Living in the Bay Area, Ali and I have easy access to some of the best Mexican food in America. Any trip to the Mission District of San Francisco is incomplete without a delicious detour, followed by an hour of trying not to think about the quantity of lard crammed into my carnitas burrito. Throughout the East Bay, however, there is a startling lack of top notch Mexican food. We pick up tex-mex often enough, but it is nothing special. As a result, I throw together homemade tacos every couple months. It’s a crowd pleaser, gives me an excuse to make guacamole, and the exact components can change a lot depending on my mood.
Mexican cooking in my kitchen varies greatly, ranging from sautéed ground beef tacos (on the table in 15 minutes) to slow-cooked stew beef or carnitas (4+ hours). I usually (reluctantly) add in a beans option for the vegetarians, and these fall into a similar time frame of “however long I feel like cooking today”. I can cook for however long I choose, make pretty much any combination of toppings, and it always tastes good when you throw it all together. Garlic, onion, and chili powder tend to do that.
It is hard to deny that beans are a staple in any number of cuisines, and while I am warming up to their flavor the texture still gets to me occasionally. One way to solve that is a blender. Pureed foods tend to have acceptable, uniform textures, and still taste great. Not the most visually appealing (baby) food, but looks aren’t everything. For this meal, I adopted a recipe from the Rancho Gordo cookbook. Titled as a tepary bean dip, it works equally well as a substitute for refried beans in tacos or burritos. I finished off my tacos with ground beef, homemade guac, and salsa, while Ali’s burrito included Mexican rice from “The Homesick Texan” food blog, my go to source for all things tex-mex. Assemble as you wish, top with shredded pepper jack cheese plus iceberg lettuce, and enjoy!
For the bean dip:
- 1 1/2 cups cooked and drained tepary beans, plus broth
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 serrano chili, roasted
- 3/4 teaspoon cumin
- Chipotle chile in adobo
- Salt and pepper, to taste
When it comes to cooking beans, I bow to the unequivocally superior knowledge of The Queen of Legumes. On her blog, you will find detailed instructions for the preparation of dried beans. Following her suggestion, I used Rancho Gordo tepary beans in this recipe, and was able to freeze most of them for future use. To prepare the dip, merely combine all ingredients in a small food processor and hit go. I used a serrano chili because it was what I had in my fridge, but the original recipe calls for a poblano and I think it would be an improvement. In my case, the serrano added a bit more spice than I expected, even without the seeds, and I missed the substance that comes from using a poblano . Adjust the consistency as you like by adding bean broth to the mix.
Beans, beans, the magical fruit…..
So what is really going on with beans? As with most seeds, legumes consist of an embryo unit surrounded by storage leaves (the cotyledon) and bound up with a carbohydrate seed coat. This seed coat is responsible for some of the more….memorable aspects of bean consumption. Made up of mostly indigestible carbohydrates, the coating leaves out upper intestine relatively untouched. The bacteria in our lower intestine feast on the carbs, producing large amounts of carbon dioxide and oxygen and making up for our failure. Luckily, soaking beans in water can extract many of these carbohydrates.
While cooking legumes, absorption of water is limited by the remarkable protection of the seed coat. In fact, initial absorption of water takes place solely at the hilium, where the bean was formerly attached to its pod. Later on, once an equilibrium is reached, the seed coat becomes fully hydrated and expands to allow widespread diffusion into the seed. We presoak beans to jumpstart this absorption process (and extract those flatulent carbohydrates) . During soaking, water gradually permeates the seed coat and saturates the cotyledon. Once heat is applied, this guarantees a rapid and even cooking process. If beans are not soaked, you are likely to end up with either a mushy, overcooked exterior or an uncooked interior, as heat diffusion occurs much more quickly than the equivalent process for water.
For the rice:
- 1 cup uncooked white rice
- 2 cups bean broth
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 onion, diced
- 5 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
- 1 tbsp. cumin
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Oil of your choice, for sautéing
Cooking the rice in bean broth adds flavor to this dish, and the butter gives it a richness greater than that generally found in plain white rice. Combine the rice, broth, and butter in a small pot, bring to a boil, stir once, and then reduce the heat to low. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes. As with most recipes I cook, bean broth is used to keep the dish vegetarian. Substitute chicken broth for a stronger flavor.
In a large cast iron skillet, cook the onion until slightly translucent, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid excessive browning. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two longer, then toss in the tomato paste and cumin. Saute one more minute, add the rice, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Serve immediately.
For the beef:
- 1 package ground beef
- 1 tsp. oil
- Seasoning of your choice
- Salt to taste
Sautéing ground beef is one of the fastest, easiest ways to put homemade tacos on the table. If someone else shreds cheese and lettuce while you work, dinner can be on the table 15 minutes after starting prep. As a former graduate student, I value that speed. In this case dinner involved slightly more work, but the meat step remains the same. Heat a small amount of oil in a large skillet, and add the ground beef. As the meat cooks, break it up into steadily smaller pieces with your spatula, and season to taste. The beef is done when evenly browned with no remaining signs of pink.
For seasoning, I use Penzeys Adobo mixture as a quick and easy spice solution, but high quality meat can stand alone with just a bit of salt and pepper. The oil is optional, especially if you don’t buy ultra lean meat, and is just to prevent sticking upon first addition to the pan. I buy ground beef in bulk when on sale. After forming some into burger patties, I freeze the remainder. When I want tacos I cut a chunk off the frozen block, and then cut that into a few smaller slices. These will heat quickly in the skillet, and break apart without any fuss.
For the guac:
- 2 large avocados
- 1/2 a large onion
- 1 roma tomato
- Lime juice to taste
- Salt to taste
Growing up, my sisters and I all avoided guacamole. Aka weird green mush. I have since realized that my mom probably loved this, as it left more of the delicious dip for her. I only recently warmed up to guacamole, and I know Ali has mixed feelings about this development. On one hand, I now buy avocados and make guac for her on a regular basis. On the other, I now eat some of that guac, depriving her of the enjoyment. Life is hard an hour from the Central Valley.
Following Ali’s advice, I keep guac fairly simple. Halve the avocados, and scoop into a medium bowl. Dice the onion and tomato finely, or pulse them quickly in a food processor (don’t go too long, you don’t want a puree). Add the mixture to the avocado, using a fork to mash the dip into whatever consistency you desire. Finally, add a dash of lime juice and salt to taste. Eat most of the dip immediately as an appetizer, regretfully leaving barely enough to top your final tacos.