It was in college in San Diego, California, that Mexican food became my comfort food. San Diego boasts some of the most incredible Mexican food in the country, and I fully indulged in its greatness over the four years I lived there.
A quick lunch between classes was a plate of fish tacos. A late-night study session during finals week was a fully loaded burrito at the 24-hour Mexican food joint that was packed with other students just like myself. A sweet treat to celebrate good grades was a plate of rich caramel flan or a hot churro covered in cinnamon sugar. Baja-style Mexican food became my go-to, the food that I crave more than any other. When I left San Diego, it also became the food I dreamed of making and mastering at home. I am a big fan of restaurant refried beans -- the authentic, house-made variety. The kind that are steaming hot, creamy, and spread out on your plate, chasing after that rice. Because I was spoiled in San Diego, I am not a fan of canned refried beans, the thick globs of brown mush that taste more like a can than a bean. I'd rather have no beans than canned beans.
Every time I'm in a Mexican food restaurant, I order beans with my tacos or enchiladas. But when I used to make tacos or enchiladas at home, I would have to skip the beans. I missed them terribly. Finally, I learned how to make homemade refried beans using my crockpot and I've never looked back. They are so easy to throw in the slow cooker (you don't even have to soak the beans in advance) and they taste fantastic. This recipe is very forgiving -- I've tweaked it all sorts of ways over the years. You can make spicy beans, cheesy beans, thicker beans for bean dip, thinner beans for a side dish or burritos. I've tried it with chicken bouillon or chicken broth. Cumin, no cumin. I've used fresh garlic and garlic powder. I've tried it with lard (which is traditional), butter, and I've made it several times without any fat at all, just using the juices from the pot to thin out the beans. I've mashed them with a potato masher, I've poured them into my blender, and with this batch, I used my hand-immersion blender. Use this as your base recipe, then feel free to play around with it until you've achieved your ideal restaurant-style refried beans at home.
Crockpot Refried Beans
Serves 8-10 people
3 cups dry pinto beans (black beans also work, if you prefer)
9 cups water
5 chicken bouillon cubes
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
half of a yellow onion, peeled, but left whole
¼ cup butter, melted
1 cup milk
Enough reserved juices from the pot to achieve desired consistency
Place dry beans in the bottom of your slow cooker. Pour water over top. Add the bouillon cubes, garlic powder, and salt. Place the onion half right on top of the beans. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, or until beans are very soft and fall apart when mashed (if you undercook your beans, they will be grainy and difficult to mash).
Remove the onion and drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Return the beans to the pot, add the melted butter and the milk. Blend with a hand immersion blender until creamy and smooth, adding reserved juices from the pot until desired consistency is achieved (more milk can also be added if you like them creamy). Note: the beans firm up as they cool, so make them looser than you think you need to. Serve promptly. Store leftovers covered in the refrigerator.
For spicy beans, add fresh jalapeño to the pot. For cheesy beans, top with jack cheese after blending.
These can also be mashed with a potato-masher (for more rustic-style beans) or in batches in a blender or food processor for smoother beans.
Maya Evoy lives in Nikiski and blogs about food at alaskafromscratch.com.
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