California Beans with Cognac

James Beard

Author and Educator

For a truly American food, nothing compares with the pinto bean, a pale pink bean speckled with brown. It was the Spanish conquistadores who named it “pinto,” meaning “spotted” in Spanish, and it was a staple of the native people they discovered here. Pinto beans form the basis for frijoles, the ubiquitous Mexican-style baked or refried beans served with Tex-Mex food. Try varying this stew by using the large variety of heirloom beans that can be found on online sources such as


  • 2 cups (1 pound) pinto beans
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, stuck with 2 cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups tomato sauce or canned Italian plum tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/3 cup Cognac or brandy
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley


Soak pinto beans overnight, or at least 8 hours, in enough water to cover them by two inches. Drain.

Put the beans in a saucepan with garlic, the onion stuck with cloves, bay leaf, thyme, and boiling water to cover. Cover and simmer gently until tender, about one hour. Taste for doneness. The beans should be soft, but not mushy. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the bean liquid.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Melt butter in an enameled cast iron casserole, add the small onion and sauté until golden, but not brown. Add the tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, Cognac, salt, parsley and the cup of reserved bean liquid. Bring this mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the beans, stir gently, and bake until just bubbly.


6 servings