Refried Lentils & A Fiesta of a Meal!

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In college I dormed with three other girls my junior year.  We didn’t do much cooking (since there was one kitchen for the whole floor and it never seemed to be without a sink full of dirty dishes, a food-spattered stovetop, and a sticky counter…and who wants to have to clean someone else’s kitchen mess before they can make dinner?), but when we did one of our favorite things to make was fajitas with refried beans.  We didn’t make them often, not only because of the kitchen issues, but also because making fajitas was always a whole night affair. 

We’d go shopping for what we needed, bring our goodies back to the kitchen, (clean up a little…*sigh*), and then set to work on making dinner.  One of us chopped bell peppers and onions, another heated the tortilla shells and shredded cheese.  And my friend S always, always made the refried beans.  She made them from scratch, basically just mashing up a can of pinto beans and adding garlic and a meticulous blend of spices.  (Yeah, we didn’t keep food around, but we did have a pretty gourmet spice rack, lol!)  And her secret ingredient was a touch of sugar.  The beans didn’t taste sweet, she just added enough sugar so that when you taste them you have to pause a moment to savor…and then you think, wow, these are some good beans…what’s in there?! 

Fresh Tomato, Avocado, & Red Onion Salsa is a great topper for refried lentil tacos. 

My refried lentils are based on S’s incredible refried beans.  My favorite way to eat them is in soft corn tortillas topped with fresh tomato, avocado, & red onion salsa (recipe below) and a dollop of Greek yogurt.  (They’re pretty fantastic with corn chips too…or, if no one’s looking, a spoon also works just fine.)  Of course serving them with a scoop of corn cake casserole on the side makes them even better.  ;)

Corn Cake Casserole…just like Chi-Chi’s used to make!

Anyone remember Chi-Chi’s restaurant before their unfortunate incident?  I used to go crazy for the corn cake casserole that they generously adorned each entrée with.  I’ve looked high and low for a recipe for it and (finally!) found one Keeping it Simple.  This recipe looked pretty spot-on, but it called for a box of Jiffy cornbread mix, which I didn’t have on hand.  It must have been my lucky day though, because I found a recipe on CD Kitchen for Jiffy’s corn bread mix.  The recipe I share below is a combination of both recipes, with a few of my own slight adaptations.  It’s amazing, and every bit as delicious as I remember Chi-Chi’s corn cake casserole was.

Refried Lentils

Serves 4

2/3 cups dried brown lentils (or 1 (14 oz) can lentils, rinsed and drained)

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional; more or less to taste)

1 bay leaf

Optional garnishes:  Minced onion, tomato, and parsley

If you’re using dried lentils:  Sort through the lentils to remove any small stones or pieces of dirt, and then rinse with cold water in a colander.  Bring the rinsed lentils and 3 cups of water (or low-sodium broth) up to a boil (don’t add salt because it can toughen the lentils).  Cover the pot, turn heat down to a simmer, and cook for 20 to 30 minutes (adding more water as necessary) until the lentils are tender but not mushy; strain. (Skip this step if you’re using canned lentils.)

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat; add the onion and sauté until softened but not browned, about 5 to 7 minutes.  Add the garlic, sugar, salt, cumin, black pepper, chili powder, oregano, cayenne pepper, and bay leaf and cook 1 minute.  Add the lentils and 2 cups of water, turn heat up to high, and bring it up to a boil.  Cover, turn heat down to simmer, and cook 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the lid, coarsely mash the beans with a potato masher (or if you prefer a very smooth consistency, you can puree them in a blender or food processor), and cook (uncovered) until thickened, about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Corn Cake Casserole (Adapted from a combination of Keeping it Simple’s recipe for Corn Casserole and CD Kitchen’s recipe for Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix Clone)

Serves 4 to 6

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup cornmeal

4 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 (15 oz) can cream-style corn

1/4 cup frozen or canned corn (thawed if frozen and drained if canned)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (plus a little more to grease the pan)

1 tablespoon canola oil

Preheat oven to 350F; lightly grease a loaf pan with butter. 

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Add the cream-style corn, corn, butter, and oil and stir just until combined.

Pour batter into baking pan and bake 1 hour.

Fresh Tomato, Avocado, & Red Onion Salsa

Serves 4

1 pint (2 cups) cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered or halved depending on their size (or 2 medium-large tomatoes, chopped)

1 small-medium red onion, minced

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley (or cilantro)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1 avocado, diced and gently tossed with 3 tablespoons lemon juice

Stir together all ingredients and serve immediately.

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  1. says

    Not only do I always wanted fajitas, but I LOVE the idea of refried lentils! These would be great with fish–like a fish lentil taco! I’m so glad to see this salsa recipe–it looks amazing!

  2. says

    Ha ha ,i can imagine that hostel scene , i wouldn go there either !
    Oh that touch of sugar i know what ur talking about , we do add that for a lot of goan Portuguese dishes and it takes things to a delicious level.
    First time am hearing about Chi chi’s but that sure sounds delicious!
    And the refried beans recipe is fantastic too!
    Pics , beautiful always!

  3. says

    I can’t blame you for staying away from that nasty college kitchen! Never thought to refry lentils though, and I absolutely love the idea!

  4. says

    We used to always have fancy nacho night- nachos baked in the oven with all of the amazing toppings. It was so delicious and fun! This whole meal looks good- I love homemade refried beans but have never added sugar!

  5. says

    It’s always so nice to revisit some old memories! These sound amazing! A touch of sugar? I’m still guilty of buying canned refried beans. I’m going to have to give this a try!

  6. says

    The refried lentils sound awesome, Faith! To be honest, I’ve never really know what to do with refried beans period so this post was super helpful… :)

  7. says

    Oh, Faith, the things you do to me! I love all three of these recipes–Mexican has always been a favorite cuisine and these all sound delicious. I am so adding sugar to my next batch of refried beans!

  8. says

    I know what you mean about finding restaurant dishes recipes… it is really a challenge sometimes. I looked for years for frangomint pie and found it, something like 20 pages in on google! It was supposedly the real deal but I felt the topping was just a little off. One day I’ll figure it out… of course I haven’t had the real thing for 20 years!
    I never went to chi chis so don’t know this casserole but it does look good and perfect for a side for those lovely tortillas!

  9. says

    First of all, I’ve never been to ChiChi’s but that corn cake casserole reminds me of something they had at one of my favorite (now closed) restaurants in Beverly Hills, El Torito… and oooooh was it fabulous! I also love your idea of making refried lentils instead of beans. I often will do refried black beans and those are a serious favorite! Looks so good!

  10. says

    This meal looks amazing from beginning to end. I love that you substituted lentils for beans (which I don’t really care that much for). And I love that you made corn cake casserole – something I have never had! It looks fantastic.

    PS – My roommates were disgusting in the kitchen so I never cooked either. I still have nightmares about the sticky countertops!

  11. says

    I’m so unfamiliar with Mexican foods… I just never cook it, and don’t really know where to begin. This looks truly delicious though! Definitely a good place to start with this fun cuisine. :)

  12. says

    This is simply delish ! I love refried beans and using them in tacos is the best way..gorgeous photos and a wonderful recipe..a grand fiesta..enjoy !

  13. says

    A few years ago I discovered I like mujaddara best with pico de gallo; this lentil dish sounds perfect and I will try these spices next time. Love the idea of the corn chips. Love corn chips!

  14. says

    I m swooning over your prop collection ..where do you find such cool stuff?Love the plates, bowls..everything!
    Coming to food, my husband is the biggest fan ever of mexican stuff- so I wil make this for him…he loves lentils even all thumbs up!

  15. says


    What a tasty collection. Love that you change the names to protect the innocent.

    Refried lentils look like a winner.

    Be well

  16. says

    Faith, this is quite an incredible meal.

    I didn’t know about the unfortunate incident at Chi-Chi’s. So sad. I used to love them in the eighties when I was in college. They had this particularly delightful fried cinnamon ice cream dessert which was divine! Of course, after college I moved to Texas for a while, where the Tex-Mex is so good that I could never look back at that chain. Hence I didn’t know about the mishap.

    Refried lentils is a great idea. I want to try this myeslf sometime soon.

    • admin says

      Stevie, I actually just found out about this incident a couple of weeks ago when Chi-Chi’s corn cakes popped into my mind and I googled the restaurant! While they might not have had the best Tex-Mex in the world, I always loved their corn cakes! ;)

  17. says

    you and your roomies sound exactly like my crew at college! we never had anything except refried beans from the can, though (and the delicious slop at our local mexican restaurant). i like your twist–using lentils is brilliant!

  18. says

    We used to have a Chi-Chi’s a very short drive away from our home and had many fun dinners there with our girls. Too bad about the ‘incident’. Hard to recover from that!

    I enjoying reading about your college days and roomie who made the beans. I’m saving these recipes!

  19. says

    I was looking for a way to zip up my refried pinto beans and found your recipe. I will make it with lentils which I also love, but just had a taste of my pinto bean riff of your recipe – outstanding!!

    I subbed bacon fat for the canola, scratch pinto beans (olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic added to their cooking water) and my secret ingredient is cinnamon. I often use cinnamon with just a bit of sugar in a spicy dish. It calms and yet enhances the flavors … for me!

    Look forward to trying the corn cake casserole also!

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