Wednesday, October 8, 2003

New methods of preparing beans, tortillas pay off

Eat Your Vegetables

By Angela Stephens
Gannett News Service

I love making discoveries. Especially when they are not hard and turn out wonderfully. Recently my discovery was beans and tortillas.

Of course, neither is new to me. What was new to me were the methods.

In the case of the beans, it was sort of a matter of justifying the purchase of a big, new six-quart Crock-Pot. The ancient one finally gave way sometime last winter. While we didn't use it a lot, the minute it was gone, I wished we still had it.

It seemed as though everyone was putting Crock-Pots on sale. I had to have one. Coincidentally, I had been unhappy with the way my not-really-refried pinto beans had been coming out. Despite soaking overnight and hours of stovetop cooking, they still seemed al dente rather than soft and creamy. I wondered if the Crock-Pot would work better.

It did - beautifully.

Here is what I did - and it couldn't have been easier. I placed about 1 pound of dry pinto beans in the pot, covered them with water about an inch above the beans and soaked them overnight. The next morning, I drained and rinsed them and refilled the pot with about the same amount of water. I turned the pot on high and let them simmer for about 3 hours.

Somewhere in that time, I smashed 2 or 3 cloves of garlic and tossed them in, too. After 3 hours, they softened up nicely. I added about 11/2 teaspoons of salt and turned the pot down to low. With only occasional stirring - and tasting for saltiness - I let them cook for about another 6 hours.

By then, they were soft and creamy. But I wasn't ready to serve them, so I put them on the pot's "serve" function to hold them until dinner.

Just before serving, we added some shredded Monterey Jack cheese and slightly smashed the beans with a potato masher to make them thick and more like genuine refried beans. They were wonderful.

With great optimism about my Crock-Pot beans, I decided to take another chance with that night's dinner. I wanted to try making my own flour tortillas. Karen Howarth's cookbook, Gourmet Tortillas" (Clear Life; $14.95) held the secret.

I discovered, this too, wasn't all that difficult and it was successful on my first attempt. The family was quite impressed.

Traditional Flour Tortillas

21/2 cups white flour

1 teaspoon salt

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons shortening

3/4 cup water

Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add water to flour mixture all at once and mix well.

Gather dough into a ball with your hands and knead briefly. If there is still flour in the bowl after gathering the ball, set ball aside and add water 1 teaspoon at a time to the flour until it forms a soft ball. Knead the 2 balls together briefly to combine.

Divide dough into 8 equal pieces and form each into a smooth ball.

Flatten slightly with your hands. Set dough on clean kitchen towel and cover with another clean towel. Let dough rest for 15 minutes.

Preheat a dry, heavy skillet on medium heat. Allow pan to preheat for about 5 minutes.

On a lightly floured wooden cutting board, gently roll out dough, working from the center outward until you have a roughly 8-inch circle. (Hint: these will be very thin. That's OK, they will puff up slightly during cooking; remember, there's baking powder in them.)

Cook tortilla for 45 to 60 seconds on one side, until bottom is very lightly browned and slightly bubbly on top. While first tortilla is cooking, begin rolling out the second. When it is halfway rolled out, it will be time to flip the tortilla in the pan. The first tortilla should be done cooking by the time you finish rolling out the second one. Set cooked tortilla on a wire rack to cool, and put the second in the pan. Repeat with remaining dough balls. As you cook them, stack them on top of each other on the wire rack.

Unless serving them immediately, allow tortillas to cool for another 5 minutes after making the last one. Then package in a sealable, microwaveable plastic bag while still warm. They can be stored at room temperature (and microwaved right in the bag for a minute or two before serving to warm) or in the refrigerator or freezer. Makes 8 8-inch flour tortillas.

From Gourmet Tortillas (Clear Life; $14.95) by Karen Howarth

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