Tepary Beans de la Olla with Sweetfern is my take on one of the most classic recipe for beans I know of. Frijoles de la Olla basically means “beans of the pot”, and is a famous, simple Mexican staple. Traditionally, as I understand it, the pot is important, and should be either a clay or earthenware vessel, with the beans slowly cooked for hours on end until tender.
Sometimes herbs like epazote are added to the classic prep, but, when my friend Sam Shaperow sent me a recipe for refried beans scented with the leaves of Myrica pensylvanica, I had to try his version. After I cooked a batch, I noticed how aromatic and delicious the broth was. After mashing everything up to make refries though, the subtle scent of the myrica leaves disappeared, so I assumed that the mashing must have diluted or negated the flavor somehow, so the next time, instead of refried beans, I just made frijoles de la olla, and it turned out so well I served the dish (using sweetfern instead of Myrica pensylvanica as the flavor is stronger) to 200 people at the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival.
The recipe is super easy, the only tricky thing might be getting ahold of some sweetfern leaves, which love to grow in rocky, acidic, sandy soil. Serve them with a dollop of sour cream or Mexican crema like a soup, or as a side to your favorite Mexican meal.
You can use your favorite beans here, but I really like the heirloom tepary beans from Ramona Farms. Ramonas is an indigenous-owned company specializing in indigenous crops like tepary beans and specialty corn products. They’re reasonably priced, and your money goes to a great cause. Check them out.
Tepary Beans de la Olla with Sweetfern
- 1 cup dried tepary beans or your favorite bean (I used Ramonas black tepary beans)
- 1 medium onion diced ¼ inch
- 1 large clove garlic finely chopped
- 4 cups water
- 2 oz chunk of smoked meat cut into small cubes or left whole (optional, you can also use a smoked ham bone, etc)
- A small handful (5-6 3-4 inch leaves) of dried or fresh sweetfern leaves wrapped in cheesecloth for easy removal
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Combine all ingredients into a pot, put in the oven at 250F and cook for 4-5 hours, or until the beans are tender and taste good to you. After an hour, remove the sweetfern and discard. Other, more common beans will cook quicker than tepary beans, which are notorious for taking a long time to cook.
- Alternately, you can simmer the beans on the stovetop. Whatever method you choose, make sure to check on them from time to time to make sure the beans are covered with a layer of water so they don't dry out, which can cause them to split.
- When the beans are tender, season the mixture to taste with salt, and serve as a simple side dish or a rustic soup with a dollop of sour cream, cheese, chopped scallions, cilantro, etc.