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Homemade Santa Maria-Style BBQ Beans

Renee-Lucie BenoitI've been living in California since 1977. All this time I have really enjoyed the cuisine. For example, there's the groundbreaking way of cooking started by Alice Waters that has influenced many people. It's known as "California Cuisine." However, California had its own cuisine long before Alice. This is the cuisine rooted in Spanish traditions.

The Spanish Californios were ranchers and they took good food seriously. When I was learning to make rag rugs from my neighbor Anna she introduced me to poquito beans (also known as pinquito) and Santa Maria-style barbecue. I made them and immediately became addicted. Poquito or pinquito (either way is right) beans are a long-standing tradition on the Central Coast of California. These little (for that's what poquito means: "little") beans have been used in Santa Maria-style barbecue for generations. Anna is from a family that ranched in Santa Barbara county. She should know.

Start with dry beans.

This small, chili-type bean is loaded with California history. They are a cross between a pink bean and a small white bean, and grow well in the fertile soil and mild climate of the Santa Maria Valley, which is the only place where they are grown commercially. Some think the Santa Maria "Pinks" were brought in with the migrant citrus workers in the 1950s (they also introduced us to the tri-tip cut of meat), but now there's some thought that it was a crop during the Californio Mission era. Whatever its origins, it's delicious and meaty and the perfect match for any barbecue, chili or even salad. They hold their shape and don't get mushy.

A typical Santa Maria-style BBQ will include poquito beans, macaroni and cheese, a fresh green salad, toasted sweet french bread, salsa, coffee and a simple desert like fresh strawberries. The meat will be a thick cut of beef seasoned only with salt, pepper and a hint of garlic, cooked over coals made of red oak also known as coast live oak. To be authentic the cut of meat should be 3 inches thick and weigh 3 to 4 pounds, but in modern days a smaller cut, frequently tri-tip, is more popular.

The traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue menu was even copyrighted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1978.

The Santa Maria grill is made of iron and usually has a hand crank that lifts or lowers the grill over the coals to the desired distance from the heat. The Santa Maria Valley is often rather windy, so the style of cooking is over hot burning coals as opposed to the cooler radiant heat that covered grills use.

President Ronald Reagan was an avid fan of Santa Maria-style barbecue. Several barbecues were held on the South Lawn of the White House for him.

For authenticity you can order poquitos online.

Santa Maria-Style Barbecue Beans
Yields 10 to 16 servings.

(My recipe follows the recipe that's on the back of the Bonipak poquito beans package.)

2 pounds poquitos beans
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound bacon, diced
1/2 pound ground beef
1 envelope chili mix or 1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 to 4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1  1/2 cups tomato juice or tomato sauce

Cover beans generously with water.

Let the beans soak.

Bring to a boil and add salt and pepper. Turn heat to simmer and cook two hours or until tender.

In a separate pan (cast iron works great!), sauté in this order:

onion and garlic;

Cooking the onions.

bacon;

Add the bacon to the onions.

then hamburger.

Add hamburger.

Brown both meats. Don't burn the onions and garlic.

Brown the meats and onion.

Drain off as much fat as you can and then add chili mix, pepper, salt, oregano and tomato juice. Cook until thoroughly warmed through.

Add the desired spices.

Add the mixture to beans and simmer 1 hour.

Add the meat mixture to the beans.

These beans are a meal all by themselves. I love them with warm buttered French bread.