Pinto Beans Just Like Mama Used to Make

Being from South Alabama, I never realized that pinto beans were a thing, something to be sought out, a comfort food. We just never ate them. We ate red beans and broad axes and navy beans and lima beans, but never pinto beans.

In fact, I didn’t even know they existed until I was in college. I’m dating myself here, but the Cracker Barrel restaurant just south of Birmingham where Hwy. 119 meets I65 meet had just opened. My two girlfriends and I went to check it out, and one of them ordered the “beans and greens” plate featuring turnip greens and pinto beans. She was all excited about the beans, and I wondered what the big deal was. I was still wondering the same thing when her plate arrived bearing a bowl of vaguely mauve, mushy-looking beans. She seemed to enjoy them, but I remained skeptical.

Fast forward twenty years to when I started dating Husband. I quickly learned that he could eat pinto beans three meals a day, seven days a week. Give him a pan of cornbread, and he’s all set. But still I chalked this devotion to the pinto bean up to his particular taste. Thought it was just his favorite food … until I met his daddy.

Husband and I had gone to Mentone, Alabama to meet up with his daddy and stepmother for a craft fair. We hadn’t been there too long when my future father-in-law started extolling the virtues of a local restaurant and singing the praises of their … you guessed it … pinto beans!

“Just like Mama used to make!” he said! And y’all know that’s about the highest praise a man can give any plate of food. And from what I know of his mother, she was one helluva good cook.

Husband and his family are from Northwest Georgia where there seems to be a more Appalachian style of cooking that’s different from my coastal, Creole style. There, pinto beans are a staple of the diet whereas the closer you get to the Gulf, the red bean seems to take over. An informal poll of my Facebook friends also confirmed what I had suspected since that day at the Cracker Barrel — most of my friends from about Montgomery on north claimed allegiance to the pinto bean while the folks who live south of that line swear by the red bean.

In the years that Husband and I have been married, I’ve learned to cook pinto beans just like he likes them. “Creamy” is what you’re going for. Lots of good “gravy.” Pinto beans aren’t froo-froo. There’s no trinity (that’s the onions, celery, and bell pepper combo you seen in just about every Creole dish). There’s no herbs. There’s no bed of rice. Just beans, maybe a hamhock, and a few basic spices. Just like Mama used to make.

Pinto Beans

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound dried pinto beans
  • 1 or 2 smoked ham hocks
  • Tsp cumin (this amount is a suggestion…you might like a little more or a little less)
  • Tsp chili powder (again, add more or less depending on what you like)
  • 2 bay leaves (I have to get my South Alabama in here somewhere)
  • A few shakes of hot sauce (I like Louisiana, Cholula, or Texas Pete’s)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Rinse the beans and pick through them for shriveled beans and other detritus. Sometimes you’ll even find a rock.
  2. Soak the bean using one of two methods, both equally good: the first is to soak the beans overnight in enough cold water to cover them by two inches. The second method is to put the dry beans in a pot and cover them with boiling water and let sit for thirty minutes. Either way you do it, it is essential that you pour the soaking water off the beans and give them a little rinse. This is what takes away all the “gas-making” effect of the beans. (Since yesterday’s red bean post, my good friend John Wendel gave me this tip: Put a pinch of baking soda in your soaking water to really reduce the affect.)
  3. Put them in a big pot and add water to cover by about 2 inches. Add in the ham hock(s) and other ingredients. You might have to adjust the seasonings along the way.
  4. Bring to a rolling boil, then turn the heat to low or medium low.
  5. Cook for 3-4 hours adding in water as necessary. I usually keep a kettle on low nearby.
  6. When the beans get “creamy,” take the ham hocks out and let them cool. Pick the meat off them and add it back in.
  7. If your beans are not getting “creamy” like you want them to be, take out a ½ to 1 cup, mash them with a fork and put them back in the pot.
  8. Serve in a bowl with hot sauce and cornbread on the side.

Tomorrow, I’m going to tell you all about something that’s unexpectedly delicious and a delightfully piquant compliment to a plate of mild-mannered pinto beans.

Note: You can also make your beans in a crockpot, but you’ll need to cook it a whole lot longer to get the “creamy” consistency. Like all day and half the night longer.