Not every recipe in Diana Kennedy’s new opus, Oaxaca Al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy, involves chiles.
It just seems that way.
Whether a dish such as Calabaza Tierna Guisada (Stewed Tender Pumpkin) is spiked with just two serranos (and lots of cilantro and mint), or is made almost entirely of “small dried local” peppers—say, Salsa de Chile Frito, a fried sauce consisting of two cups of chiles, “particularly moritas, the smoke-dried last picking of the serranos,” many of her recipes seem to fall somewhere on spectrum between picante and downright incendiary.
But not this one.
Frijoles Blancos Guisados, typically served during Lent with “dried fish fried in a batter,” are subtly flavored with allspice, clove and oregano. What really gives the beans their creamy, sweet flavor is a long slow simmering with onion and garlic, followed by a shorter simmer with more of the same and a little tomato. The flavor of the spices is evanescent—there, but hard to put your finger on.
For me, this traditional Oaxaca Valley dish is an easy way of tiptoeing into fall. You can decide to make the beans in the middle of the afternoon—no soaking required—and still have time to chase your puppy or rake leaves before supper. Or simply to sit back and enjoy the sensation of cool autumn air playing across your brow.
Frijoles Blancos Guisados, or Stewed White Beans with Allspice and Clove
(Slightly adapted from Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca Al Gusto.)
The recipe for these delicious frijoles comes from Senora Paula Santiago Ruiz de Mendez of Hueyapam in the Valley of Oaxaca.
Dried beans are notoriously variable: old, desiccated beans need a lot more water (and cooking time) than younger beans. Kennedy leaves it to your own judgment, saying only to cover them “well” with water. The best advice is simply to check the beans while they are cooking and add water as necessary.
In the ingredients list, Kennedy specifies “small white beans.” Dried cannellini beans are fantastic.
To serve 6
12 ounces (350 g) small white beans, picked over and rinsed
1 small white onion, coarsely chopped
½ small head garlic, halved horizontally, unpeeled
Salt to taste
2 cloves, crushed
2 allspice, crushed
1 teaspoon dried Oaxacan oregano leaves or ½ teaspoon Mexican oregano
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I used canola)
½ medium white onion, thinly sliced
6 ounces (165 g) tomatoes, thinly sliced
3 large sprigs flat-leaved parsley, roughly chopped
Salt to taste
Additional chopped parsley for garnish (optional)
1. Put the beans into a large pot with the white onion, half head garlic and salt to taste. Cover well with water (I used enough water to raise the level by 2 inches) and cook, covered, over a medium flame until they are tender but not too soft, about 2-1/2 hours, depending on the age of the beans. Check the water level several times while cooking and add more water as necessary (I between 2 and 3 cups). The beans should be very brothy.
2. Using a mortar and pestle, or a spice grinder, grind together the spices and the oregano.
3. Heat the oil in a casserole and fry the onion and garlic, with the spices, until translucent.
4. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking until the mixture has reduced and seasoned, about 5 minutes. Add 1 cup (250 ml) of the beans and mash well to thicken the mixture a little. Add the beans with their broth and the parsley and cook, uncovered, over a low heat until all the flavors have blended, about 25 minutes. Adjust the salt: you’ll probably add more than you expect, as the beans seem to drink up seasonings.
5. Serve warm, sprinkled with a little chopped parsley if desired.