Arlene writes: It’s cold outside and I’m thinking about baked beans. I have a great clay pot I made years ago. I want a terrific vegetarian version. I remember reading something about using root beer.
Tony writes: I have something to say first: I’m from Boston and only out-of-towners call Boston “Beantown.” So don’t, because we don’t like it. Sorry… that’s been on my mind for a while now. Moving right along, I do hail from the home of baked beans and though I only make them a couple times a year, that’s enough to have some very strong thoughts on the subject (beyond my whole “Beantown” hang-up). Hopefully these ideas will help you throw together a wonderful batch of Boston-style baked beans (the sweet/tangy variety).
Smoke or ‘shrooms to make up for no meat: Though it”s certainly possible to make great baked beans that are strictly vegetarian, the addition of some sort of cured pork product (think bacon or ham hocks or proscuitto) has always been one of my little flavoring tricks. Without the meat, you’ll need to create some other form of richness to stand in and enhance the beans. Start with a dash of something smoky like chipotle chiles (either dried or canned) or Spanish pimenton de la Vera (ground). Or you can do so without heat with smoked sun-dried tomatoes or even a couple drops of liquid smoke (now available in most supermarkets). Another way to compensate for the lack of meat is mushrooms. Any mix of your basic white mushrooms, shiitake or oyster mushrooms will offer a hit of umami (savoriness) without getting in the way of the beans. I would chop up a handful (we’re talking about 4 oz., in a food processor – chopped fine, like a duxelle) and then saute them with the aromatics (onions or garlic) so they melt into the broth. You won’t notice their appearance much in the finished dish, but they will impart depth without upsetting the sweet and sour harmony of the beans (which is next up).
A mix of of sweet/salty/sour/smoky notes is important to the overall balance of this dish and to the beans themselves. Beans are like little capsules of protein which, on their own, are relatively plain. Their skin, which helps protect them during cooking, also inhibits surrounding flavors from advancing too far past the surface. So like talking to an elderly in-law, you want to be loud, in this case with the accompanying flavors in the dish. Traditionally molasses was the thing which added the sweetness to the beans. I like the idea of root beer, but I would suggest Coke instead. I did a lot testing with root beer in sauces for my last cookbook and had to play around with it quite a bit to get it to work ok in a glaze. Though I found root beer worked fine on grilled pork, in a dish as simple as this, its iconic punch might prove a little too strong. Instead, I would suggest going with a splash of Coke, which I’ve tried before and goes perfectly.
Do soak the beans ahead: As with many steps in the cookery of beans (like whether to salt beans during or at the end of cooking), this simple step is oft debated. I find it helps the beans cook more gently and uniformly (avoiding splitting and wrinkled skins). Soak the beans in ample cold water (about 3 parts water for 1 part beans) overnight and then give them a rinse before continuing on with the rest of the recipe.
Cook the beans 1 day ahead if you can (which would mean soaking them 2 days ahead): This might be a luxury of time you don’t have, but like any soup or stew, the flavors (and texture) of beans only improve after sitting for a day. They soak up more of the broth and thicken, making for a richer dish. Cool them well before refrigerating after the first cook and then gently simmer the next day to heat through; you may need to add a splash of water if they’re too thick.
The basic method: Soak 3 cups or so of navy beans in a couple quarts of water overnight. Drain and rinse them well. Heat the oven to 325F. In a large oven-proof Dutch oven, saute 1 large Spanish onion (finely diced) and 2 minced garlic cloves with a couple Tbs. olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt (about 1 1/2 tsp) and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the onion starts to soften and become translucent, about 6 minutes. Stir in 1 cup finely chopped shiitake mushrooms (use the food processor to turn them into duxelle-like paste) and 1/2 tsp. chipotle powder or pimenton de la Vera. Cook stirring until the mushroom soften, about 2 minutes. Add the soaked beans and 3 cups water and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat (now would be the time to transfer this mixture to that clay pot if you have) and stir in a splash of Coke (1/2 cup or else 3 Tbs. molasses), some brown sugar (about 1/4 cup), ketchup (1/4 cup), dry mustard (1 Tbs.), and cider vinegar (1 Tbs.). Cover and set in the oven to cook covered, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until they’re completely tender, about 2 hours. Season generously with salt and pepper to taste and serve; or, if you have the time, cool them to room temperature, refrigerate, and then simmer again on the stovetop (adding a splash of water and vinegar to taste) as needed.