Thursday, August 20, 2009
I've written here before about my tendency to become affixed on certain things for periods of time. Though sometimes protracted, these fixations are ultimately fleeting moments in my greater culinary life. However, from the period until the obsession starts until the craving is fulfilled, those fleeting moments can feel like far, far longer. Once a dish is in my head, I must have it, lest I never move on. Until that food passes through my lips, all other food is sub-par; yea, that foie gras brulee could be sublime, but if it was a cripsy, oozy grilled cheese I wanted, I will not be fully content.
Oftentimes, I can have a version of the dish and move on, but sometimes I need the idealized version of my obsession. Until I have that perfect dish, just as I've built it up in my compulsive, deranged mind, I will not - nay, I cannot move forward.
Lately, huevos rancheros have been the object of my desire. Why? I cannot tell you exactly, but the combination of toothsome, spicy black beans atop corn tortillas, covered with the liquid gold of a just-punctured over-easy egg, speckled with salsa fresca and a smokey, haunting salsa was something I just could not get out of my head.
Usually, huevos rancheros would be something I could very easily put together, in about twenty minutes flat. But popping open a can of beans was just not going to result in my perfect huevos rancheros. No, it couldn't just be any black beans, certainly none from a can would do. It had to be the fresh black beans I had purchased at the Union Square Greenmarket after the Times had touted their freshness and flavor.
What that meant is that my idealized version of the dish was not just something that could be thrown together willy-nilly after getting home from work one night. I couldn't just change out of my dress, grab a can opener, and have dinner ready in twenty minutes (at least the first time). Sure, the shortcut route was one I considered on various occasions when I got home late and tired and really, really wanted those huevos rancheros in my belly. But I never gave in; I just knew, deep down, that only huevos rancheros made with those beans would do. And dried beans, even when they're fresh and don't require overnight soaking, still need quite a while before they become tender enough to eat (at least enjoyably).
But when a cloudy summer Sunday sent me packing back from the Hamptons earlier than anticipated, I knew I had my chance. I had the time to both prepare my beans and turn them into the base for, well, for a lot of things, but immediately for my huevos. [And before I start hearing comments about "well, why didn't you just make the beans when you got home late one night, and then you would have had them ready to use later that week?" - there was no shot in hell that I was not making huevos rancheros as soon as I had spicy, salty, toothsome beans at my disposal, ready to go. That is all.]
And so I rinsed the beans, put them in a pot and added water so that the water level was about an inch over the beans, deciding to forego the "bring to a boil, let soak for one hour and rinse" step in lieu of just allowing them to cook a little bit longer.
Then I made my pico de gallo, chopping up some tomato (mercifully, finally in season, though blighted, tragically), onion, garlic and jalapeno and dousing it with some fresh lime juice as the beans boiled away on the stove.
And before long, I had my huevos rancheros, and they were everything I wanted them to be, and so, so much more. The months (literally, it had been two months spent with huevos on my mind) that I had waited seemed to wash away; all memories of my deprivation gone as I gleefully pricked the jiggly yolk with the tines of my fork, taking far too much pleasure in the destruction of one of nature's more perfect little packages. But I knew, as I watched that canary yellow liquid drizzle down over the beans, over the cheese, that I was going to be able to move on, and happily. I dragged forkful after forkful of those glorious beans through the unctuous cholesterol-laden goodness, relishing in not only the taste of my huevos rancheros, in the wonderful harmony of fresh ingredients, but also in my will power, in my devotion to my huevos ideal. I had not broken down and given in to something that I knew would not please me. I allowed myself to continue building it up, and it was totally, undoubtedly, worth it.
I want to talk about those beans - man, the Times knew what they were talking about. These were the best black beans I had ever eaten. Their texture and taste surpassed any that I had ever eaten from a can, and any that I had made from dry up to that point. While dried beans tend to have a better texture than canned (not to mention that you can control the sodium content and they are not suspended indefinitely in that filmy liquid), it is fully impossible to know just how many days, months, years those bags of Goya Frijoles Negros have spent on the supermarket shelves. I think it's safe to assume it's typically a very, very long while.
While I'd heard so many sing the praises of Rancho Gordo beans, I just could not validate the expense of having pricey beans shipped to me from across the country. But once I saw the Cayuga Organics stand at the Greenmarket, I had my chance to try some fresh beans at a far lower (albeit still higher than supermarket) price. Later in the week, I threw those beans into some tacos, and ok, just ate them out of the tupperware in the fridge. But the point is that the couple of hours it takes to make the beans the first night opens you up to their use in an infinite number of deicious ways later on.
And I can say now, with full conviction, that the freshness certainly makes a difference. The flavor and texture of these beans surpassed anything that I'd made in the past. They were wonderful, and are the new standard against which I will measure all black beans in the future. Sorry, Goya. [Still love ya, though, and I will undoubtedly return to you when tight for time].
In their simplest, most traditional form, huevos rancheros are just simply cooked eggs over tortillas with a smokey, red salsa, but those were not the huevos of my dreams. The dish is one that is open to interpretation, and can be made to suit your tastes and your whim. Add some guacamole (as I did later in the week), ditch the beans, add more cheese, fry the eggs right on the tortilla, keep them sunny side up, hell, go crazy and scramble them if you really want (not in my house, though). This dish is so easy to tailor to what you want and what you have that I find few times when I would not gladly call it my dinner. And it's healthy, too.
I prepared my beans from dried, boiling them in some water with a clove of garlic, which I'd crushed, about a quarter of an onion, a bay leaf, a few dashes of cumin and a pinch of red pepper. I added salt towards the end of the cooking process. There's a debate in the cooking world about whether salt should be added to beans as they cook. The antis say that the salt will break open the skins of the beans as they cook, and will destroy their shape and texture. Others say that the salt adds flavor, and with no discernable effect on their texture. As I love flavor, especially of the salty sort, I added salt, and my beans were none the worse for wear. I did add the salt as the beans were nearing doneness, though, to ward off any possibility that the skins would be torn to shreds.
I make a quick pico de gallo for one by cutting about a half a tomato and an equal volume of onion into small dice. I add to that a bit less than a clove of finely minced garlic and about a half a jalapeno, with a few of the seeds and the ribs added in for some extra heat. I roughly chop some cilantro and throw that in, add the juice of anywhere from a half to a whole lime, depending on how much juice each half yields, grind over it some salt and pepper, throw it in the fridge while the rest of the meal comes together to let the flavors mingle, and it's ready to go when I need it.
I feel a bit silly even posting a recipe for this, since it is open to endless variations and is so incredibly simple.
2 Corn tortillas
1/2 cup black beans, either prepared from fresh, or canned, rinsed and drained
1 ounce cheese of your choosing (I prefer cotija or a melty, sharp cheese)
Pico de gallo, as desired
Avocado or Guacamole, as desired
Cilantro, as desired
Sour cream, as desired
If not using freshly cooked beans, heat them up in a small pot.
Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the corn tortillas, and, flipping frequently, allow them to heat through. Feel free to crisp them at the edges if desired. Remove the tortillas to a plate. Pile about 1/4 cup of black beans atop each tortilla.
In the same skillet, add some butter to lightly coat the bottom of the pan and crack in the eggs. Once the whites have set a bit, flip the eggs (or leave them sunny-side up) and allow to cook for about 30 seconds on the other side. Once the eggs are cooked to your liking, slide them out of the skillet onto the piles of black beans. Top with cheese as desired, and add some salsa (I love tomatillo salsa) and add whatever accoutrements you feel like. I love pice de gallo, some sour cream, cilantro, a few slices of avocado and some chopped radishes, which I think add a fresh, bright, peppery crunch to the dish.
Dig in, and enjoy.