mexican molletes / by Annie Jefferson

Think of Molletes as the Mexican answer to the cold cut sandwich. They're a simple staple found in food stalls and coffee shops across Mexico. They're best made at home, however, thrown together in minutes using three main ingredients - bread, beans and cheese - and grilled under the broiler until the cheese is toasted and bubbly. The word 'molletes' is actually Spanish in origin and refers to a flatbread made out of an oval-shaped loaf of bread and traditionally served for breakfast with olive oil and rubbed garlic. In Mexico, it refers to the grilled bean and cheese sandwich that belongs in your Mexican food repertoire immediately.

Last summer I served last-minute molletes at a picnic using french bread - in place of traditional Mexican bolillo - because that's what we had lying around. It was truly a successful marriage of cuisines, with crispy-soft baguette being the best of sandwich breads and beans and cheese the most accommodating of ingredients. I also put them together like a sandwich, rather than open-faced as is typical, with two slices of bread and grilled on each side, like a panini. Immediately this turned them from a snack into the main course, and served alongside guacamole, pico de gallo and salad greens, they were easily one of my favorite meals of the summer.

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Traditionally molletes are made with refried pinto beans. Here we use black beans, dried, soaked, simmered with aromatics and seasoned with spices, which takes some time and planning, but is well worth the effort. I cook black beans from scratch at least once a week and love getting lots of flavor and heat into them as they soften. See the spices below and play around with the ingredients using what you like. Sometimes I'll throw in a tablespoon of soy sauce or maple syrup to add a range of flavors, and always a splash of apple cider vinegar. However you go, it's important to get some acid and fat in there at some point. For the bread, I used what I and LA Mag agree is the best baguette in Los Angeles, from the Rose Cafe in Venice. And rather than traditional chihuahua cheese we use simple cheddar for it's sharp flavor and divine melting power, but again, you can use whatever cheese you like.

This sandwich works so well because of the crisped up crunch of the bread crust and the pack of rich, savory flavor in the middle. It's served hot and melty, but this is tempered by the fresh sides - guacamole, pico de gallo, pickled onions, etc. The best part is using an unexpected medium - french bread - to deliver familiar Mexican flavors to your mouth.

MEXICAN MOLLETES
Makes 4 sandwiches

INGREDIENTS
1 loaf of french bread, or bread of your choice
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups refried beans (recipe below)
cheddar cheese, shaved or thinly sliced

METHOD
Remove the ends of the baguette with a sharp knife, and cut the remaining into four equal pieces. Cut each in half lengthwise and lay out the four pairs open face in front of you. Spread a thin layer of butter on each. Next, spread two spoonfuls of beans on each piece of bread and then layer several slices of cheese on top. Place each top piece back on top of its pair, so that you have four sandwiches. 

Heat a large cast iron over medium low heat and melt a knob of butter, swirling it around to cover all surface area. Working in two batches, place two sandwiches at a time in the pan and place a second cast iron on top of the sandwiches to press them down. Heat for about 4 minutes, checking for burning, and then flip. Cheese should be all the way melted when they come off the heat. Repeat with the other two. Alternatively you can use a panini press. The molletes will keep warm and melted in the oven.

Serve immediately with condiments, such as guacamole, pico de gallo, pickled onions and hot sauce. You can also cut each sandwich into two or three pieces to make them more bite size.
 

BLACK BEANS

INGREDIENTS
1 cup dried black beans
sea salt
1 small onion, halved
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 carrot, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 celery stick, cut into large pieces
1 bay leaf
1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons coconut oil, olive oil or butter
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 teaspoon paprika


METHOD
Pick through beans and rinse under cold water. Place beans in a large bowl and add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Soak overnight.

The next day, drain and rinse the beans in a colander until the water runs clear. Place in a large saucepan and once again add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Add a pinch of salt, onion, garlic, carrot, celery, bay leaf and lemon. Stir to combine and allow to come to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for about an hour, stirring when you think of it.

After an hour or so, remove aromatics and stir. Continue to cook without the lid until most of the water is absorbed. Once the majority of the water is absorbed, add apple cider vinegar and allow to cook off for about 5 minutes. Stir in oil or butter, then spices and taste for salt. Remove from heat and allow beans to rest with lid on for about 20 minutes before serving.