We associate beans with Boston and New England, ‘the land of the bean and the cod.’ Before there was New England, there was, of course, England, where people baked or simmered beans before anyone embarked for the New World. Canned baked beans in a sweet tomato sauce--Heinz the runaway bestseller--are staples of the traditional British breakfast, and beans in general go to table at lunch and dinner too.
Nigel Slater, who can write, likes beans, but not the sauced products from cans. He will, however, grab a can of beans as the basis for a dish when time is short. As he concedes in The Kitchen Diaries II (London 2012),
“some… turn their noses up at a can of beans…. But a can or two of butter beans (or the oval, green flageolet; tiny, bead-like haricot; or white cannellini, the dragée of the bean world) has got me out of jail more times than I can shake a wooden spoon at.”
On canned beans we differ, they are better than that, although there can be no argument with Slater that “soaking, draining, boiling, skimming, testing, draining, cooling and dressing dried beans” can create a dish approaching perfection. That will not do on an ordinary day, however, when, like Slater, “I’m after something good to eat after a long day at my desk.” (Slater 72)
Slater has written lots of recipes for beans, dried and canned; this Anglo-American hybrid is based on one of his best. It requires only about forty casual minutes and may be doubled or trebled at constant proportion. Two hearty main dishes; three or four mates for hot dogs.
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- about ½ cup slab bacon, salt or pickled pork, or pancetta cut into cubes of about ¼ inch
- about 3 onions (or 2 big sweet ones like Vidalias), sliced into thin crescents
- 3-4 minced garlic cloves
- 3 bay leaves
- heaped teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 cup pork or chicken stock or water
- about a cup of canned Italian plum tomatoes
- 2 drained and rinsed cans butter beans
- salt and pepper
- 2 seeded and chopped chilies (heat level of your choice)
- 2 Tablespoons black treacle (see the Notes)
- 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 Tablespoon wholegrain mustard
- about 2 teaspoons Worcestershire
- Crisp the bacon with the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium low heat and remove it.
- Increase the heat to medium and cook the onions and garlic until just beginning to turn golden.
- Return the bacon to the pot with the tomatoes, beans, bay, thyme and stock or water; bring the liquid to a boil while you smack the tomatoes around to break them up.
- Season the mess judiciously (you can add more salt or pepper later), then stir the chilies, treacle and mustard into the mix.
- Partly cover the pot, reduce the heat and simmer the beans until their sauce thickens, usually in about half an hour.
-No Yankee, Slater omits our essential cured pork in favor of olive oil. It is his loss. Slater’s version, however, is utterly vegetarian if required and it works fine; not only no bacon, but water not stock.
-He uses fresh instead of dried thyme; it disappears in the cooking. He also forgot the olive oil in his list of ingredients (even the gods miss edits) and uses about four times the amount of tomatoes, far too much to our taste.
-If you cannot find black treacle, you can substitute Steen’s cane syrup from Louisiana; if you do not have that either, you could use molasses, but it has a whiff of sulphur about and will alter the flavor of the dish a little.
-To further Americanize the dish with a southern accent, substitute sorghum, the sweetener of the moment, for the treacle, and a can of Rotel tomatoes for the chili and San Marzanos.
-It is more than passing strange how the butter beans give the dish its elusive appeal. You could substitute another can of beans but the effect is lost.
-We like Goya beans best.