My love affair with baked beans began as a child, well before I understood–or cared–about the connection between food and health. I just liked them because they tasted good. Simultaneously sweet and savory, a necessary accompaniment to grilled burgers and chips, the tastes of summertime.
As a kid lucky enough to be given free rein in the kitchen from age eight or so, I used to make them from a can of Campbell’s pork & beans, which I poured into a square Pyrex baking dish before carefully picking out every trace of the white salt pork and adding ketchup, mustard, and brown sugar. This concoction, a classic “recipe” comprised of various processed foods, was baked at 350 for about an hour, until it was bubbling, brown, edges starting to caramelize. It was so delicious that sometimes I made it even without burgers, using it as dip for chips.
Later, as an adult, I discovered Bush’s baked beans. Full of sugar and all kinds of savory spices, they, too, are delicious. And I will definitely eat them in a pinch. But I’d rather not. I’d rather make my own. So, yesterday, I did.
I’ve actually made baked beans from scratch before, a little over ten years ago. The rehearsal dinner for my wedding was a big bbq at my oldest sister’s house. One of her friends smoked a pork butt, and my sister made a bunch of other awesome food. She drew the line at baked beans, though. Which was reasonable. We could have bought canned beans, of course. But I was trying to save money. Plus I wanted it to be special. And vegetarian. I was on my own.
Back then, the first time I made baked beans from scratch, I came up with something good after weeks spent scouring the internet and making several test batches. My former husband was a great test subject, enthusiastic and appreciative, but unafraid to say when something wasn’t right. In the end, what I made was spicy and rich and perfectly cooked. But I kept no record. Which is just as well, maybe. After all, that was another lifetime. I’m moving forward as this new and improved version of myself, alone. There’s plenty of good from my past that I’m taking with me into this new life. But the baked beans that I made for my wedding party? Like the paint choices in my condo, which I seriously loved, there are some things that should be left behind.
So. Starting over. Yesterday morning, I sat down over coffee and thought about what I wanted to achieve. I realized that my goal was simple: a vegan slow cooker version of baked beans without any refined sugar products. After looking at several recipes, I settled on three from these cookbooks: How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman; Southern Sides, Fred Thompson; and Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman.
All of the original recipes I looked at contain at least one refined sugar product (molasses, brown sugar, ketchup), two out of three call for chicken broth, and Fred Thompson’s drool-inducing recipe includes bacon. But I was undaunted, in part because of Mark Bittman’s directness about the absence of bacon being a problem, which he resolves by using kombu. As he says right at the start of his recipe, “[i]t’s tough to find a vegetarian version of baked beans with bacon, with that creamy texture and delicate balance of sweet and smoky flavors. Enter kelp, also known as kombu…. Kelp contains a natural acid that tenderizes the beans as the seaweed itself melts away, leaving behind a luxurious sauce with complex flavor.”
Armed with this promise from the trusted Mr. Bittman, as well as various other tips and ideas from the two other recipes, I got started. And I was happy, chopping onions to Jeff Buckley and singing along with the New Pornographers while I sauteed the onions and watched the tomato paste begin to caramelize. By the time I finished and left to go about my day, I was totally excited, anticipating the aroma that would fill my apartment when I got home, eager to test what could only be the best beans ever.
But no. I’m sorry to say that even today, after the flavors have had a chance to develop, the end result is almost pallid, lacking in character and borderline mushy from the baking soda. On the upside, I’m pretty sure the baking soda cut the cooking time considerably. I used older grocery store beans that were not presoaked, yet the dish took less than six hours, start to finish. And these beans are not a complete failure. They taste fine and are quite healthy. I think they would be terrific for kids. But they are not special. Not what I’m looking for. Work remains to be done. More research. Testing. For now, here’s what I did in round one.
2-1/2 c. navy beans
1 5″ piece of kombu
1 dried red chili
1/4 c. grapeseed oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. tomato paste
1/2 c. maple syrup
1/4 c. brewed coffee
2 t. dried mustard
3 springs thyme
pinch of baking soda
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1. Pick over the beans and discard any that are seriously discolored or broken. Rinse, drain, and place in the insert of your slow cooker. Crumble the chili into the beans, add the kombu, and cover with 1-1/2 or 2 inches of filtered water. Cover and turn the heat to high.
2. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and saute for 5-7 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the garlic, stirring, for another minute. Then add the tomato paste and cook for another 5-7 minutes, until deeply aromatic and shiny. Add about 1/4 cup of water, stirring to get any stuck parts off the bottom of the pan, and add to the beans together with the remaining ingredients except salt. Turn the heat to low and cook for 4-6 hours. Add the vinegar and salt to taste (I used about 1-1/2 teaspoons). Turn off the heat and let the beans cool for a bit so the salt can sink in. Serve with chips.