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Frijoles charros, or cowboys' beans, is a very simple dish made from beans and spices. Originally, the beans would be cooked for a very long time, until they were tender and had absorbed the flavors of the spices and vegetables added to the water in which they were cooked. One of the key ingredients in frijoles charros is meat, which is used more as a flavoring element than as a substantial ingredient. There are adaptations of frijoles charros that use many premade ingredients and make other substitutions, but the same basic recipe is almost always followed.
The origins of frijoles charros are found in the Mexican cowboys who would work long days herding cattle. The dish would often be started early in the day and left to cook for many hours in a Dutch oven or earthenware pot. The early recipes call for the use of many preserved ingredients so they could be carried and stored for extended periods without going bad. Like the dried beans, the preserved ingredients benefited from the extended cooking times.
The main ingredient in frijoles charros is the beans. Most recipes call for pinto beans, although black beans or any type of sturdy bean can be used. For a dish that has many hours to cook, using dried beans can help to add depth, because they will have a long time to absorb all of the supporting flavors. Canned beans or pre-cooked beans can be used, although they only need to be cooked for a short period of time so they do not become too soft and potentially mushy.
An important flavoring element in frijoles charros is some type of meat. Some common choices are bacon, salt pork, chorizo and ham hocks. The meat used is usually cured, smoked or somehow preserved. This can help to add flavor to the liquid in which it is being stewed over time.
Other ingredients include onion, garlic, tomatoes and chili peppers. Cilantro also is added, although it can be omitted for those people who do not like its flavor. All the ingredients are added into a pot and then cooked for several hours, unless canned beans are used, in which case the dish only needs to cook until all the ingredients are cooked through.
Variations on the dish include adding tomato sauce, using several different types of meat in the same pot, and using spices such as cumin and chili powder. The frijoles charros also can be made in a slow cooker or baked in a Dutch oven. When the cooking is completed, the beans should be soft but not mushy and there should be some liquid remaining in the pot. Common side dishes are rice and cornbread, especially if the cornbread is made in a cast iron skillet.
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