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Pinto beans and cornbread

January 9, 2021

Note: Mita Williams writes an excellent weekly newsletter–University of Winds–that she always ends with a question to her readers. This week’s was a request to send our favourite bean recipe as her family acquired an InstantPot over the holidays. I don’t have much of a recipe to offer, but I periodically make a particular meal and the story of why I eat this food occurs to me every time I do. I’ve thought about it more in recent years and it’s probably a good thing for me to write it down. I haven’t written much of anything on this blog in ages other than conference notes.

Ugh, spare me the narrative and skip to the recipe already.

My family moved to Grand Junction, Colorado when I was in grade five, a small city in Western Colorado about four or five hours from Denver and Salt Lake in either direction. My father, an engineer-turned-minister (who ultimately went back to engineering; that’s a story), had taken a job as the dean of a small evangelical college there after starting a church in central Ohio and I suspect burning out a bit by that task. Grand Junction has changed a great deal in the intervening decades, but then as now there are a fair number of people there living in very modest ways.

In the church we attended there, we met a man named John Ball who was an esteemed and influential elder in that congregation. John was older, perhaps retired, maybe around 70. About a year after we moved there, he and his wife invited us over for dinner. Given his role and authority in the church, I probably expected them to have a house larger and nicer than ours. To my perhaps eleven or twelve year old self, their house was cozy, quaint, and remarkably tidy; as I’ve reflected on this experience over the years, I realize it was very small and modest. What really made an impression on me was the meal they served us: pinto beans and cornbread. As a preacher’s son, I already had experienced scores of dinner invitations and had figured out that people (we did it, too) really put on a show when guests come over. Better cuts of meat, fancy desserts, etc. Pinto beans and cornbread deviated from that pattern. Then I ate it, and fell in love. I seem to recall that John had some funny (and I realize now, defensively self-deprecating) name for the beans, perhaps Spanish strawberries. I didn’t care what it was called, but it was delicious.

I didn’t eat this again for many years, but eventually it became a mainstay for me and I introduced my family to it and they enjoy it as well. I don’t know if we eat anything else that provides so much comfort, sustenance, and nutrition for so little money, but it was reflecting on that last point a few years ago that made me think back to John Ball. On a lark, I just googled him and was surprised to discover he co-founded the college that hired my father. Huh.

Instant Pot Pinto Beans

Long story short, here’s the recipe. For the cornbread, I typically use the recipe in the original Moosewood Cookbook although I rarely make it exactly as described (e.g., always oil, not butter, because it’s easier). The Internet does not need another cornbread recipe.

Quantities as you wish. I challenge everyone to make this without regard for measures or writing anything down. It cannot come out badly.

Sort, wash, and soak some pinto beans. Overnight is best, but morning to evening is fine.

Use the sauté setting to sweat an onion, some garlic, and perhaps a red pepper (nothing green goes near this in our house, which is the corollary to the commandment that nothing red goes in guacamole) in a bit of oil or lard if you dig swine and want richness. Once tender, toss in ground red pepper or pepper flakes to suit your needs, some cumin (not too much; this isn’t chili), maybe a bit of ground coriander, some paprika, and a bay leaf or two. While the onions and garlic are sweating, drain and wash the beans, dumping the wash water, then add them to the IP. Since they’re soaked, adding water until they’re just covered is fine but add more if soupier is desired. Cook at high pressure for 20-25 minutes depending on how long they’ve soaked and how long they’ve been in the pantry. Oh, if you have any of dried ancho, chipotle, poblano, etc. chile pods laying around, seed them and toss them in, removing them when done. This is a trick I started doing with the IP and, oh my, good call. I always buy them in those huge bags because I like the look and idea of them, but this is how I actually make progress on them. Salt and pepper to taste, as with anything.

If too soupy when done, either dump some of the water (travesty!) or just take a masher and squish up some of the beans to thicken it. Eat with cornbread and toss in some sour cream, Valentina, plain yogurt, or whatever. Make this your dish.

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