Saturday, 29 October 2011

Boston baked beans

Ah, beans on toast - possibly one of the finest comfort foods around, as well as being nutritious, cheap and filling. I've had many a supper of just a small tin of beans atop a couple of slices of wholemeal bread, occasionally with a slice or two of grilled black pudding or some grated cheddar on top. On busy days, beans on toast makes a hearty breakfast and a welcome change from porridge.

But when a tin just won't hit the spot, it's time to brew up a pot of the real thing. Boston baked beans date back to the American pioneers some 300-400 years ago and there are dozens of recipes for this dish - what they have in common are some sort of beans, tomatoes, some cut of pork, and flavourings that include sweet and sour - often molasses or treacle matched against vinegar. Other seasonings can vary wildly. And many versions include vegetables such as carrot and celery.

This is my take on this classic dish, stripped right back to the basics, and it's enough for two portions, so you can freeze one for another day or invite a friend round to share it over a bottle of robust red wine. It takes only 15 minutes to prep and then you can leave it to cook slowly for several hours.

What you need:
1 400g tin of haricot beans
1 large onion, finely chopped
A punnet of cherry or baby plum tomatoes
2 slices of belly pork, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
A heaped dessert spoonful of muscovado sugar
Two dessert spoonfuls of balsamic vinegar
A splash of red wine (optional)
Tomato purée, a good squirt or a small tin's worth
A clove of garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf

What to do:
Gently fry the chopped onion in a little vegetable oil until translucent. Trim any excess fat off the belly pork (if it's very fatty, I grill it a little first to get rid of some of it) then add it to the onions and fry for another 5 minutes. Tip the onions and meat into either a small casserole dish or a slow cooker, add all the other ingredients and mix well. If using the oven you want a moderate heat of around 140C. 

Leave it to cook for around 3 hours. Taste it an hour or so in and adjust the proportions of sugar to vinegar to your preference. Check it now and then to make sure it doesn't dry out, adding a little water if needed - the sauce should be thick rather than watery but you don't want it so dense that it's more like a paste. About 10 minutes before it's ready to eat, check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Don't add the salt at the start as it can make the beans harden.

Mop up the sauce with some crusty bread.

Cook's tips:
You can use any sort of white bean - borlotti, pinto and cannellini beans are all good options. I use tinned beans for pure convenience but if you can be bothered to soak the dried variety overnight, you'll need 100g for every 400g tin. You can also substitute the fresh tomatoes for chopped tinned ones, if you must - the beauty of this dish is that you can make it almost entirely from store cupboard staples.

The belly pork makes this a very meaty dish. For a lighter touch, use a half-packet of lardons or snip a couple of bacon rashers into strips. Vegetarians can leave out the meat entirely, obviously, but then I'd add in some dried porcini for depth of flavour.

The sweet/sour combination is entirely down to preference. I'm not keen on black treacle and prefer the more toffee-flavoured muscovado. Demerara will just about work but it does lack the smokier tones of a darker sweetener. If you've no balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar is the second best choice but even a malt vinegar will do - just rein it back a little. Adding a little red wine adds both sharpness and flavour.