Beans can be fun. Yes, they can be slightly dangerous in their propensity for aftershocks, if you will, but with reasonably careful preparation they offer a great deal of variety in flavors and textures, a filling and hearty sense of substance, and a decent nutritional punch, all in a bunch of mighty little packages. Fond as I am of rather wide-ranging cuisines, I am also bound, then, to enjoy good leguminous dishes. But I’m not endlessly open-minded about them. I don’t get much pleasure from things that are mealy, mushy, and morose, and when beans are handled too cavalierly by cooks, they can be reduced to such states rather easily. Why eat anything too bland, too woody from undercooking, too dull and lifeless from overdoing, or otherwise characterless, when in fact beans are such a fine medium for carrying a host of vivid flavors and come in such a rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes?
All of this being said, I’m also a fan of one of the less stylish preparations known to bean-eating humankind, the ubiquitous mash of frijoles refritos or refried beans. This may be, as you’d guess if you’d read no other posts of mine than a single recent Tuesday one, due to the oft-practiced method of making refritos taste best by jamming as much lard into the pot of them as is physically possible, along with the musky goodness of cumin and other Mexican or Tex-Mex seasonings. But it’s also a pleasing kind of mash, having both the thick porridge character of many so-called comfort foods (nursery food texture is clearly a consistent preference among these) and the occasional happy surprise of the un-mashed, unabashed little pearls of un-crushed beans here and there.
Another pleasurable bean dish that’s full of rustic old-school goodness is the American classic of Boston baked beans, the virtual equivalent of candied beans, which also hold an unsurprising attraction for a devoted sweet tooth like mine. Traditionally, the well-loved Boston version of them contains salt pork and molasses, and I happily went with a similar theme when preparing yesterday’s side dish, but then I got to ruminating upon the aforementioned treat and wondered if the two recipes mightn’t make a nice partnership, as well. Turns out that there’s a Boston in Texas, too, in case that excuses me. So off I went, concocting my bean dish of the day…and enough extra for another two meals or so.
I’d par-cooked a batch of mixed beans recently, for starters. I combined equal parts dried kidney, pinto, and black beans, soaking them in several batches of water (each one successively cold, brought to a boil, cooled, rinsed, and replaced) over a stretch of hours before the final simmer to near-doneness. One portion of the beans went directly into a big batch of beef chili my spouse and I had prepared together that day; a large portion of the legumes went into the freezer for future uses; the last quantity was saved in the refrigerator in its own unseasoned juices for today’s preparation. And the latter was pretty easy to fix, with those beans already lying in half-cooked wait for the occasion.
Boston, Texas, Beans
Before the beans came into the picture, there was the salty-sweet sauciness to get under construction. I chopped about a generous half-pound of bacon into pieces and cooked them over medium-low heat with a big handful of brown sugar (my molasses source), a small sprinkle of smoked salt, and a couple Tablespoons of butter. Yes, extra salt and extra fat. Beans to come, cooked without any seasoning or fat, you know. Me: fat, salt, sugar. Yes. Deglazing, as the bacon began to crisp, with about 1/2 cup of good Texas bourbon. Once that all got good and syrupy and semi-crisped, I added the beans and their liquor, (about three cups) stirred everything to mix, and got in there with the potato masher, leaving some beans more or less intact. Let the whole pan sit, covered, at a low simmer until dinnertime about a half hour later. Served hot, it satisfied nicely after a busy afternoon for both of us diners.
In the event, it was a bit on the dry side for my ideal, but not too dry to be enjoyed with some plain smoked sausages cooked in white wine, dipped in a touch of mustard, and served with a side of juicy sweet Clementines. Given the slight dryness, however, I added a big dose-si-do of sweet BBQ sauce and a splash of water before sealing the remaining two meals’ worth in a zipper bag for refrigeration, and I’m sure I’ll get this little handshake-across-state-lines dish on speaking terms with further entrees in the days to come. Cooperation is a good thing, and the ever-flexible ingredient beans are nothing if not good citizens in the kitchen.