Eric Akis: The best beans on the street

Wife’s humble specialty dish gets a thumbs up at the neighbourhood party

Eric Akis

My wife, Cheryl, is a food-product developer and an accomplished chef/pastry chef who can go gourmet with the best of them. But on our street, she’s best known for a humble dish: Baked beans.

She became the local “bean queen” at our annual street party, where we close down the street, set up a long table down the middle of it and share a meal and a whole lot of fun together.

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Neighbours cook their dinner on barbecues they pulled out from their backyards. The rest of the meal is potluck, with one side of the street bringing desserts to share, the other side salads and side dishes.

We are on the side dish side of the street, and a number of years ago, my wife decided she would make a giant pot of baked beans to share.

“Everybody loves them, but nobody makes them anymore,” she said.

She was certainly right about everyone liking them. The first time she made them — and every time since — people lined up to get a portion of those beans the very second she set them out.

Cheryl will make those beans on other occasions too, including last week, when we both had a craving for them.

Because she makes them so often, Cheryl never uses a recipe for her baked beans. But this time, I asked her if she could write down the ingredients and method so I could share her technique with you.

The recipe below yields eight to 12 servings, a smaller amount than she would make for our street party. But it was enough for my wife and I to dig into and also share with our nearest neighbours, not the whole street.

We often serve baked beans with cornbread, or toast, but this time, I decided to make some tender, home-style dinner rolls to serve with them, creating quite a nice springtime comfort food meal.

Cheryl’s Baked Beans

This is a hearty, rib-sticking, large pot of beans you could feed a crowd with. Serve them with the dinner roll recipe below. Any leftover beans will freeze well.

Preparation time: 50 minutes, plus bean soaking time

Cooking time: Three hours 30 minutes

Makes: Eight to 12 servings

2 (450 gram) bags small white beans (see Note)

2 cups store-bought or homemade barbecue sauce

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1/4 cup cooking molasses

1 Tbsp extra hot prepared horseradish

1 medium onion, diced

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock or water

2 bay leaves

2 tsp taco seasoning or chili powder

1 smoked pork hock or 1 large, meaty ham bone

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• thinly sliced green onion to taste, for sprinkling (optional)

Place the beans in a very large bowl. Cover with at least four inches of cold water and let soak at room temperature at least eight hours, or overnight.

Drain the beans well, and then place in a large pot and cover with at least four inches of fresh cold water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat until beans gently simmer. Simmer until tender, but still slightly firm to the bite, about 25 to 30 minutes. More water might need to be added during cooking.

When the beans are cooked, drain them well. Place beans in a large Dutch oven or casserole with a 32-cup (about seven litre) capacity. In a bowl, combine barbecue sauce, molasses, mustard, horseradish, onions and stock (or water). Pour and stir mixture into beans (the beans will look quite wet at this stage, but will soak up the liquid as they cook). Set the bay leaves and pork hock or (ham bone) into the beans. Cover and bake the beans in 300 F oven two hours. Now uncover beans and bake 90 minutes more, or until beans reach your desired degree of tenderness.

Remove pork hock (or ham bone) from beans and cool a few minutes. Now remove and cut the meaty edible portions from the hock (or ham bone) into cubes. Mix that meat into the beans. Taste the beans and season with salt and pepper, if needed.

If desired, top servings of the beans with a sprinkling of green onion.

Note: Small white beans are sometimes also called white pea beans or navy beans. The older the beans, the longer they will take to cook. If they take forever to become tender, it’s time to buy new ones. If you’ve just bought them, purchase them from a new location that sells a greater volume of them.

Eric’s options: For a vegetarian version of this dish, exclude the pork hock or ham bone from the recipe and use vegetable stock or water.

Home-style Dinner Rolls

Butter and serve these tender and appealing rolls with the beans. Any leftover buns will freeze well to thaw, warm and enjoy at another time.

Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus rising time

Cooking time: 18 minutes

Makes: 16 rolls

1/4 cup butter

1 Tbsp granulated sugar

1 tsp salt

1 cup boiling water

1 large egg, beaten

1 pkg. (2 1/4 tsp) active (traditional) dry yeast

1/4 cup lukewarm (not hot) water

3 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 Tbsp butter, melted

1 large beaten egg yolk

Place the 1/4 cup butter, granulated sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Pour the boiling water overtop and mix until butter is melted, and sugar and salt are dissolved. Let mixture cool until lukewarm, about 15 minutes. Now mix in the beaten egg.

Combine the 1/4 cup lukewarm water and yeast in a large bowl, or in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with dough hook. Let yeast dissolve in the water five minutes. Now mix in the melted butter/water mixture.

If using a stand mixer, add the 3 cups of the flour and mix on medium speed until a smooth, fairly soft, dough forms that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Add the additional 1/2 cup of flour if the dough is not pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Continue mixing and kneading the dough about five minutes.

If mixing the dough by hand, mix 2 1/2 cups of the flour into the yeast mixture in the medium to large bowl.

Mix with a heavy spoon until the dough loosely clumps together. Transfer the dough to a work surface, scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary. Use the remaining 1/2 to 1 cup of flour to lightly flour the work surface, top of the dough and your hands. Knead six to eight minutes, until a smooth, fairly soft dough is created.

Once kneaded by machine, or by hand, place the dough in a deep bowl that has the 2 Tbsp of melted butter in it. Turn the dough to coat with the butter. Cover and let dough rise at warm room temperature until doubled in size, about 60 to 75 minutes.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Gently deflate and cut dough in half. Now cut each half piece of into 8 pieces. With the palm of your hand, cup, roll and shape each piece of dough into a round ball.

Place the rolls on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing each about two inches apart. Cover with tea towel and let rise for about one hour, until about doubled in size. It’s ok if the rolls touch after they rise.

Set an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven 375 F. Very lightly brush the top of each bun with beaten egg yolk. Bake buns 18 minutes, until golden and cooked through. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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