To the uninitiated, "refried beans" doesn't sound especially appetising. I can assure you though, this unglamorous staple from the Mexican kitchen can be deeply savoury and delicious if prepared with love and care. Refried beans can be served alongside almost any savoury meal you like, but they're particularly good with a steak, especially when combined with a fresh summery salad, as I've done here. Classic refried beans are usually cooked to a pulp and then mashed, but I like to retain some of the form of the beans, and fry them til they're nice and crisp.
You can use dried beans and soak them overnight before cooking them, and you'll get a slightly better flavour this way as you can simmer them in stock and ensure the liquid is appropriately seasoned with salt. You can, however, achieve perfectly acceptable results with canned beans. The important bit is the frying; you want to get decent caramelisation on the beans to untap their rich savouriness. Get your pan really hot, and it's important to dry the beans a bit by laying them on a tea towel or a piece of kitchen paper before cooking; it'll be much easier to get colour on them. Use any kind of beans you like; cannellini, butter, black, haricot etc.
- 200 g cooked beans (canned or otherwise)
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped or sliced
- 2 baby cucumbers, cut into rounds
- 6 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- ½ red onion, finely chopped
- 1 handful basil leaves
- 1 red chilli
- 1 slice lemon, chopped
- ½ baby gem lettuce, chopped
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- extra virgin olive oil, for frying and dressing
- white wine vinegar
Drain the beans and dry them on a tea towel or kitchen paper. Place a large, heavy-based pan over a high heat and wait about 2 minutes for it to get hot. Pour in 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. When the oil is hot (in about 20 seconds), place the beans in the pan in a more-or-less single layer. If you've cooked the beans yourself and they're already seasoned with salt, you may not need to add any more. Taste them and judge this for yourself. If you're using canned beans, add a generous two-finger-and-thumb pinch of salt. Fry the beans until golden and caramelised, then remove from the pan and set aside.
It's probable that your beans have stuck to the bottom of the pan somewhat. This is fine; leave the sticky residue, it's full of flavour. Place the pan back on the cooker and turn the heat to low-medium. Add the onion and garlic, and a two-finger-and-thumb pinch of salt. Continue to cook gently for around 5 - 10 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping the sticky residue from the bottom of the pan. When the onions are soft and sweet, add the beans back into the pan and stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed. Place the beans in the middle of the plate while you prepare the salad.
Place the cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, basil leaves, chillies, lemon and lettuce in a bowl and mix. Dress the salad with a few glugs of olive oil, a splash of white wine vinegar and some salt and pepper. Place on top of the refried beans, and eat!