On Sunday, I bought pinto beans from Buck, at Alvarez Farms’ Ballard Farmers’ Market stand, thinking I could make real refried beans:
On Monday, Jim came home to find me sprawled out in the sunbeam on the floor of our office, snow angel style, except very still. I stared up at him and asked him not to make me move. The combination of riding our bikes to the market and a three-mile walk had been too much the day before, and even with a two-hour nap, I couldn’t kick the fatigue. I’d thawed out a pound of ground beef, hoping I could work up enough excitement to make tacos with homemade shells for Cinco de Mayo, with the refried beans.
Jim decided it wasn’t a good idea for me to use a knife. “Plus, you’re probably very dirty,” he said. “Have you seen that floor up close?”
I suggested going out, since I hadn’t done anything with the beans yet anyway, and he, Mr. I Love Mexican, refused. (He always refuses to do the expected.)
Then, my husband offered to make me spaghetti and meatballs. (He’s the best that way. I’d be so sick of being my pick-me-up, in his position, but he always finds the right thing to say.) Lying on the floor, feeling the warmth of the pine planks soothe my back, it sounded like the best idea in the world. He told me to stay put.
“That would be wonderful,” I said, and decided to do my very best not to coach. He checked his email and showered, and my sun hid behind the back fence.
One thing, I thought. I’ll just get out all the stuff he could put in the meatballs. That nearly-dead head of parsley. That half an onion. The right pan. I got up.
“What’s this?” he asked, pointing to the pan.
“For searing meatballs.”
“I can’t do them in the oven?”
“You can. But if you do them on the stove, you can just dump the sauce in on top, and let them simmer, and it’s fewer dishes.” Ah ha. Trump card. I had revealed that there was premade sauce somewhere in the house.
I piled a few things onto the counter, then I really did sit down to read.
He sounded like an unpracticed ping-pong player in the kitchen, rattling around without the habitual patterns that come to someone who cooks frequently in the same space. Three drawers would open before he’d find what he was looking for. When he began snapping the tongs open and shut over and over, I could tell he was standing over the meatballs, waiting for them to cook, instead of flitting off to start a different task, like I might have done. I wished I could watch him.
I don’t know how long it took. It was long enough for me to finish a magazine, which I rarely do. Long enough for a neighbor to knock on the door and announce, “Wow! It smells like chicken livers!” (I don’t think Jim liked that part. It smelled nothing like chicken livers.)
It was long enough for me to recognize the way a dinner’s smells rustle themselves up and out of a kitchen, and make the one who’s being cooked for feel darn near queenlike.
When it was done, he called me in.
There, simmering in the high-sided skillet, was a gorgeous sauce. It looked like a Bolognese, only the meat had more body.
“Is this meatball sauce?” I asked carefully.
“Yeah,” he said. “Your meatball theory doesn’t work. They started to burn, so I had to scramble them into a sauce.”
I decided not to argue about my “theory.”
“So we’re having bucatini with scrambled meatball sauce?”
“Yes,” he said. He piled pasta into our bowls a little awkwardly, and smothered it with his creation. He showered everything with Parmesan cheese.
Meatballs are always better than the sum of their parts, and this sauce – flecked with egg, breadcrumbs, cheese, herbs, and the oatmeal his mother always uses in her meatballs – was better still, because there was no cutting involved. Each bite of pasta had just the right amount of meat. I swooned, and he sat, eating quietly, and I could tell he was proud of himself (and maybe a little surprised). I couldn’t have wished for anything more on May 5th.
“Babe,” I said, mouth full. “This is amazing.”
“Maybe I should cook with you more,” he said tentatively, and I agreed. He promised he’d make the sauce again, so I could write down the recipe.
After dinner, I told Jim about how I’d heard Tom Waits playing at a coffee shop that morning. I’d decided it was a Tom Waits sort of day, all grumbly and growly, when it could have been so nice. “That’s the whole premise of that one album,” he said. “The song that goes ‘Some days, you just have to get behind the mule and plow.’ Even on the bad days, you just have to keep on going.”
He’s right. You have to rest, but you also have to plow.
I put the pinto beans in a bowl of water to soak, and decided we’d have Cinco de Mayo a day late.
It’s been a rough week or two, lupus-wise. New symptoms. New meds. Spoon counting, again. Maybe this is what the rune reader meant by “patience.” Tuesday morning, I woke up exhausted again, and tried to remind myself, every now and then during the day, that it’s okay not to feel good. Even when it gets all annoying and grumbly, illness does not equal failure.
Somewhere during the day, I found my way to the grocery store, and stocked up on poblanos and fresh chili powder. I sautéed onions and spring garlic from the market in my favorite pot, then softened the peppers, and stirred in the soaked beans and spices. I covered the pot, put it in the oven without setting a timer, and took a long nap.
Two hours later, I did feel better. We scooped piles of mild, simple, slow-cooked pinto-poblano chili up with quesadilla triangles, and relaxed together.
I feel much better today. Go figure.
Baked Pinto Poblano Chili (PDF)
Once cooked, dried pinto beans plump up with a soft, almost meaty texture no can could match. Making chili with dried beans may sound like more work, but it’s not, especially when you just tuck it into the oven to cook for a couple hours, completely undisturbed.
If you don’t have time to soak the beans overnight, place them in a pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, then let sit for an hour before draining, rinsing, and continuing as directed.
Also, you can substitute 3 cloves chopped garlic for the spring garlic, if you don’t have access to the leek-like garlic shoots that farmers’ market often sell in the spring.
TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: 6 to 8 servings
1 pound dried pinto beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 bunch spring garlic (about 6 stalks, 1” in diameter at thickest point), chopped (white and green parts)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 poblano peppers, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano)
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 (15-ounce) can corn (or 1 1/2 cups fresh kernels, if available)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Cotija or crumbled goat cheese, for garnish
Place the beans in a large bowl and add water to cover by 2 inches. Let soak overnight, then rinse and drain.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat a large, heavy pot with a lid (such as a Dutch oven) on the stove over medium heat. Add the oil, then the onions and spring garlic. Season with salt and pepper, and cook and stir for 10 minutes, until soft. Add the poblanos, spices, and oregano, and cook and stir another minute or two. Add the beans, broth, tomato sauce, vinegar, and brown sugar, season again, and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Cover the pot, and bake in the oven for 2 hours, undisturbed.
Stir in the corn and cilantro, and season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if necessary. Serve hot, sprinkled with cheese.