baked beans made fancy, sort of

I’ve been meaning to post this recipe for a while now, and now that it’s finally breaking 80 degrees for a glorious July 4 weekend, it seems like a perfect idea to turn on your oven for four hours.  Yeah, sorry.

But if you’re yearning for a better class of baked beans, baked beans with a difference that are simple as turning on the oven, read on.  And what better for your Independence Day BBQ?

Growing up, we didn’t eat many pulses since my Mom doesn’t like them.  But one thing we did eat was pork-n-beans straight from the can (thanks to my Dad).  I liked the sweetness and the mushy, starchy texture of the beans.  They often came with a funny, rubbery piece of fat in them that was as intriguing as it was unpleasant.  I always ended up with the fat piece, somehow.  I’d ponder it while I ate: is that the pork? Why doesn’t it have any meat on it? These beans don’t taste like pork.  Is that real pork or fake?

These are not the questions one should be asking while eating food.  And they won’t be questions you’ll be asking when you make this recipe.

I recently bought a sweet little flame-colored vintage Descoware cocotte, thinking it would be perfect for cooking à deux, as I do.  Turns out it’s a perfect bean-baking pot when you don’t want enough beans to fuel a party.

And I also happened to have some Ayers Creek-grown tarbais beans, a glossy, large white dried bean used in the winters in France for cassoulet.

I had molasses and extra-smoked (he’d say over-smoked, but I disagree) bacon from my friend Del’s smokehouse operation out at Laughing Stock Farm.

A perfect storm for baked beans.

The tarbais hold up beautifully with long cooking, and they were meatier than the regular navy beans we’re used to in Heinz’s cans.  Finally, I had a pork-n-beans that was less about the sweet tomatoey sauce and pork fat than the beans themselves — toothsome, dense, creamy beans.

You’ll need to soak the beans for a few hours or overnight, so start now.  This recipe is much smaller than the usual baked beans recipe, calling only for a cup of beans, so you’ll have to use a small dutch oven or lidded casserole.  Feel free to double the recipe, but cooking times may need to be longer.  Another option is to cook the beans in your slow-cooker, then reduce the sauce in the oven.  I haven’t done this because my slow-cooker is too large for such as small amount.

Note: in Eugene, you can buy tarbais at Provisions.  Lonesome Whistle has slightly greenish flageolets and yellow arikara beans that would be excellent.  Also consider steuben beans, or similar yellow-eyes or soldier beans, all of which are classified as an early American bean used for baked beans.

Baked Heirloom Beans with Pork and Molasses

Serves 4 as a side dish

  • 1 cup dried large white beans (tarbais, flageolet, Great Northern, navy, yellow-eyes)
  • 1 piece whole very smokey, thick-cut bacon, chopped finely (vegetarians may want to use liquid smoke, I suppose)
  • 1/2 medium white onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon whole grain mustard (optional — I like the crunch of the seeds)
  • 2-3 tablespoons of ketchup (optional — I use my homemade stuff for another layer of flavor)
  • salt to taste (try 1 teaspoon first)

Soak beans for several hours or overnight in water to cover.  Preheat the oven to 325.  Brown chopped bacon and onion until onion is golden brown; drain excess fat and place in your dutch oven or other oven-safe casserole.  Drain beans, and add to dutch oven and cover.  Add rest of ingredients to pot, then add enough water to cover the beans by about two inches.

Place in oven and cook until beans are tender, about 3 hours, depending on how old the beans are.  This year’s crop will take significantly less time.

When the beans are tender but not falling apart, raise heat to 350 and remove cover.  Taste liquid and adjust salt (it shouldn’t be too salty, as the liquid will be reducing, but shouldn’t be completely bland, either.)  The increased heat will boil away excess liquid to a syrup.  Watch the beans at this point so they don’t burn in the process.  Let cook for 30 minutes, then check in 15-minute intervals until the beans are a consistency you like.

mine! all mine!

We’ve read the glut of preservation blog posts about all the wonderful things an enterprising individual can put up to share with family and friends.  And yes, I’m pretty much on the sharing bandwagon.  I love the pleasure my food gifts bring to others, and knowing that it’s a continuing pleasure — that they open that jar of jam many mornings and feel the endorphin rush of deliciousness more than once — is honestly one of the greatest joys in my life.

But blah blah blah, summer of love is over, ya hippie.  This post is about the food I make that I DON’T share, the stuff that’s too good for others…or maybe too good for everyone except the one friend whom I deem might be able to sufficiently appreciate it. This is the selfish, food-hoarding side of the preservation movement, and I embrace that, too.

And it has a name in my house: brandied apricots.

These slightly tart, tangy, sugar and booze saturated little pillows of fiberous goo make even plain goat milk yogurt taste good.  On crepes, with similarly brandied cherries, they are divine.  When I eat them during the day, I feel naughty, as if I just slammed down a Manhattan in my kitchen at noon.  Just now, I was eating them, plotting to drive to eastern Washington as soon as the apricots hit the market, buying up a huge box and stuffing them in jars.  More jars!  More for me! Brandied apricots! All! Winter! Long!

I also, for the record, feel this way about my loganberry jam, my green tomato pickles, and my dill pickles.  So don’t even ask.

What do you make for yourself and hoard?

taste of summer

The tomato sauce I froze tastes so much better than the stuff I canned last summer.  Why?  Lemon juice, which is needed to keep the pH acidic enough to discourage microbes in the canned version, makes the canned sauce much more tart.  Plus, when you freeze sauce, you can add onions and garlic, and other vegetables or meat, with impunity.  Canned tomato sauce is very useful in stews and soups.  It’s a staple in my kitchen.  But I wanted that pure taste of summer.

I defrosted a container of frozen tomato sauce, thick and fragrant with onion and garlic.  After heating it up, I smoothed out the flavor with a little half-and-half, and tossed it with penne, black pepper, and some blanched arugula and tender spring oregano from my garden.  Summer!  It will come.

corncob broth

If you went out and snapped up the last bit of corn in this long, weird season, as I did, consider making vegan corncob broth for winter chowders. Inspired by the recipe in the excellent Paley’s Place Cookbook that I reviewed for last year’s EW procrastinator’s gift giving guide, I’ve been waiting all year.

All you need to do is blanch the corn on the cob, remove the kernels for freezing, then let the corncobs simmer in salted water with some fresh herbs for about 15 minutes.  I added bay leaf and thyme.  There were 6-7 cobs to 3-4 quarts of water.  You could even add some other vegetables or onions or garlic, I suppose, but the clean, corny taste of just the corncobs is perfect as is.  Freeze in 4-cup containers for soups.

…but first, the news.

I think I’m done with my summer canning, finally.  It being October 17 and all, that’s a good thing.  There’s still a batch of green tomato pickles to come, but I’m ready for fall.  It took me a while, but I’ve squeezed in preservation breaks over the past couple of weeks.  I taught some friends how to make sauerkraut and put up 10 lbs. of cucumber pickles to replace the last batch that rotted in the fridge while I was working around the clock a few weeks ago.  I’ve also pickled my garden hot peppers, made from all my Eastern European pepper varieties. The pickled peppers are a much better option  for those preservative-laden jalapeno slices my husband adds to nachos and tunafish sandwiches. I really like fishing out different kinds of peppers in the jar, and tasting their differences.

So now it’s fall canning time, yay!  I foolishly (?) reserved 20 pounds of gorgeous cranberries grown on the Oregon coast, so I’m going to have to get crazy with cranberry recipes this year.  I’m also planning to put up pounds and pounds of dried beans, since I don’t cook with beans as often as I should because I always forget to soak dried ones, I don’t like the texture of frozen ones, and the commercially canned ones have preservatives and too much salt.  And I just bought a big sweetmeat squash for pies and other pumpkin goodies this year, so I’m going to can cubes of the bright orange flesh for the very first time!

I’m also in the process of buying a freezer.  I’ve been unable to buy bulk meat or freeze anything in quantity, since my regular refrigerator freezer is stuffed to the gills.  I love the pleasure of digging into the depths and finding perfectly good sauerkraut beef stew, for example, or roasted poblanos, or realizing I still have 2 cups of quince juice left.  But right now, I can’t find anything.  Every time I open the freezer, a container of tomatoes or posole or ham hock jumps out and tries to smash my foot, vengefully.  I need a better tomb for these zombies.

After years of halfassedly looking on Craigslist and finally deciding to break down to buy a new old-fashioned non-frost-free chest freezer, I casually mentioned my search to a friend who said she had an extra one!  I’m very much hoping this works out.  Then I’ll just need to take care of the easy stuff, like, you know, finding a place to plug it in.

Soon, we’ll be eating homemade Hungry Man tv meals 24/7!

ajvar’s late summer song

This weird summer in the Willamette Valley didn’t seem to affect the peppers as much as the tomatoes. I’m not sure why, since peppers love heat even more than tomatoes, but we had a pretty decent crop.

So…now is the time to cash in on peppers.  I do this by making the quintessential roasted red pepper spread of the Balkans: ajvar.

Ajvar is a mix of all the red peppers you can get your hands on, plus eggplant and garlic.  Sometimes, other vegetables and herbs are added.  In Eastern Europe, they use the elongated, thick-skinned pepper varieties that have a bit of heat to them.  The peppers must be completely ripe and dark red.  The peppers pictured above are what we see most frequently in the Eugene farmers’ markets — choose the conical ones pictured in the upper left corner for most Balkanesque results.  They’re easiest to roast.

Once you’re collected all these peppers, you roast them over an open flame, and then peel them, purée them, and cook them down until the whole pot of mush is rich, heavenly, sweet and smoky spread.

Uses for ajvar are legion.  The best way, of course, is straight up, spread on warm bread and eaten with cheese.  I like to serve it with meat, as well.  I use frozen corn from earlier in the summer to make roasted red pepper and corn salsa out of it, and in the winter, I add it to vegetable soups or stews.  It’s great on pasta with a bit of cream and grilled chicken, or with mild white fish.  The top, pretty photo, is of ajvar I had in Prague this summer.  It was accompanied by freshly baked bread and three kinds of cheese (a cottage, a feta, and a very mild Havarti-like cheese).  I suspect that the brilliant ruby color of the ajvar means that it was 100% red peppers.  It actually didn’t taste that great: no garlic, and possibly cooked peppers.

The ugly picture, on the other hand, is an unspeakably delicious combination: one of Del Del Guercio’s “stubs” sausages dressed with ajvar I made last weekend.  Looks aren’t everything!  Although the bad photo makes it look even more washed out than it is, the ajvar made with eggplant purée is always a bit more pale than red peppers.  I like eggplant for the slight bitterness it adds.  I also leave in tiny bits of blackened skin and a few seeds to add that umami flavor and some texture.  And I use as many of my hot Hungarian peppers as I can collect.  This year, I planted more plants than ever…then waited for months for them to ripen.  Finally!

Note: this spread, thanks to the eggplant and its thick consistency, is not safe to can.  I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make it safe to put up, but didn’t get an answer in time for this year’s batch.  I’ll update this post if/when I hear back from the Canning Powers that Be.  It can be very safely and profitably frozen, and the spread keeps for a week or so in the refrigerator.

Enjoy, while you can, late summer’s last hurrah.

Ajvar — Red Pepper and Eggplant Spread

Makes about 2 quarts
5 lbs. perfectly ripe red peppers, mixed hot and sweet
2 medium Italian eggplants
3 -4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons white vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil for serving

Roast peppers and eggplant using either the grill or the broiler setting in your oven.  Julia Mitric provides instructions in her wonderful ajvar recipe for broiling them:

Preheat oven to broil. Halve each pepper, discarding stems and seeds. Place peppers, cut side down, on an old baking sheet or one lined with foil.

Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and score with a knife, drizzle it with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and a little salt and place it on a second baking sheet.

Place one of the oven racks roughly 3 to 4 inches below the heat; place peppers on this rack. The eggplant should sit on a lower rack.

Broil the peppers and eggplant, turning the peppers occasionally until they are well roasted on all sides, roughly 15 to 20 minutes. The eggplant may be done [ed., meaning cooked until soft] first; if so, remove it and set it aside to cool.

The other option is to grill your peppers on a BBQ grill.  I prefer this, as it adds smokiness.  Wrap the eggplants in foil after poking them a couple times with a fork, then place them on the coolest part of the grill.  Watching carefully, grill whole peppers just until the skin blisters and slightly blackens.  You just want to be able to pull the skin off, not blacken the entire pepper.  Remove peppers and place them in a bowl, then cover the bowl tightly with a plastic bag so the peppers steam and the skin loosens.

Cook the eggplant until soft, turning it often.  We find that if we cook eggplant after grilling whatever it is we’re making for dinner, leaving it to sit on the coals with the grill cover on for about 30 minutes, it gets completely soft and nicely smoky.

Allow the peppers and eggplant to cool enough to handle.  Remove the blackened skin from the peppers, then de-stem and seed the peppers.  Cut them in quarters and set aside in a bowl.

Remove the pulp from the eggplant with a spoon, carefully pulling the seed section from the flesh.  Discard seeds.

Add peppers with the accumulated juice and garlic to food processor. Pulse until the peppers are chopped into fine pieces, then add eggplant pulp and purée.  Add vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.  You might also add a little sugar if the purée isn’t sweet enough.

The purée can now be eaten, or, even better, cook it down for an hour or so at a simmer, so the flavors will be more concentrated.

The flavor will improve if ajvar is allowed to sit in the refrigerator overnight.  You may freeze (in 1/2 cup or 1 cup portions) or keep in the refrigerator for about a week.

canning techniques: dropping acid

I often cringe when I see pickling recipes on the internet, but canned tomato recipes are usually downright unsafe.  I’m not a complete preservation safety cop, but there are some basic rules I really do follow.  I carefully consider the surfaces that encourage microbial growth.  I’m kind of a cleaning maniac when I’m canning — I really do scrub up everything and sanitize my sponges before canning.  And I make those little suckers feel very uncomfortable by changing their happy low-acid free love festival to a high-acid paranoid police state.  Kills the ambiance, you know?

I pay more attention to acid than a Berkeley undergrad.  Tomato preparations need added acid because they’re right on the cusp of what we call high and low acid foods on the pH scale.  My guess is that those watery plum tomatoes we buy by the lug are on the low end.  Low-acid foods are breeding grounds for pathogens, including the dreaded clostridium botulinum.  We want to make anything we can either high in acid or high in sugar, sometimes both.

So we add acid.  You can play a bit with tastes.  Sometimes lemon and lime juice can be used, or vinegars with different flavor profiles, as long as they have 5% acetic acid.  But here’s the key:

It’s ok to substitute equal amounts of bottled lemon juice for vinegar in recipes
using vinegar.  DO NOT substitute vinegar for lemon juice.  Lemon juice is more acidic.

Use only bottled lemon and lime juice in tomato canning recipes.  I know, bottled lime is not the best taste and often contains preservatives, but you won’t be able to taste the bottled-ness in your tomatoes, and the preservatives actually may help.  The problem is that the acidity of lemons and limes varies over the season, and you want consistency in canning tomatoes, especially if you are using a tested recipe…or if you aren’t using one, you’ll need all the acidity you can get.  I save my fresh lemons for high-acid fruit jams, where you can really taste the difference.

Vinegars can pose a different problem.  Most of the vinegar one can buy in bulk sizes is standard, commercial stuff with a big 5% printed on the jug.  This 5% is not the pH level, it is the percentage of acetic acid in the vinegar solution (the rest is water).  White distilled, cider, white wine, and red wine vinegars are most often sold at 5% acid.  European vinegars, however, including white and red wine vinegar I often buy for salads, can vary from 3 – 8%.  (Compare my “Ac. 8˚” imported Spanish sherry vinegar and the 5% white wine vinegar, above.)  Japanese rice vinegar is most often only 3-4.2%, so you shouldn’t use it for canning.  The lower amount of acid actually makes for a smoother taste with less bite — great for some dishes, but not great for your shelf-stable tomatoes . In short:

The percentage of acetic acid in vinegar is almost always printed on the bottle, so check it out, and don’t use anything under 5%.

If you follow these two basic rules, you’re on your way to canned tomato nirvana.  Turn on, tune in, and drop out, man.