1. Soak the beans in 2 quarts water overnight, or for at least 6 hours.
2. Combine the beans with their water, the onion, and 2 of the garlic cloves in a bean pot, a heavy-bottomed casserole, or a Dutch oven and bring to a boil. The beans should be covered by 1 inch of water; add water if necessary. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 1 hour. Add the remaining garlic, the salt, and the cilantro or epazote, cover, and simmer for another hour, until the beans are soft and their liquid is thick and soupy. Taste and adjust salt. Remove from the heat.
3. Drain off about 1 cup of the liquid from the beans, retaining it in a separate bowl to use later for moistening the beans, should they dry out. Mash half the beans coarsely in a food processor or with a bean or potato masher. Don't puree them, however. You want texture. Stir the mashed beans back into the pot.
4. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy-bottomed, non-stick frying pan and add the cumin and ground chili. Cook, stirring over medium heat, for about a minute, until the spices begin to sizzle and cook; turn the heat to medium-high and add the beans (this can be done in batches, in which case cook the spices in batches as well, using 1 tablespoon of oil for each batch). Fry the beans, stirring and mashing often, until they thicken and begin to get crusty on the bottom and aromatic. Stir up the crust each time it forms and mix into the beans. Cook for about 20 to 25 minutes, stirring often and mashing the beans with the back of your spoon or a bean masher. The beans should be thick but not dry. Add liquid you saved from the beans if they seem too dry, but save some of the liquid for moistening the beans before you reheat them, if you are serving them later. They will continue to dry out once you turn off the heat. Taste the refried beans and adjust the salt. Set aside in the pan if you are serving within a few hours. Otherwise, transfer the beans to a lightly oiled baking dish and cover with foil.
Advance preparation: Refried beans will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator, and for several months in the freezer. Keep the liquid you retained in a jar so that you can moisten the beans before reheating. The fri joles can be reheated in a nonstick pan or in a lightly oiled baking dish. Cover the dish with foil and reheat for 30 minutes in a 325-degree oven. However, if you are storing the beans in the refrigerator in a baking dish, cover first with plastic or wax paper before you cover with aluminum so that the beans don't react with the aluminum. Remember to remove the plastic before reheating.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new, and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. You have the power to keep us cooking, sharing these stories, and helping you in the kitchen.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table.
From Mexican Light: Exciting Healthy Recipes from the Border and Beyond, by Martha Rose Shulman.
Martha Rose Schulman is a chef, cookbook author, educator and food consultant. Her cookbooks have been nominated for James Beard and IACP awards, and her series, "Recipes for Health," appears online for The New York Times.