My grandfather was a man who believed in food. A product of the Great Depression, he firmly believed in living simply, in saving things, in reusing. But he never scrimped on food.
My grandparents’ family home was just a short drive or a long walk away from the local market and I remember my grandfather going to the grocery store every day, just for fun, just to see if there was something new that day. He was man who didn’t believe in food budgets or calorie counting. He thought there should be good food, always, and lots of it.
A native of Texas transplanted to California early in his law career, he brought the tastes of Texas to the beach with him. There are a few foods firmly associated in my senses with my memories of Grandpa – among them, silver-dollar potatoes, bacon and pinto beans.
I remember waking up in the morning to the smell of the salty San Diego air, the shrieks of siblings and cousins and the smell of bacon, fried in a cast-iron pan long before hipsters thought cast-iron was cool.
On sunny California afternoons, Grandpa would deep-fry his dollar-potatoes. He would slice them thinly so they fried to a crunchy perfection and then salt them generously. My siblings, cousins, and I would demolish them as we sat outside on the concrete covered in chalk and bikes.
To this day, I can’t pick up a pack of pinto beans without thinking of my grandfather, his kindness, his generous spirit, and his warm kitchen. For years, I thought pinto beans involved some kind of complicated culinary magic that I might someday be fortunate enough to graduate to.
Apparently my grandfather knew another lesson that I would later learn – cooking doesn’t need to be complicated to be wonderful. His savory, wonderful beans that I have so much reverence for were perhaps the simplest recipe around – one of the original just-add-water recipes.
Beans are so easy, so straightforward, so hard to mess up. You can make them sweet or spicy; you can add vegetables and meat; you can just make a very simple pot with some pepper and salt. Leave them alone on the stove for a few hours and a delightful meal awaits you.
Fall is in the air and the heat in D.C. is (finally) beginning to relent, so try a pot of these this weekend.
1 lb. pinto beans
8 cups water (Beans should be thoroughly covered by an inch or two of water.
2 cups chopped ham
1 bell pepper
2 tbl. garlic
2 tbl pepper
1 tbl chili powder
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/2 white wine
Fresh basil leaves
Wash the beans thoroughly. Cover them with water. Add the ham pieces. Cover and bring to a boil, then lower heat and allow the beans to simmer for an hour and a half or two hours. Chop the bell pepper and onion into quarter-size pieces. Add the bell pepper, onion, garlic, pepper, chili powder, Worcestershire sauce, wine, basil, and cilantro. Allow the beans to simmer gently for another two to three hours. Add water if beans become too thick or begin to stick to the pan. Serve with a sprig of cilantro.
Serve the beans straight from a pot like this one and save on the fussy dishes- this recipe is perfect for camping, outdoor family-style meals, or cozy chilly fall evenings.