Monday, May 28, 2012

I Can Bake Beans?

One morning, in May of 1965, my grandmother sat at her kitchen table of their newly purchased home in Hamilton Square, enjoying her morning cup of coffee and cigarette (I know, but it was the 60s).  Suddenly, she heard a awful racket coming from the end of their street; drums and yelling and was that a bagpipe?  She ran to the front of the house and threw open on of window curtains facing the road.  She yelled to my grandfather, who was still in bed, to come quick, because something was happening in the street.  That something ended up being a parade, a parade that my grandmother and her children and friends and all their children would attend for the subsequent 47 years after that fateful morning - the annual Memorial Day Parade.
I look forward to Memorial Day every year - not for the barbecues or pool parties, but for this parade.  Now yes, it might be what some would consider a little "lame", but to me, it's tradition.  We wake up early that morning, usually pack up whatever small dish or dessert we whipped up the night before, and pick up donuts and coffee before heading over to my grandmother's.  Then, loiter on the back porch chatting - sipping on said coffee and nibbling on said donuts - until you hear the drums at the end of the street.  Then it's a mad dash to the street, where you grab a prime spot on the curb, and watch: catching lollipops and Tootsie rolls thrown at you by Girl Scouts and Bikers for Jesus; running out to play in the street during breaks in the parade just because its the only day when your parents let you play in the street; listening to your parents and uncles yell silly things at the marchers and when you're older, yelling some of your own; waving at the Firemen and pleading with them to blow the horn, even though when you were little that was your least favorite part of the parade.  And after the six high school marching bands and baton twirlers (half of which are now riding on the back of a van due to heat stroke from wearing canvas suits and velvet dance pants in ninety degree weather), the countless Little League teams, the transgender police squad, the bagpipers, the horses, and the Village People float, you make your way inside to cool down in front of the window air conditioner with a frosty glass of lemonade.

Lunch is always a late affair, put out slowly and leisurely - most of the time because everyone is too hot to move any faster.  We aren't a big barbecuing family.  Hey, not that I don't love a good cookout, but our Memorial Day was never a barbecuing day for our family - this being due mainly to my grandmother's strong Italian-ness.  The Parade Day fair is traditionally a giant pot of spaghetti and meatballs. This year, however, my grandmother decided that she wanted to cook up a ham, which meant that my family would be bringing veggie burgers.  However, I wanted to make something from scratch that I could do the night before and not have to worry over that day.  My grandmother asked for a dessert, so I decided to do a Red White & Blue Trifle - layers of angel food cake, fresh whipped cream, strawberries and blueberries.  I made the cake Sunday night, assembled the trifle at my grandmother's before the parade, and then refrigerated it until we ate.  It was super easy, looked wonderful, and was the perfect light, cool dessert that a hot day like today needed.

But my culinary needs were not met by the trifle - its been a couple weeks now since I've slaved over a hot stove, mincing, sauteing, and I have not gone to bed with my hands smelling of onion and garlic. It's terribly sad.  So, my mom suggested I do baked beans.  Now, I know this is probably incredibly naive of me, but I had never thought of making baked beans from scratch - the canned beans are good and easy, and the task seemed...daunting.  For some reason I had it in my head that making a barbecue sauce was a difficult task.  I know, I know, tons of people make their own, but I never really thought that I could.  However, my mother explained to me how ridiculous my notion was and I set about looking up baked bean recipes.  After a bit of research, I formed a basic game-plan in my head.  The recipes I found were all very similar, and basically all the recipes called for bacon or some other ham product.  I didn't want to have bacon in the beans themselves, but I didn't want to loose the smokiness and depth of flavor that it gives the beans - so what I did was cook down the bacon before hand and then use some of the fat as the oil to saute the onions.  Yeah, I know, I'm a horrible vegetarian (or vegan, or pescatarian, or however you feel comfortable labeling my diet), but if you want to cut out the bacon, just use a little butter or oil, and you could even add a bit of anchovie paste for the smokiness.  Or, if you want to go carnivore, mince the bacon before cooking and then just add the onions to the bacon, and throw the whole mix into the beans.  I used three types of beans - kidney, cannellini, and black - for a variety in taste and in texture.  I also added a bit of Guinness to the mix, since I needed a little liquid, didn't want to use water and was out of veggie stock.  It ended up holding up to the curry and cayenne while adding depth and maintaining the sweetness.  Most of the recipes call for the beans to be baked low heat for anywhere between four and eight hours.  I started the roasting Sunday night, refrigerated them overnight, and then continued baking at grandma's - all together about four hours.  You could probably roast them longer if you wanted, but four seemed to do the trick.  One change that I would have made would be to have some extra Guinness on hand to add to the beans while they were baking to keep them moist and prevent them from drying out - mine got a little thick and caramelized, which was delicious, but if you like your beans a little looser, I suggest adding liquid throughout the baking process.

Of course, the baked beans ended up being so much easier than I expected.  And let me tell you, for my first try, I thought they were kind of amazingly delicious.  The best part was when my uncle - a cook, but he doesn't think so - took his first bite and said, "Okay, so what's in here?  Curry?" and then began to orally deduce every single ingredient except, strangely enough, the bacon.
Baked Beans
6 strips thick-cut bacon
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 dried bay leaves
1 small can tomato paste
¾ cup maple syrup
½ cup brown sugar
1 medium piece fresh ginger, grated
1 clove elephant garlic, grated (about 3 normal cloves)
1 tbs Vindaloo curry
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup Guiness + a splash
1 can kidney beans
1 can cannelloni beans
1 can black beans
+ Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
+ Heat a medium sauce pan to medium-high heat.  Once the pan is hot, add the bacon.  Cook until the bacon is brown and the fat is released.  Remove bacon from pan.
+ Reduce heat to medium.  Add the onion and bay leaves to the pan.  Cook until the onions are brown and caramelized, stirring very little.
+ While the onions cook down, whisk together the tomato paste, syrup, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, curry, and pepper.  
+ Once the onions are caramelized, remove from pan and set aside.  Remove the bay leaves and discard.
+ With the heat still on medium, deglaze the pan with a splash of Guinness.  Pour the sauce to the pan.  Add Guinness and stir well.  Simmer until thick, about 5-10 minutes.
+ While the sauce cooks down, place the beans into a deep baking dish.  Stir in the onions.  Once the sauce is ready, pour over the beans, mixing gently so all beans are evenly covered.
+ Bake in oven for about 4 hours, adding more Guinness if needed.

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