Simple bean and cheese (and rice) burritos don't get the attention they deserve. Overshadowed by their overstuffed meat or veggie filled compatriots, they're often neglected and under-appreciated, seen as lacking the ingredients that give all other burritos their character. Which is a shame because simple burritos are just as enjoyable as those brimming with carnitas or asada. In fact, that there are times when their simplicity is preferable. In the same way that a grilled cheese sandwich is seen as its own enjoyable sandwich sub-genre rather than, let's say, a half-empty cheesesteak, a bean, cheese, and rice burrito isn't missing anything. It's perfect.
Or, at least, it can be perfect.
But as simple as they are, a great bean burrito can be hard to find. That's because, like tacos, the key to a good burrito is a great tortilla. Straight from the pan, fresh flour tortillas are soft with a perfect amount of chew, steam escaping from the pockets that rose up while cooking, a subtle richness from just the right amount of lard. But sadly, unless you live in a few particular Southwestern cities, it's nearly impossible to find a fresh, well-made flour tortilla. Instead, most American's experience with tortillas are the dense, rubbery store-bought variety, or those quickly steamed at the burrito buffet style places reaching near ubiquity in this country. But in both cases, the tortilla is a bland, forgettable vehicle for the filling, often resulting in a entirely bland, forgettable burrito.
A good tortilla is as delicious as the best fresh loaf of bread, capable of elevating simple ingredients to sublime results. And the good news is, they're actually quite easy to make. From start to finish, including a 30 minute rest, you can go from ingredients to tortillas in under 45 minutes. If you've never made a great flour tortilla at home, I implore you to do so asap. It's one of the better things.
As for the burrito itself, a lot of the components of this recipe have featured previously on this blog. We'll revisit refried beans, cook red rice with leftover enchilada sauce, and make an easy chipotle cheese sauce with the help of our good friend, sodium citrate. And of course, I'll guide you through the process of making what could very well be the best flour tortilla you've ever had.
The beans take the longest to cook, so you'll want to start with them. I covered making refried beans from scratch in the post on panuchos, so go there to read a more thorough explanation, but the gist of it is:
- Dissolve a tablespoon of salt in quart of water, add a cup of dried pinto beans, and soak overnight.
- Drain, place in a 3 quart saucepan, and cover with an inch of water. Add a quartered onion, a generous pinch of salt, two peeled cloves of garlic, and and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer until tender, roughly an hour and a half (or, like what I did, cook for 5 minutes at 15psi in a pressure cooker).
- Mince an onion and saute in a tablespoon of rendered pork lard for a few minutes. Add a minced clove of garlic, a teaspoon of cumin (if you want), then add the cooked beans a half cup at a time and smash with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon, thinning the mixture with the bean broth. Season with salt.
I threw the whole mixture in my blender this time because I either genuinely wanted a smoother texture for very strategic culinary reasons OR because I was lazy and didn't feel like smashing beans by hand. It was one of those reasons.
As for the rice, you could always take some inspiration from Chipotle here and make white rice with lime and cilantro mixed in, but if you go this route do be careful, because Chipotle, like all invasive species, if left unchecked for even a moment, will soon take over your whole meal and before you know it you'll be sitting in the saddest corner of the mall eating a $10, oddly cold burrito filled with undercooked green peppers and salsa you insist used to actually be spicy. My advice: Don't let that happen to you. Nip it in the bud and make red rice instead.
Either way, I generally don't make this style of red rice. Why? Two reasons.
- The traditional stuff often calls for tomatoes. That's great when tomatoes are in season, but the other 9 months of the year it means opening a can just to use half of it. Granted, it's easy to get rid of leftover tomatoes, but for some reason this annoys me still. Also, adding the tomatoes always throws off the rice to water ratio, and seeing as how I'm hopelessly terrible at cooking rice, I don't need anything further complicating the process.
- Traditional red rice tastes delicious, but it's a relatively delicate flavor. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, it's perfect when the rice plays a supporting role, but in some applications, like in a burrito without meat, it's nice to have rice with a more assertive flavor.
So how do I solve both of these problems? I make what I call, enchilada rice. Now, I fully suspect that this is something that has already existed in Mexico since the Columbian Exchange, it's a pretty obvious use for extraneous enchilada sauce, but as I am still not aware of the traditional preparation and name, I'll just stick with calling it enchilada rice and happily be Wallace to Mexico's Darwin.
Enchilada rice is easy. Simply stir in a few tablespoons of leftover enchilada sauce to the water or stock you're cooking the rice in. Then cook that rice in it.
The beauty here is that you get a rice that tastes like chiles and thus has flavor enough to play a more dominant role in the dish. Plus, it doesn't add all the extra water that tomatoes do, so you don't have to recalibrate your ratios. Lastly, because dried chiles are cheap and always in season, there's no reason they shouldn't be a pantry staple, and cooking with pantry staples means you're saving a trip to the store. Which is good for the environment...and by environment I of course mean, that part of you that doesn't want to leave the house right now because you just discovered the documentary "Bronies" on Netflix and can't be bothered to pick your jaw up off the floor to go buy ingredients.
But let's say you don't have leftover enchilada sauce like how I did in the above picture. Not a problem. Since we're mixing this into rice we don't need the texture and complexity of an actual enchilada sauce, all we need is its flavor. So what give enchilada sauce its flavor? Chiles mostly, then often garlic, onion, cloves, and cumin. Or allspice. Or Mexican oregano. Like I said in the enchilada post, there are myriad combinations of spices that result in delicious sauce. For quick enchilada rice, simply toast one deseeded larger chile like a guajillo, New Mexican, or ancho, and an arbol or two if you want some heat. Add that to a blender and puree on high with the measured liquid you'll be using to cook the rice. You don't even have to strain it. Use this mixture to cook your rice. You can prepare this in the more basic pureed chili version, or feel free to doctor it up with toasted garlic, a few tablespoons of onion (or grilled onions), and whatever spices you like in your enchilada sauce.
Honestly, it's really easy. Don't over-think it. Which, admittedly, is more advice for me than you, but on the chance that you too are afflicted with over-thinking things, now's a good time to make an old fashioned and relax, because it'll be ok.
A note on cooking rice. Like I mentioned before, I'm terrible at making the stuff, always have been, but despite this fact, I've never owned a rice cooker. I felt like it was cheating. Or maybe I thought that I'd get rice cooking down eventually, and so I suffered through ruined rice based meal after ruined rice based meal. It was dumb. But recently I was reading through the Pok Pok cookbook (which is fantastic) and I came across this advice in the section on rice:
"Don't be a hero. You might assume that I'm going to urge you to cook jasmine rice in a pot on the stove. Rice cookers sound like the easy way, and in cooking, easier tends to mean inferior, right? I'm happy, then, to report that my preferred cooking vessel for jasmine rice is an electric rice cooker. Just about every Thai person has one. Get yourself a good rice cooker...There's no need to buy one with more than one button."
I breathed a sigh of relief, followed Andy Ricker's advice, and bought a cheap rice cooker. It works great, is super easy, and my food tastes better now. All good things. I suggest you do the same. Unless you're great at cooking rice. Then I suggest you stop bragging all the time.
The above is so delicious in spite of, nay, in defiance of how easy it is to make, that you probably deserve another drink.
As for the cheese component of this dish, you can just add grated up whatever you got. Or you can be a badass and make an easy, incredibly delicious, perfectly melted, chipotle cheese sauce. It's up to you. But if you're smart and going with the latter option, you'll need sodium citrate (as seen in the burger and mac and cheese posts). Seriously, just buy some already.
The recipe couldn't be any easier. Grate roughly equal parts cheddar and Monterey Jack until you have about 4 oz, dissolve a half teaspoon of citrate in a half cup of water then heat that mixture over medium heat until steaming. Slowly stir in the cheese. Soon you'll have a perfect cheese sauce. Too thin? Add cheese. Too thick? Add water. Hell, skip the water and start with beer or wine if you want. Mince up some chipotle peppers and stir those in. Reserve the sauce for later. It reheats like a champ.
Don't you want this in your life? Do yourself a favor people. It's easy.
And now the main event: Flour Tortillas.
This is my food processor. It's like 6 years old and all but broken except for the fact that it still technically works. Aside from the fact that stabilizing feet on the bottom checked out years ago—meaning that when on, I have to firmly hold it to the counter so it doesn't quickly dance onto the floor—it's the best piece of equipment I have for making flour tortillas. If you have a food processor, hopefully in a state of less disrepair, now is the time to get it out. If not, you can still make flour tortillas. You'll just have less dishes to do when you're done. And who wants that??
Here is a detailed list of all the ingredients you'll need to make four incredibly delicious flour tortillas at home:
- 250g all-purpose flour
- 50g lard
- 140g water
- pinch salt
I know I'm asking a lot here. Salt and water?? But bear with me. It'll be worth it.
Also, you should already have purchased lard at a good Mexican market needed to make carnitas of the past or the refried beans for this very post. And don't be all weird about lard. It's fat. From a pig. It tastes good, lasts for months in the fridge, and if you are worried about cholesterol and saturated fat, it has less of both than butter. Buy some. You're welcome.
BUT, if you're a vegan type person that already got the tattoos and the screen name bookended with x's and is thus apprehensive about throwing that all away for what is unarguably a more delicious dinner, you can use shortening or vegan butter in lard's stead. There, I compromised.
Also, in the spirit of compromise: 250g of flour is roughly two cups except that measuring flour by volume is almost always wrong. 50 grams of lard is about three tablespoons. 140g of water is just shy of 2/3 of a cup.
The basic technique is as follows:
Pulse your measured flour and salt in a food processor to combine. Then add the lard and pulse that a few times until it's good and mixed in. Now, with the machine running, slowly pour in the water. Shortly after all the water is added the dough should begin to ball up and get thrown around the inside of the machine. This is good because it's kneading it like all hell. Kneading is good because it adds strength to the tortilla, something that my homemade tortillas lacked for years. Most recipes don't call for enough kneading and the resultant tortilla tears too easily, leaving you with a still delicious, but totally disappointing mess on your plate. I've done a lot of thinking about tortillas (see above comment re: over-thinking) and here's where I've concluded people go wrong: they want a soft tortilla but don't factor in fat and heat and the role they play in inhibiting gluten formation.
When you add water to flour, two proteins in said flour get to working linking up and creating a thing called gluten. The more gluten, the stronger and chewier the dough it. Pizza has a lot of gluten, cake almost none. But when you add fat, it gets in the way of those proteins linking up, meaning that, in order to obtain similar levels of strength, doughs with fat require more kneading than lean doughs. That's why if you want to make an egg noodle with good chew you have to knead the dough for a solid ten minutes. Tortilla dough has a decent amount of fat in it and thus needs more coaxing than you may think in order for the final product to be something that can securely hold in all your burrito's contents. I assume all that kneading makes most people writing recipes for flour tortillas nervous, because they don't want a tough tortilla. But I have yet to make a too tough tortilla. In fact, if you're going to err, do so on the side of chew, because, remember, you're hopefully eating this hot. Heat relaxes gluten connections and reduces chew. Think about how much work it takes to tear through the crust of a hot piece of pizza versus one that's been sitting at room temperature for an hour. The temperature you eat your tortilla at actually plays a bigger role in whether or not it's too tough, than how much it was needed.
Point is, lean on the fat to keep things in check and really let that ball of dough go to town in your food processor for about 15 to 20 seconds or until a small piece pulled for the ball resists and stretches but tears before it's thin enough to do a windowpane test. You want it strong, but not as strong as pasta or pizza dough. Look at the ball of dough above. It's stretched and taught, not tearing. But see all those lines, especially that vertical ridge just to the right of its center? That's weakness in the gluten. Completely unacceptable for pasta, the perfect middle-ground for tortillas.
If you're making all this by hand, just mix up and knead for a few minutes until you get a similar result. It'll take longer, but work just as well.
Speaking of the way fat interferes with gluten, here's a test batch of dough I made with way too much lard in it. It was kneaded for the exact same amount of time as the first ball but just couldn't come together.
Divide your dough into 4 even pieces, ball them up, cover, and let rest for 30 minutes. The resting allows the gluten to relax a bit which will keep it from springing back elastically when you roll it out.
To roll out, flatten one ball into a disc, and on a floured work surface (much more so than that picture, which is where the lighting was good for photography, not where I rolled these out), using a rolling pin, roll in the direction of one o' clock. Just off to the right. Now, spin what was one o'clock over to eleven o'clock and roll towards one again. Keep doing this, patiently, making sure there's adequate flour on the counter and on your rolling pin. Always rolling to one and then moving that counter-clockwise to eleven will eventually ensure that your tortilla is perfectly round.
Stop when you get them about this thin.
Meanwhile, heat a 12 inch skillet over medium heat for a few minutes. (Don't use non-stick. Non-stick pans are fantastic and I use them all the time, but it's unsafe to heat them dry at the temperature and for the time needed to cook tortillas.) Cook the tortillas on the dry skillet for about 45 seconds per side. Basically until they have brown splotches on them and look cooked.
They should puff up here and there, which is nice but not have as necessary as it is for corn tortillas. The above tortilla went pretty crazy. I've never had one pillow up like that. It didn't taste any better than the others, but got extra points for looking cool.
Look at those beauties.
Assembly doesn't take a genius to figure out. Make sure all the stuff you made is hot, add it to the tortilla, fold it up, and enjoy. A tip worth remembering is to not overstuff this burrito. The tortilla is really the star of the show, so unlike the burrito you eat alone and sad in the mall, you actually want a decent filling to tortilla ratio here. If you're still after the "Oh god I can't believe I just at all of that" feeling so commonly associated with burritos, eat two. Or three.
If you have any questions about burritos or need me to clarify something I wrote above, post it in a comment below or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.