I’ve taken about a week off from writing – something I plan to do from time to time – and what better way to ramp this thing back up than with a food post. In a previous post, “How to Make Beef Stew That is Not Terrible,” I mentioned the “trifecta” of soups that any cook ought to be able to whip up on a moment’s notice: chili, vegetable soup and beef stew. These are fundamental cold-weather soups that should be learned first, because they form the basic building-blocks for many other soups. For example, a traditional vegetable soup can be easily converted into a Tuscan vegetable soup with the addition of cannellini beans, zucchini, spinach and a parmesan cheese topping.
One of my favorite chili variations (a far distant cousin to chili, really) is the simple Mexican soup called frijoles charros. Before I get to the recipe, though, let me tell you the story behind my love for frijoles charros, and it all started at a place called Video World. For any kids reading this post, back about twenty years ago we had these places called video stores, and they were wonderful. Some of my best childhood memories are of going to the video store with my dad and brother to rent a videotape (yes – a tape!). This was back in the dark ages of the early nineties: pre-DVD, pre-Netflix, and pre-Redbox. Nirvana was up-and-coming and U2 was still cool. My brother and I would spend an hour reading the backs of tape boxes and arguing over which one to get. We could sense when dad was becoming impatient, and would very often end up compromising with Howard the Duck or King Kong vs. Godzilla – again – or one of the many WrestleManias.
You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I learned that my favorite video store, Video World, was closing down and being replaced by a Mexican restaurant. How dare they! I was outraged. The Taco Bell was just across the street, and I couldn’t imagine why we needed another Mexican restaurant in Jasper, Alabama. I mean, how could it possibly compete with a place that served Nachos Bellgrande?! I remember my last visit to Video World like it was yesterday. The shelves were half-empty because they were selling off all the old tapes. I was crushed.
My first visit to Pepito’s was not for the food. Not at all. I wanted to see what they had done to my video store. I remember walking in and trying to imagine where the action and comedy sections used to be, but the blaring Mexican dance music and the banging pots and pans made it hard to concentrate. I was not happy. My parents, my brother and I were seated at small table somewhere close to the wrestling videos, as best I could surmise. Someone had told us to order something called a “chimichanga,” so that’s what we all did, expecting the worst. Well, except for my brother, who was not taking any chances. We had to stop on the way and pick him up “two hard tacos with mean n’ cheese only” from the nearby Taco Bell.
So there we were: sitting in Video World Pepito’s, watching Patrick eat his fast-food tacos, and waiting on our food. And waiting. And waiting some more. We watched people come and go. We speculated that either they had run out of chimichangas, or that they must take a long time to prepare. In any case, we were through with Pepito’s before taking the first bite. However, just as we were about to get up and leave, the manager came running to our table, apologizing profusely. Our order ticket had fallen behind the counter in the kitchen. Our food would be out in a couple of minutes, and it was all on the house.
So, we stayed. The food came out, and as soon as I took my first bite of a steaming-hot chimichanga, the pain over losing Video World began to subside. This food – real, fresh Mexican food – was a revelation, and I was instantly hooked. Taco Bell just could not compete with deep-fried burritos topped with molten cheese sauce. For the next decade or so, until I left for college, we ate at Pepito’s every Wednesday night before church. My parents still eat there on Wednesday nights to this day. We know the owners and the waiters by name, and they know us. Pepito’s has now been a part of Jasper for two decades, and I can’t imagine my hometown without it.
For about six months after Pepito’s opened the only thing I ordered was a chicken chimichanga, but it was not long before I began to branch out. One of the dishes I avoided for quite a while was the strange-sounding Mexican soup called “frijoles charros.” As it turns out, frijoles charros is one of the things Pepito’s does best. It’s a simple soup – basically beans, broth, onions, cilantro, and little chunks of mystery-meat floating around – but it is delicious. After quite a bit of experimentation, I have figured out how to very nearly re-create it at home, with a few minor tweaks. I have no idea if my version is anywhere close to authentically Mexican (probably not), but for lack of a better name, I give you my version of frijoles charros:
½ pack bacon, chopped into bite-sized bits (The bacon brand matters. Use either Boar’s Head Brand Naturally Smoked Sliced Bacon or Hormel Black Label Bacon, Original. Do not use Smithfield. It has a fake “liquid smoke” taste, and the Smithfield folks abuse their animals.)
1 white onion
1-2 cans low-sodium vegetable broth
3 cans beans, drained and rinsed (I usually go with 2 cans of black beans and 1 can of dark pintos. Always use Goya Premium black beans – they are the best. I don’t care what brand of pintos you use, but Bush’s seems to work fine.)
1-2 cups medium or hot tomato salsa (This ingredient is tricky, for two reasons. First, in order to make this dish perfectly, you need Pepito’s salsa. Second, there are a lot of really, really bad salsas out there. Most of you will not have access to Pepito’s salsa, so do some research and use a good brand, or make your own. Publix sells a good fresh salsa in their produce section.)
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder (McCormick Hot Mexican Style works well.)
Salt/pepper to taste
1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1. In a large, heavy stainless-steel pot, cook bacon over medium-high heat until crispy.
2. Add chopped onion, season liberally with salt and pepper. Continue to cook over medium heat until the onion begins to become transparent, but not brown, 3-5 minutes. The bacon will probably have rendered enough fat to cook the onions, but if you are using lean bacon, you may need to add a tablespoon or two of extra light olive oil.
3. Add 1 can vegetable broth, scraping the browned bacon bits from the bottom of the pot.
4. Add beans, salsa, bay leaf, cumin and chili powder. Add more vegetable broth if too thick, but no more than 1 extra can.
5. Simmer over low heat for 30-45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly. Add chopped cilantro just before serving. You may serve with sour cream, raw chopped white or green onions, and pickled jalapenos for toppings. Do not top with cheese. Serve with fresh cornbread (see previous post “Pass the Cornbread.”)