In the Native American world, especially south of the Rio Grande, beans had been a staple for millennia before Cortez came a-knockin’ at Montezuma’s golden door.
Pinto beans are now commonly a sidekick in Mexican combo platters all over the Midwest, and I like ’em just fine. Black beans, however, go back to around seven thousand years ago, so it’s not surprising that they’ve been used in many Mexican dishes, particularly in the southern states of Mexico. The flavors of pinto and navy beans are very similar, but I simply prefer the look of black beans: they glisten, richly.
Sergio Sanchez of Sergio’s Place (6966 W. North Avenue, Chicago) introduced me to molletes, a black bean preparation that I’d never had before. Molletes are simply a bolillo, a small Mexican roll, cut in half, with some of the breading scooped out and replaced with black beans topped with cheese.
Sanchez told us, “My mother had a pot of beans on the stove 24 /7. Every day I could hear the whistle from the express cooker. The aromas of the black beans and epazote herb was are all over her house.”
Epazote is an herb traditionally added to beans, and it lends slight flavor but perhaps more importantly, it’s believed to inhibit the flatulence that, alas, is closely associated with the consumption of “the musical fruit.” Based on several recent trials, we have not been able to independently verify this claim.
Molletes are sometimes said to have originated at Sanborns (no apostrophe, which doesn’t exist in Spanish), a huge department store chain that started in Mexico City. Molletes, however, were known in Spain, and the European version traditionally used small pieces of white bread spread with olive oil and sometimes lard. It’s a beautiful use for day-old bread.
Using beans is a distinctly Mexican variation on the European mollete, but like so many traditional dishes, it’s wide open to regional interpretation.
At Sergio’s Place, Sanchez explains that “I put a spin on molletes using a toasted sourdough bread, sliced, with a spread of refried black beans, melted chihuahua cheese and pico de gallo sauce. Delicious!”
Although the name may not give it away, Fair Share Finer Foods (6226 W. Roosevelt Road) has a good selection of Mexican food, and that’s where I bought my black beans, bolillo, chihuahua cheese and pico de gallo.
Molletes are a type of open-face sandwich, and I served some at a family dinner and everyone who tried one seemed to like it a lot. The beans add a richness that’s balanced by the bland bread, which is crisp, in contrast to the creamy beans; the cheese adds slight tang.
Sanchez said, “Pico de gallo is a must,” and that was a very helpful admonition. The tomato-onion-chili-cilantro-salt-lime combo adds a light note to the serious carb-i-ness of the bun with beans, not to mention a splash of color in the otherwise brown-black-white sandwich.
What I also appreciate about molletes is that they represent the fusion of indigenous and European cultures. The beans and, perhaps, the pico de gallo are products of the native peoples of the Americans, but the bolillo and cheese are European in origin. When you bite into a mollete, you’re tasting one of the first “fusion” foods on this side of the Atlantic.
National Bean Day is January 6. We celebrate with molletes.