Funny how once you open up the dialogue about baked beans you find out how many people love them. I was delighted recently to learn that one of Ian Parmentier’s so-called ‘guilty secrets’ was baked beans in ham sauce – which is my favourite variety as well. There you go – even famous people are prepared to admit to this particular penchant.
Despite the name, when most of us eat baked beans what we are eating are stewed beans in a tomato sauce. The type of bean used is the haricot, sometimes known as navy bean (the name came about because it was a staple food of the US Navy in the early 20th century). Small white beans with a mild smooth flavour, they are one of 13,000 species of the family of legumes, plants producing edible pods.
Traditionally, the beans were baked in a ceramic or cast-iron bean pot; in New England, US, sweetened with maple syrup, combined with salt pork and left in a brick oven for an entire day. Many cuisines have their own renditions of beans served in a tomatoey or similarly flavoured sauce – French cassoulet, Greek fassolia, Italian fagioli all’uccelletti, Portuguese feijoada, Spanish fabada, just to mention a few. Earthy peasant food all of it – and that’s another endearing element of baked beans as a dish, its inability at sophistication no matter how much you may ritz it up. One small tin heated and toppled on to toast will cost you no more than a couple of dollars and ten minutes of your time and will reward you by supplying you with a filling, hearty meal devoid of fat and rich in protein and fibre.
Ritzing up baked beans is, all the same, not only fun but also a way of making this pauper’s meal more interesting. A colleague of mine crumbles fetta into hers and adds paprika or fresh parsley, sometimes garlic. I often soften chopped onion and capsicum cubes in a little oil before tumbling in the beans and scattering in dried chilli and rosemary leaves. Draped over toasted Turkish bread or a grainy wholemeal, baked beans move thus in a definitely gourmet direction! Another friend from the UK reminisces fondly about potato jacket stands on the streets where you can select your filling: her particular favourite was baked beans, cheese and creamy coleslaw – which would surely qualify as a complete meal, most of the food groups covered!
I do recall that my mother would sometimes send me off to school with baked bean sandwiches and that I never enjoyed them, the cold saucey beans turning the bread soggy, the difficulty in eating with dignity. One thing I have never understood is the desire to order baked beans – usually for breakfast – in cafés. And yet people do! Those grotesque Big Breakfasts backpackers go in for include, I observe with distaste, a small mountain of baked beans fighting for room amongst the bacon and eggs and fried potato rosti and mushrooms and sausages and tomatoes. Oh, and toast.
You can open a tin or you can make your own baked beans, and if you want to do it properly you must start the day before and soak your dried beans. After that it’s really just a matter of simmering some lovely ingredients together.
HOMEMADE BAKED BEANS
Soak 300 gr. dried haricot or cannellini beans overnight in cold water. The next day, drain them and place them in a large saucepan with a smoked ham hock (skin and fat removed). Cover with water, bring to the boil then simmer 30 mins. Remove ham hock and drain the beans, reserving 1/2 cup cooking liquid. In the same pan heat some olive oil and soften 1 finely chopped onion and i chopped garlic clove. Add 800 gr. peeled, chopped, tinned tomatoes, the reserved liquid, a slosh of Worcestershire sauce and another of pure maple syrup and 2 tsp Dijon mustard. Shred meat from ham hock and add to pan then simmer everything together for about 30 mins, or until thick and beans are tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve to four people for a Sunday supper in deep bowls with warm crusty bread on the side.