods you can prepare. Cooking up a two pound bag of beans takes no more real time to prepare than smaller amounts, and most of the time doesn’t require your attention at all.

If you have never prepared dried beans, this is a good place to experiment. Pinto beans are almost always the least expensive of all your choices and they are pretty resilient in how you prepare them, and they are the usual basis for frijoles refritos. However, lots of other beans can be prepared in the same way–and we all know how popular refried black beans have become at a lot of restaurants.

First, the basics of dried bean cookery:

1. Almost all beans will need to be pre-soaked. There are primarily two approaches to pre-soaking:

Wash the beans and add water, covering to at least an inch above the beans. Allow to sit at least five to six hours or overnight.
Wash the beans and add water, covering to at least an inch above the beans. Bring the beans to a boil and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for an hour or so.

2. After the beans have soaked, drain well, rinse lightly if desired, and then cover with fresh water, again allowing about an inch of water above the top layer of beans.

TWO SIDE NOTES HERE–Changing the water and salting–or not–the beans

About the rinsing and changing the water–yes, you probably lose a few nutrients by not cooking the beans in the same water in which they soak. However, these little guys are so nutrient-dense, they still are packed with minerals and fiber…and the water that is washed away carries with it at least most of the “flatulence producers” for which beans have a sometimes well-deserved reputation. For this reason if no other, don’t forget to drain the soaking water and add in one more rinse if desired!)

And a debate that probably only hardcore cooks really worry about: do I salt the beans while cooking or not?

  • There are two basic schools of thought on this. One group of cooks insists that adding any salt before the beans are well-cooked will toughen them and they will never become truly soft. The other group says Nonsense, if you don’t salt them first, they will never really pick up the flavor you want.
  • I have generally been a don’t salt them till they are cooked person, but I did find a third way awhile ago that seems to be a great compromise. Add salt to the soaking water but then, when you drain the beans, don’t add any salt to the cooking water. This works very well–my only problem is that I all too often forget to add the salt at the beginning and think of it only after the beans have finished their soak.

3. Bring the beans to a boil, turn down the heat, and cook gently until the beans are soft. Test by mashing a bean or two against the side of the pan. You will need to allow about an hour or so for this phase.

  • Instead of cooking on the stove top, you can instead place the beans in a very large slow cooker; cover the beans with water and cooking on LOW for five to six hours or on HIGH for two to three hours.

Note that the cooking time either on the stove top or in a slow cooker will vary, rather dramatically at times. Why? Dried beans will stay perfectly edible and nutritious on the shelf for literally years. However, the older the beans, the longer it will take to cook them to tenderness. Since you probably won’t know just how old the beans are when you buy them, you will have to use your best guess for the cooking time, always being ready to cook them longer than you had planned!

When the beans are tender, they are ready to be made into refried beans (or for any other recipe calling for canned beans for that matter). You can also freeze some or all of the beans in their cooking liquid at this point too. That two pound bag of beans you started with (just $1. 39 right now at my local Aldi store) will yield at least six pounds of prepared beans, so you have lots to work with.

Now, for the “re-frying.” That is truly a misnomer, since, as Wikipedia points out,

The name is based on a mistranslation.In Mexican Spanish, the prefix re is an informal form of emphasis meaning “very” or “well”, not to be confused with the English re and the most common use of the Spanish prefix re outside Mexico, which indicates repetition. Thus, frijoles refritos, the Mexican name of this dish, should translate to English as “well-fried beans”, not “refried beans”. However, this still does not explain the reference to frying in the name. In this dish, the beans are not fried. Indeed, beans are never fried, so the name is bizarre on any count. A sensible name in English for this dish would be “mashed beans.”

So our “sensible” cooking style will include very little oil as well, just enough to keep the beans from sticking to the pan as they are gently cooked with seasonings. As with so many of these basic, “ethnic,” dishes, the recipe proportions here are easily adjusted to suit your family’s own preferences. Oh, and if you just can’t get the time together to cook beans from scratch, you can still make refried beans from canned beans; just be sure to avoid adding any salt until you have tasted the mixture, as most canned beans are way too high in salt. (One more reason to make your own!)

Frijoles Refritos–mashed, not fried

1 T canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 4 oz can diced green chiles
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced (OR 1 to 2 t garlic powder)

3 to 4 c cooked pinto beans, with liquid

2 t oregano (Mexican, if available)
2 t cumin
1 T cider or balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 T chili powder (optional)
1/3 c chopped cilantro, stems and leaves (optional)
salt to taste
Saute the onion in the canola oil until just starting to turn golden. Stir in the garlic, beans, oregano and cumin. Add enough of the bean liquid to make a rather runny mixture.

Using a potato masher, mash the beans while stirring over medium heat. Add the chiles, vinegar, and chili powder and continue stirring. Use a spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan–a little bit of crust formed at the bottom will add flavor to the mix, but you do not want the beans to burn on. Taste for seasoning and add salt as needed, along with additional bean liquid or water if the mixture becomes too thick. (These will thicken when cooled, so you want to be sure that they maintain the consistency of thin cooked oatmeal.) Add the cilantro near the end of cooking.

One of the challenges I had in this post was trying to come up with a picture that would be both appetizing and would show how the beans start to come together as you prepare them. Not sure I succeeded, but this is what the mashed, seasoned beans will start to look like.

And now a quick enchilada recipe that uses some of your homemade refried beans.

Flat Bean and Cheese Enchiladas

Yes this is a large recipe and can easily be divided. However, make it in an 11 X 13 or similar casserole dish for a crowd, or divide it between two 7 X 11 pans and freeze one to pop in the oven on another day.

2 to 3 c refried beans
3/4 c cubed or sliced processed cheese
1/2 c yogurt (optional)
12 to 15 corn tortillas
12 to 16 oz grated cheddar or Monterrey jack cheese

Enchilada Sauce:
28 oz can or jar spaghetti sauce, preferably a garden vegetable variety
1 c prepared enchilada sauce
1/3 to 1/2 c finely chopped onion
1 t garlic powder OR 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 t cumin, to taste
chili powder to taste–start out with about a tablespoon or two
8 oz butternut squash puree (optional, but see NOTE)
1/2 c chopped cilantro (opt)
1 4 oz can diced green chilies OR 1/3 c diced bell or jalapeno pepper (optional, to taste)

1. Combine all the enchilada sauce ingredients and heat on the stovetop or in the microwave. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
2. Meanwhile, combine the refried beans and processed cheese in a microwave safe bowl. Heat for a minute or two to soften the mixture. If it is still very thick, add a little yogurt to make it “spreadable.)
3. Spread a few spoonfuls of the sauce over the bottom of an 11 X 13 or similar sized casserole dish. Arrange tortillas evenly across the sauce, tearing as necessary to completely cover the bottom of the baking dish.
4. Spread about half the refried bean mixture evenly over the tortillas, then layer with a third of the remaining enchilada sauce. Sprinkle with a little of the grated cheese.
5. Repeat the layers–tortillas, remaining beans, a third of the sauce, and cheese.
6. Finish the dish with one more layer of tortillas, the remaining sauce, and a thick layer of cheese. Be sure that the tortillas are completely covered with sauce to avoid any hardened edges when done. If freezing one part of the enchiladas, cover tightly at this point, label, and freeze.
7. Bake at 350 degrees about 30 to 45 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling around the edges and the cheese is melted and golden. (If the cheese begins to brown, cover with foil for the last 15 minutes or so.)

NOTE: If you do not use squash, you may want to reduce the amount of spaghetti sauce slightly to avoid having the final dish too thin. You could also precook and mash carrots or sweet potatoes to substitute for the squash.

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