Cheap Eats:
Frijoles Negros con Epazote
  Black Beans with Epazote

What I did on my summer vacation: I went to cooking school in Mexico!

The cooking school I selected was one I learned of during my first visit to Oaxaca. The school’s name, Seasons of My Heart, is taken from the PBS series and companion cookbook created by the chef who runs the school. And what a glorious choice it turned out to be.

Susana’s Rancho Aurora is about half an hour out of the city of Oaxaca, with a fabulous kitchen and splendid views of the surrounding valley, farms, and nearby mountains. It was a great place to learn about Oaxacan cooking, not only because it was fabulously well equipped with both traditional and modern equipment, but also because there were people who did all the less glamorous work, from making sure all ingredients were close at hand to washing every piece of equipment we used to plating and serving the feasts we created. (These are among the primary reasons I enjoy cooking classes—they always have vastly more equipment than I do, and someone else always washes up.)

We made fabulous recipes, mostly out of Susana’s book (which, of course, I bought, even though Susana had supplied copies of everything we actually made). But we didn’t just cook. One day, Susana arranged for us to have a scholar at the Ethno-Botanic Garden take us on a tour of the plants in this small but fascinating collection. I learned, among many other things, that maize was probably first bred from a wild grain in the state of Oaxaca, and Oaxaca still grows more native corn than anywhere else in Mexico; that the state of Oaxaca actually has greater botanical diversity than all of Costa Rica; that the earliest domestication of food in the New World appears to have occurred here, in around 8000 BC; that chilies, while they had come from farther south, were probably first bred for variety here, and even today, Oaxaca grows and consumes a greater variety of chilies than anywhere else in the world; of the many varieties of agave, which are all indigenous to the New World, more grow in Mexico than anywhere else in the New World, and more grow in Oaxaca than anywhere else in Mexico; and that the name Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl word for mimosa, which grows abundantly here. (I took 14 pages of notes, so it was a very interesting tour/lecture. I highly recommend a visit to the garden, if you get to Oaxaca.)

We also spent a few mornings visiting fabulous markets, where fruits, vegetables, breads, cones of sugar, combs of honey, cooking utensils, chocolate, spices, herbs, and barrels upon barrels of chilies dazzled and enticed us. The markets were just amazing. Of course, at some of the larger markets, one could also find everything from shoes to piñatas to automotive equipment, but even at these markets, food was still the main focus. We also visited cheese makers, chocolate grinders, and bakers.

Another adventure was spending a day in the surrounding hills, visiting a Zapotec village, where four beautiful Indian women taught us how to make pre-Hispanic dishes. We had the opportunity to grind everything from chocolate to herbs on metates and cook tortillas on comals, the curving, wood-fired clay stoves used throughout this region. We moved from room to room of the small, twig-walled Indian dwelling, helping where we could, stirring black beans in a large clay pot, called an olla, which sat on another wood-burning clay stove, helping make tortillas and corn dumplings by hand. We gathered in the open-air kitchen to watch the creation of an ancient ceremonial beverage called tejate, which combines cacao with seeds, flowers, and ground maize to create a refreshing and delicious drink that is traditionally judged primarily by the amount of foam the preparer is able to generate. Then we got to sit down and enjoy all the lovely pre-Hispanic dishes created by our hostesses. What fun! And the tastes were all interesting and, on the whole, wonderful. I particularly liked the soup made of squash fruit, vines, and leaves.

The city of Oaxaca, capital of the state of Oaxaca, lies in a valley known as the Etla Valley. Etla is the Spanish rendering of the Nahuatl word etl, which means “black beans.” So the Etla Valley is the valley of black beans, and this is indeed the bean which one encounters almost exclusively in Mexico’s south.

Epazote is an indigenous Mexican herb. It has a strong smell that is reminiscent of something you might use to thin paint, but it actually adds a rich, wonderful, indescribable flavor to things cooked with it. You can find fresh epazote at Hispanic grocery stores (in the Chicago area, Carniceria Jimenez is a great choice—like a brief visit to another country, one is so surrounded with exciting exotica). It is said that cooking black beans with epazote helps mitigate any gastric disturbances one might normally expect from eating beans. I just know that it really compliments frijoles negros. Enjoy.

Frijoles Negros con Epazote

1 pound dried black beans

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 large sprigs fresh epazote

2 tsp. salt, or to taste

Sort through the beans and discard any pebbles, twigs, or moldy beans. Rinse the beans thoroughly and drain.

Place the beans in a heavy pot. Add water to cover by two inches. Bring to boil over high heat, then remove the pot from the burner and let the beans sit for one hour. (Alternately, you can soak the beans in cold water for 4 to 8 hours.)

Add the onion, garlic, and epazote to the beans. Add enough water to again cover the beans by 1 inch. Return the pot to the burner and again bring to the boil. Stir the beans, then reduce the heat. Do not cover the pot. Let the beans just simmer for 1 hour, without stirring. (But watch the beans. If the water disappears, add more.)

At the end of the hour, stir the beans well. If necessary, add enough water to cover the beans by 1 inch. Simmer another 30 minutes, then check the beans. If they are beginning to get soft, add the salt. Add water as necessary, so that the beans remain slightly covered. When the beans are cooked through, remove the epazote and discard. There should still be enough liquid to just cover the beans. To thicken the liquid, you can either use a masher, as the Indian women do, to mash a small percentage of the beans, or you can remove ½ to 1 cup of the beans and purée them in a blender, then stir them back into the pot.

Serve with warm tortillas. Can also be served over rice (not as traditional, but a nice way to sop up all the juice).

Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side dish.

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