When Jillian and I first moved to Mexico to renovate our small house on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico, we were confronted with an unforeseen problem. The small fishing village that was to become our newly adopted home did not offer internet access. This wasn’t much of a problem for most of our fellow expats, mostly retirees that could survive in a pre-Facebook era by visiting a local Internet cafe once a week. But for us, working entirely from home and on Internet-based phone connections for clients in the States, reliable daily access to a broadband connection was absolutely vital.
Trips to the local phone company proved fruitless. “Dos meses mas” until DSL service would be rolled out along the beach, which our local friends told us had been the company line for at least five years, and continues to this day nearly five years later. Our solutions for where to find Internet service were varied and ever-increasing in their level of creativity. We started working in Internet cafes in the next town, small glass-enclosed air-conditioned spaces filled with Mexican teenagers making Skype calls, playing video games, and downloading cell phone ringtones. That environment proved too distracting, so for a few months, we would drive about 25 miles to another town further East on the beach, where we would occasionally rent an inexpensive hotel room for the afternoon, and do our work from there. Finally and most frantically, in a move that only seems crazy until you’ve lived in Mexico for a few years, we rented an entire office space sandwiched between a convenience store and a motorcycle dealership, solely because it was wired for the Internet.
We didn’t realize before we signed our lease that our new office was located on a major trucking route connecting Progreso’s massive six kilometer long shipping port with the Yucatan interior. We used to wonder what in the world the locals must have thought we were up to, two gringos hunched over computer desks in a tiny cement room, open to the air except for a giant pull-down rolling steel door which we would open wide every morning. We never solicited local business, hung no signs advertising exactly what services we provided, and spent a year bathing in truck exhaust in the 98 degree heat pecking away at our laptops.
Diagonally across the street from our office was one of Progreso’s many “cocina economicas,” small mom-and-pop restaurants (though that may be stretching the term a bit) that sold wildly inexpensive, home-cooked meals that came packaged in dozens of tiny styrofoam and plastic containers. The menu would change every single day, offering an inexpensive lunchtime option that only contained unrecognizable gnarly bits of gristle about half the time we ate there. This kind of Mexican cooking came to define what I think of as Yucatecan cooking: Simple, lightly-seasoned stews and burgoos that only become “finished” when combined with bright sauces, tart lime juice, and of course, a fairly substantial dose of habanero pepper.
This recipe for frijol con puerco typifies cocina economica cooking perfectly. When I was first cooking the beans and pork together, I was surprised (and I’ll admit it, kind of disappointed) by how bland and basic the combination was, since after all, everything just cooks in water. I added a big pinch of salt and forged ahead, and you should, too. Because it’s only after you add the roasted tomato and habanero sauce at the end, along with a few slices of radish and torn bits of cilantro, that the dish comes together into a complete whole, with the rich beans and fork-tender black-stained chunks of pork perfectly balancing the intensely fruity, spicy sauce that goes on top.
If you time it right, and you want to go to the corner of Calle 82 and Calle 31 in Progreso, you can probably still get fixed up with a bowl of frijole con puerco for about two bucks (and please do drop in and say hello to our 150-year-old former landlord, Don Pepe). Maybe even buy a Chinese motorcycle from the next storefront over, while you’re at it. Or, you can make a bowl for yourself at home. Here’s how to do it.
Frijol con Puerco (Pork and Black Bean Stew)
Serves 6-8; Adapted from a recipe in Saveur
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 pound boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2″ cubes
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 ball of garlic, finely chopped
- 2 medium white onions, thinly sliced
- 1 pound dried black beans, soaked overnight
- 4 sprigs cilantro
- 1 lb. plum tomatoes, cored
- 2 habanero chiles, stemmed
- 2 baby radishes, very thinly sliced, for garnish
- Cilantro leaves, to garnish
- Cooked white rice, for serving
- Lime wedges, for serving
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat two tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add pork, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, turning as needed, until pork is browned on all sides, about 5-6 minutes per batch. Transfer pork to a plate, and set aside.
Add about two-thirds of the garlic, and about one-quarter of the onions to the pan drippings. Cook, stirring until translucent, about five minutes. Return pork to pot, along with pre-soaked beans, cilantro, and eight cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low-medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until beans and pork are tender, about an hour and a half.
While the pork and beans cook, heat a dry skillet over medium heat. Add tomatoes and habaneros and cook, turning as needed, until skin blisters and blackens all over, about ten minutes. Transfer to a blender or food processor, along with remaining garlic and onions. Whiz until sauce is perfectly smooth. Return sauce to skillet and cook, stirring often, until sauce darkens in color and reduces slightly, about eight minutes. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.
To serve, transfer beans and pork to a large, deep serving platter and drizzle with tomato sauce. Top with radishes and cilantro leaves, and serve with rice and lime wedges.