Fun Colorado fact: Pinto beans have a royal heritage around Cortez, Dove Creek and Dolores.
Ancestral Puebloans grew beans in that area, and ‘modern’ farmers have grown dryland beans in the sandy, loamy, bean-friendly soil there since the 1880s. Since then, Pinto beans have remained a kitchen staple.
The humble beans were so beloved in the 1950s and ‘60s they ascended to nobility. An annual pinto bean recipe contest culminated in the crowning of a Pinto Bean Queen – the local cook who garnered a coveted “Grand Award” for legume creativity.
The elaborate coronation ceremony would enrobe the Bean Queen in a red velvet cape and bestow upon her a silver trophy, a bouquet and a stylish wardrobe. She was feted at a dinner and had an official portrait made in her queen finery. ‘Her Majesty,’ as they called her, also got top billing in “From the Queen’s Kitchen; A Collection of Pinto Bean Recipes.”
Ann Wilson Brown of Cortez never got to heft the scepter; she was away at college during the height of the bean royalty era. But pinto beans have been a lifelong favorite of hers.
“I could eat beans every day,” Ann said. “Down here, a lot of dinners have beans as one of the sides. I like to fill a Crockpot or an Instant Pot with beans and have beans to eat with corn pudding or cornbread, and I usually have coleslaw to go with them.”
Growing up, she often lunched on pinto bean sandwiches made by her mother and grown by her father. As an adult, she cooked big pots of ham hocks and beans for Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Ken Salazar and Michael Bennet when she worked for them as their regional director.
She won’t bother with beans that aren’t grown in her corner of the state; she swears Four Corners pinto beans are bigger, meatier and more flavorful than any others because of the soil, altitude, and the dedication of generations of bean farmers in that area.
The old spiral-bound bean cookbook was compiled in the 1960s after a flood of requests for the winning bean recipes prompted the Cortez Chamber of Commerce to give the people what they wanted. It is still available through various online sources, at the chamber, and at the Adobe Milling Company in Dove Creek.
“The book does make it look like you can put beans into everything,” Ann said.
Ann’s copy of the Bean Queen cookbook still gets a workout today. Her favorite Bean Queen recipe is Pinto Bean Fiesta Cake — a moist apple spice cake that hides beans well. She also regularly makes the 1957 grand-prize-winner, a concoction called Pinto Bean Special. It is a sort of basic chili, but — this is the special part — it is ladled on pancakes. (Ann substitutes cornbread for the pancakes.)
There are some recipes in the Bean Queen cookbook she hasn’t tried and doesn’t plan to: Shocking Pink Bean Dip, Bean Pizza, Pinto Cream Pie and Pinto Bean Lasagna, to name a few.
She gets a kick out of leafing through those, but when she wants a royal bean oddity she goes right to the back of the book where the pinto bean dessert recipes beckon. She has tried and enjoyed Quick Pinto Bean Fudge and Mashed Pinto Bean Mints.
With the right spices and flavorings, she points out, no one will ever guess these foods are full of beans.
Pinto Bean Special
3 cups pinto beans, cooked
2 cups cooked tomatoes
3 Tbs sugar
½ tsp chili powder
¼ Chili Brick (This is a frozen beef chili product. If not available, substitute a scant ¼ cup of chile powder and a small can of tomato sauce)
1 lb ground beef
½ green pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 Tbl fat
2 tsps salt
Pepper to taste
In a large sauce pan, mix the beans, tomatoes, chili powder, sugar and chili brick (or substitute) and simmer very slowly. In a skillet, put the 3 Tbls fat. When fat is hot, brown the ground beef in the fat slightly. Add the onion and green pepper. Stir often. Add salt and pepper. Drain off any accumulated fat. Mix the meat sauce into the bean mixture and simmer for 35 to 40 mins, stirring occasionally. Be careful not to let it scorch.
Just before ready to serve, mix this batter:
1 ¼ cup pancake mix
¾ cup cornmeal
I egg, beaten
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups milk
1 Tbsp fat
Bake large pancakes on a hot griddle or make as waffles in a waffle iron. To serve, place pancakes or waffles on individual plates and top generously with bean and meat mixture. If there is not enough time to make the pancakes or waffles, serve over large buns, split and lightly toasted (or over cornbread as Ann does).
-Mrs. Hugh Rausher
Pinto Fiesta Cake
2 cups cooked pinto beans, mashed
2 cups diced raw apples
1 cup sugar
¼ cup butter
1 egg, beaten
1 cup flour
1 tsp soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp allspice
2 tsps vanilla
1 cup raisins
½ cup chopped nuts
Cream butter and sugar. Mix in beaten egg. Add mashed beans. Sift dry ingredients together and add to wet ingredients. Add apples, raisins, chopped nuts and vanilla. Pour into a well-greased 10-inch tube pan and bake in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes. Glaze and decorate with maraschino cherries and walnut halves.
-Mrs. Warren A. Schafer
Quick Pinto Bean Fudge
4 squares of unsweetened chocolate
1 ¼ sticks of butter
1 ½ cups cooked pinto beans, mashed
2 ½ lbs powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Melt chocolate and butter. Add beans and mix well. Add vanilla. Gradually add powdered sugar and mix well. Pour into a buttered pan and chill.
-Mrs. Virgil Bane
Mashed Pinto Bean Mints
3/4 cup mashed pinto beans
2 Tbls flour
Maraschino cherry pieces or nuts for garnish
Combine mashed beans and flour. Tint desired shade with food coloring. Add peppermint flavoring to taste. Work in as much confectioners’ sugar as possible to make stiff. Spoon mixture onto waxed paper using a teaspoon or less for each mint. Press with a fork to flatten. Chill. Dip edges of mints in melted chocolate or decorate with pieces of cherries or nuts.
-Miss Winona Bane
Ann Wilson Brown’s Pinto Bean Sandwich
Two slices freshly baked bread
½ cup cooked and mashed pinto beans
Salt and pepper to taste
Spread bread with mayonnaise and beans. Optional add-ons include mustard, BBQ sauce, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, chopped onion and sliced cheese.
For our series “The Kitchen Shelf,” CPR News wants to know about other local Colorado cookbooks and we want your help. Whether your cookbook is collecting dust on a shelf or is a butter-stained countertop workhorse, take a picture of the cover and tweet @cprwarner or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to share more of these family recipes and the stories behind them.