A few months ago I started a vegetarian cooking group with some friends. The group has an educational bent, and we have been teaching each other recipes and techniques when we gather to cook. This last meal was Salvadoran, and my friends Ashley and Elvis taught us all how to make pupusas and other Salvadoran items like refried beans, horchata, jamaica, cabbage slaw, and salsa. I’m sharing the refried bean recipe here because I was so excited to learn this for myself. You can use these garlicky refried beans in a myriad of ways. Our group used them as pupusa filling, and also as a topping for Salvadoran enchiladas which look like small tostadas.
This version is vegan, but tastes as rich as if it had lard in it. The trick seems to be the inclusion of an entire head of garlic, plus 2 onions, which all get pureed into the beans. Part of the onions and garlic boil with the beans, and the rest are seared in a cast iron skillet until blistering and brown. What surprised me is that you only chop the onion into quarters before sauteing it, and the garlic cloves are left whole to sautee. Previously, I had always cut these aromatics into smaller pieces to cook in a skillet, but this process sears the edges while it softens in the interiors. The pieces all turn richly fragrant, and mildly sweet. In the end, the beans also have a slightly sweet flavor from the softened onion and garlic. It’s the kind of subtle sweetness you find in caramelized onions or oven-roasted garlic.
The recipe calls for red Salvadoran beans, which you can find at most Latino markets. If you can’t find them, you could substitute another kind of small red bean. They are small enough that you don’t have to soak them before boiling.
1 pound Salvadoran red beans
8 cups water
2 onions (separated)
1 whole head of garlic (separated)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
4 tablespoons canola oil or olive oil
Add the beans to a large soup pot with the water. Thinly slice one of the onions, and add it to the beans. Peel 4 of the garlic cloves, and leave them whole. Add the garlic cloves to the beans, along with the salt and cumin.
Bring to a boil, then simmer for 2 hours, until the beans are soft. At this point, you could stop and enjoy this as soup.
Transfer most of this to a blender. You may reserve some of the liquid if it looks too soupy. You can use what you are not using for a separate soup, if you wish. Puree the beans in the blender until very smooth.
Cut the remaining onion into 4 quarters. Peel the remaining garlic cloves, but leave them whole. Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet on medium heat. When hot, add the onion quarters and peeled garlic. Saute on medium heat for about 8-10 minutes. They will develop brown areas, and might look almost burnt, but they will smell wonderful. With a slotted spoon, remove them from the oil, and add them to the blender. Keep the oil in the pan. It has absorbed the flavor of the onions and garlic, and you will use it to fry the beans.
Use the blender to puree the sauteed onions and garlic into the beans. When smooth, ladle this back into the skillet. Stir and cook around 10-15 minutes, until it thickens to your desired consistency. Add more salt to taste.