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The Comfort Zone

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When people talk about comfort food, they’re usually remembering something that somebody else made for them. But sometimes cooks need comfort too. And just as music soothes some savage breasts, beans do the trick for me.

The other day I was in dire need of comfort. I’d spent two solid days preparing for a fund-raising meal, and I was cooked out. Most of the initial work was finished: I’d sliced and toasted six loaves of bread for crostini. I’d slowly cooked two huge gratin dishes of tomatoes with lots of olive oil and whole cloves of garlic for the topping. I’d topped and trimmed 10 pounds of green beans, blanched them and chilled them in ice water. I’d peeled and sliced a dozen melons and prepared their lime-mint syrup.

Most important, I’d filled my biggest cast-iron pan with 4 pounds of pinto beans and cooked them until they were creamy and soft. I needed them. There were 30 people coming to eat the next day, and my counters were covered with tomatoes--some to be sliced, others to be stuffed--and squash to be stewed.

I can’t tell you exactly why beans have this calming effect on me (other effects, obviously, are more easily explained). I did spend most of my developing years in legume-eating places. In New Mexico, pinto beans are as common as bread; they’re on every dinner plate. In various parts of the South, I was well fed on black-eyed peas; I still crave them.

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These particular beans came with friends. Knowing my predilections, they arrived from New Mexico last winter with a 10-pound burlap bag of dry-farmed pinto beans from the Navajo reservation near Gallup.

The source is important because, with something as simple as beans, any variation in quality is apparent. I find that dry-farmed beans--beans that aren’t pumped full of water during the growing stage--have a much deeper, richer flavor than regular old pintos you might pick up in a grocery store.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine how beans were grown, especially if you’re buying them in bags smaller than 10 pounds. The best way is to shop where a lot of beans are sold; the customers there more likely will be picky. Also, those shops have more turnover, so the dried beans will be fresher. That can make a real difference in cooking time and in the result.

Well-cooked beans are solid, yet delicate; creamy, yet rustic; deeply flavored, yet simply prepared. Beans are remarkably self-sustaining--cover them with water and stick them in the oven and a couple of hours later you have ambrosia. What other food minds itself so well? What other food so richly rewards so little care?

But as good as boiled beans are by themselves, to me their real pinnacle comes when they’ve been fried. Frying beans makes them even richer and smoother. It intensifies their aroma. Best of all, it gives you an opportunity to add copious amounts of fat.

And the best fat is bacon fat. If you grew up as I did, your mom always had a little cup of bacon grease in the refrigerator. It’s like white trash extra-virgin olive oil. A little bit of it gives a special piggy perfume to anything fried, and that’s almost always a good thing.

That’s why just as I have several types of olive oil on my counter, I also have a cup of bacon grease in my fridge (and a big container of duck fat, the bacon grease of southern France).

On this particularly frazzled evening, I scooped a couple of tablespoons of bacon grease into a skillet. Once it melted, I added a couple of ladles of beans, with plenty of their liquid. This I cooked, smashing occasionally with the back of my spoon to break up some of the beans and free their starch. Quickly it thickened and came together into a creamy mass.

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I spooned it into bowls and topped it with some chopped tomatoes, some diced red onion and some crumbly fresh goat cheese I’d bought at the farmers market (Mexican cotija cheese is a good substitute).

The cheese melted into the beans, giving them a nice tang. I scooped some beans into a warm corn tortilla and ate, the rich textures and flavors complementing each other perfectly.

And for a little while, even with 30 people coming for lunch the next day, I was fine.

*

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REFRIED PINTO BEANS

1 pound dried pinto beans

Salt

Water

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3 dried chipotle morita chiles, or 2 chipotle meco chiles

2 onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic

1 large sprig epazote, optional

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Black pepper

2 tablespoons bacon grease

2 tomatoes, chopped

1/4 cup chopped red onion

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1/2 cup crumbled cotija cheese

Yes, you’re right. The beans are not soaked. That’s why they taste so good. Beans cooked without soaking take a little longer to cook, but they more than make up for it with a thick, flavorful broth. It’s important also not to cook the beans to the point that they are dry. They should still have a little flow when stirred. You might also notice there is no meat in the boiled bean part of the dish. That’s because they were to be served in a vegetarian menu. And actually, given the smokiness of the chiles, they’re almost as good as if there were pork in them. Of course, if you eat meat, you can add some ham hock if you’d like. On the other hand, if you’re a vegetarian, you can also refry the beans in vegetable oil, though they won’t be quite as good as if you used bacon grease.

Cover beans with plenty of water in sink or large bowl. Remove any beans that float, are split or are blackened. Remove any dried bits of chaff. Drain beans and place in large heavy pot, preferably cast iron. Add 1 teaspoon salt and water to cover by 2 inches. Add chiles, onions, garlic and epazote.

Bring to simmer over medium-high heat, then cover tightly and place in 350-degree oven. Cook until beans are soft, about 2 1/2 hours. Check after about 45 minutes to make sure there is enough water. Beans should not be soupy, but they should not dry out, either. (Recipe can be made to this point 2 to 3 days in advance.)

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Melt bacon fat over medium-high heat in large skillet. Ladle beans into skillet, removing whole chiles and draining any excess liquid. Cook, stirring, until beans begin to bubble, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, smashing half of beans with back of spoon, until mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and season with additional salt and pepper, if needed.

Divide among 6 bowls and garnish with tomatoes, onion and cheese before serving.

6 servings. Each serving:

358 calories; 454 mg sodium; 12 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 5.04 grams fiber.

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