Refried beans are simply one of the greatest Mexican foods ever.
But do they really have to be so fattening? ¡No, señor!
Sure, I knew the word FRIED was in the name, but I never really realized how incredibly caloric refried beans were until recently. I remember being at the airport in California and seeing the calorie count on different burritos at La Salsa (which is a restaurant I’d never recommend), and my jaw dropped when I saw that one small bean burrito was over 1100 calories. Wide-eyed and horrified, my mind instantly flashed to the hundreds of deliciously lard-laden, eggplant-sized bean and cheese burritos I had consumed in the past few years, desperately trying not to calculate how much fat I had put into my body. After that moment I was forced to face the tragic reality that refried beans might have to be reserved for special occasions.
Potlucks at my house would not be complete without my friend Abraham bringing his mom’s phenomenal “frijoles puercos.” Frijoles puercos translates to “pork beans,” but they are ten million times better than American “pork and beans.” His mom’s frijoles are loaded with cheese, chorizo, and lard, making them one of the most rich and satisfying dishes EVER.
Addicted to those frijoles, for years I made my own version of that recipe, which I used to impress people and feel more mexicano. Then one fateful day I volunteered to bring my beans to a party, forgetting that several of the guests were vegetarians. Feeling trapped and impotent, I begrudgingly omitted all the meat, convinced it wouldn’t be as good. But in the end… BAM! It was still freaking delicious. After that, I never included puerco in my frijoles again.
If the frijoles were that good without pork, how would they be without cheese? It took me another couple of years to get the guts to take the risk and try it. But once I reached a point when I was trying to cut down on my dairy intake, I finally decided to take the plunge, replacing the cheese with something called nutritional yeast flakes. And guess what? It turned out awesome! (See my note about nutritional yeast at the end of this post).
Cumin, garlic, pickled jalapeños and some juice from a jar of green olives make these beans incredibly flavorful, and a couple of tablespoons of nutritional yeast finish off the dish to creamy, “cheesy” perfection. I still add real cheese sometimes for a weekend treat, but I’d say 95% of the time I stick with the vegan version, especially if I’m serving it with something rich. Try it both ways!
We serve our healthy frijoles with some brown rice and roasted vegetables for a dirt cheap, incredibly satisfying dinner. You can also serve them with enchiladas, in burritos, as a bean dip for chips or with any other Mexican food.
Recipe: Frijoles (Spicy, healthy “refried” beans)
- 2.5 cups dried, uncooked pinto beans OR five 15 oz. cans of pinto beans
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 cup pickled jalapeños and juice (use less if you are a wimp with spicy food)
- ¼ cup green olive juice (optional—if you omit this, add more pickled jalapeño juice or more salt)
- ½ cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt (do not add if you used canned beans)
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes OR 2 ounces of cheese (cheddar, jack, mozzarella or any melty Mexican cheese)
If using canned pinto beans, drain and rinse the beans. If cooking from scratch, take two and a half cups of sorted, rinsed dried pinto beans and throw them in a slow cooker, adding with enough water to cover them by at least 4-5 inches. Turn it on low and cook for about 8 hours (I do this overnight or put them on in the morning). Once they’re cooked, drain the beans.
Place the cooked beans in a large pot over medium high heat. Add all other ingredients except for the water, salt and nutritional yeast flakes (or cheese, if using).
As everything is heating up, take a potato masher and mash away. You can blend the beans for a smoother consistency, but I like them to retain some of their texture. I usually mash the mixture for about five to ten minutes while the beans are simmering. Add the water and continue to mash and simmer.
Add the nutritional yeast flakes or cheese and stir until well incorporated. Taste the frijoles and adjust the flavor by adding the salt, more pickled jalapeño juice, olive juice, or spices.
Let the beans continue to cook until they reach your desired thickness. Remember that they will thicken more when they are chilled.
Eat! Serve them with brown rice, roasted veggies, tortillas, eggs, chips, enchiladas, or anything else you want. These beans also freeze well, so don’t be afraid of making a big batch to have some stashed for later.
Note: Don’t be afraid of watery beans. If you add too much liquid, you can always just cook it down until the beans reduce and thicken. Traditional Mexican refried beans are on the runny side, unlike the canned varieties or what is often served in American Mexican restaurants.
I hope you enjoyed this recipe! Remember that a meal doesn’t have to be centered around meat to be protein-rich and super-satisfying!
Fun facts about beans!
- In Spanish, the singular form of frijoles is frijol.
- Pinto means “speckled” in Spanish, as pinto beans are light brown with dark brown specks and lines before they are cooked.
- Beans are high in protein, fiber, and other vitamins and minerals.
- Bean plants actually add nutrients to the soil they grow in.
- Here’s a great link that explains different kinds of beans and how to cook them. It doesn’t include my slow cooker method, but it provides tons of great information! http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipes/food-guides/beans
Nutritional yeast flakes has to be one of the most unappetizing names for a food, but it’s really good, I swear! When I was in college, my vegan friends would use this stuff all the time when making anything “cheesy,” but I never really bought into the idea until recently. Now we always have some on hand. This stuff gives a cheesy, “umami” flavor to anything from soups, beans, pasta, or even sprinkled on popcorn! It’s full of vitamins and minerals, and I highly recommend giving them a try. Look for them at any natural foods store, where you might be able to weigh out as much or as little as you want. Remember that a little goes a long way.