Francisco Alejandri is old enough to change the subject when asked his age but when he describes the punishment he endured on the journey to opening Toronto’s Agave y Aguacate, he’s as vulnerable as a child. Whether cooking at resorts in Mexico or in elite Toronto kitchens, Alejandri always garnered praise from above – and resentful jabs from below.
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“Once,” says Alejandri, “the other guys made a big show of giving me a pair of new running shoes so I would run the hell away from them.” The incident brought him to tears. Alejandri pressed on, and the Mexican food stall he later opened in Toronto’s Kensington Market became so popular it graduated to a restaurant in Baldwin village. After slogging at work, Alejandri knows the importance of blowing off steam. When friends come over, he turns down the lights, chooses some happy music and puts together a simple and elegant meal. This pinto-bean soup, as pared-down as the one his mother used to make, is a typical centrepiece to which he might add a salad, ceviche and, of course, several bottles of vino.
¾ cup dry pinto beans
7 cups water
1 lb Roma tomatoes, broiled until skin is blistered and lightly browned
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 tbsp coarsely chopped white onion
2 ancho chilies, stemmed, seeded and soaked in hot water for 15 minutes
4 tbsp lard, divided
2½ cups light chicken stock
Salt to taste 1 cup vegetable oil
1 small tortilla, cut into thin strips and left out to dry overnight
Dried Mexican oregano for garnishing
½ ounce queso panela, diced into ½-inch squares
1 tbsp crema (La Vaquita brand, if possible)
Spread beans on a flat surface and look for debris, then wash thoroughly in cold water, rubbing them against each other vigorously with your hands. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add beans and reduce heat to a simmer, cooking gently for about an hour or until the beans are soft (timing will depend on how old the beans are). Using an immersion or stand blender, carefully purée the beans together with their cooking liquid to a smooth consistency.
Using a food processor or small electric mixer, blend the blistered tomatoes, garlic, onion and one ancho chili together to form a smooth paste. Melt 3 tablespoons of lard in a saucepan deep enough to hold the soup and cook tomato mixture over high heat for 7 to 8 minutes or until the sauce is somewhat dry. Add bean purée and cook over medium heat for about 8 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add chicken stock and let the soup cook for another 5 minutes over low heat.
To prepare garnishes, cut remaining ancho chilli into strips and fry in a small saucepan over medium heat with remaining lard. Heat the vegetable oil in a deep saucepan to approx 375 F and fry tortilla pieces in batches until crisp. Ladle soup into 8 bowls and top each with a pinch of oregano, a few cubes of queso panela, tortilla strips, a few chilli strips and a drizzle of crema.