Skillet Beans for Stephen Thompson: Best Recipe Ever

1mQUTnMy favourite podcast is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, wherein four smarty-pantses sit around and talk about movies, TV, books, music, theatre, and so on. They always end the podcast with a segment called “What’s Making Us Happy This Week,” and in the most recent show, one of the smarty-pantses, Stephen Thompson, said he is being made happy by his current project: he wants to learn to cook. He therefore wants listeners to send him recipes.

And so here, for Stephen Thompson, is the simplest version of my go-to, all-purpose, never-fail, child- and adult-pleasing recipe: skillet beans. It’s kind of like a chili. It’s better, though.

The original recipe for these skillet beans can be found in the Moosewood Restaurant New Classics cookbook, which is an excellent cookbook, but not necessarily suitable for absolute beginners. I’ve adapted the recipe over the years to make it my own, and now I gussy it up with all sorts of different vegetables and spices, but this simple version is the base for all of them.


  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced fine (only onion or only garlic is also ok)
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • a tiny smidge of adobo sauce from a can of chipotles (this really makes the recipe. Adjust amount according to your and your children’s heat tolerance, but START SMALL)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 bottles of good-quality mild salsa (organic if possible. Green, red or both. Use the amount you need to get a consistency you like)
  • 2 cans of black, pinto or kidney beans (or a combination), drained
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • salt to taste


1. Heat the oil on medium heat in a large pot.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Saute the onion in the oil until translucent. Add a pinch of salt.
3. Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds.
4. Throw in the carrot and peppers, and another pinch of salt. Saute until the peppers are just losing their crispness.
5. Add the cumin and the bit of adobo and fry for just a minute, stirring, to toast the cumin.
6. Add the salsa, stir, and bring up to a simmer; then add the beans, return to a simmer, and let continue to simmer for at least 30 minutes, adding a bit of water or more salsa if it gets too thick.
7. At least five minutes before serving, add the corn and return to a simmer until the corn is warmed through. Add more salt if necessary.
8. Serve with rice if you want. Put sour cream, cheese, guacamole, cilantro or whatever else you like on top.

Note: the absolute best blend of spices for this recipe is as follows: 1 tablespoon cumin seed, 1 tsp coriander seed, 1 tsp fennel seed, and 1 tsp thyme, ground up in a mortar or a spice grinder. However, novice cooks should not be prevented from trying a recipe because they have to fiddle with whole spice seeds and grinders, so try this version first.

Image by Miguel Saavedra


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