Smoky Vegetarian Baked Beans

Makes about 6 cups.

Baked beans have their roots in the foodways of the first peoples of the Americas. Adopted by European settlers, they were one of the first commercial canned foods brought to market in the 1890s. But, home-baked beans, a tradition in New England, win the flavor game.

In this recipe, we build flavor with sweet spices plus a little fenugreek (for its echoes of maple and celery), dried thyme, maple syrup, and beer. To infuse the beans with smoky flavor and keep them vegetarian, we replaced the usual bacon or salt pork with smoked salt and Spanish smoked paprika. Try them heaped on a piece of hearty toast, topped with a fried egg.  

Notes: We use Grade B maple syrup for its robust flavor. We use an IPA beer, but use any un-flavored beer that you have handy. The coconut oil isn't strictly necessary (you can use an equal amount of vegetable oil), but it adds a richness that's sometimes missing in vegetarian baked beans. Cooking time for beans is affected by both the bean's age and the pH of the water they're cooked in.

¾ pound dried yellow-eye or pinto beans, soaked in lightly salted water overnight
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons applewood smoked salt
1 teaspoon allspice (pimento) berries 
3 whole clove buds
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
Pinch Sicilian dried thyme
1½ teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika
¾ cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup of beer
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
2 teaspoons coconut oil, melted
1 medium onion, halved and sliced into very thin crescents
Black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 325° F. 

Drain the beans and transfer them to a heavy, oven-proof pot with a tight-fitting lid. Set the pot over medium-high heat and add 6 cups of water. Add one of the bay leaves and 1/2 teaspoon of the smoked salt. Boil the beans for 20 minutes, skimming away any foam that rises to the surface and adjusting the heat to avoid a boil-over. Drain the beans again, wipe out the pot, and set both aside.

Put the spices ( except for the remaining bay leaf and smoked paprika), remaining smoked salt, and the thyme into a spice grinder or mortar & pestle. Grind the mixture to a powder then stir in the smoked paprika.

Put the ground spices, maple syrup, sugar, beer, vinegar, tomato paste, and two kinds of oil into a bowl or pitcher and whisk gently to combine. 

Put the onion slices into the pot and add the par-cooked beans on top of them. Pour the maple syrup mixture over the beans, add the remaining bay leaf, and top up with enough water to just cover the beans. Give a gentle stir without disturbing the onions at the bottom of the pot. Put the lid on the pot and the pot into the oven; bake for 1½ hours. Check to see whether the beans are tender. If they’re not, add more water if needed, replace the pot’s cover and continue baking until they are soft, checking every 20 minutes. 

If the sauce isn’t as thick as you’d like by the time the beans are tender, scoop a couple tablespoons of beans out of the pot and into a small bowl. Mash them with a fork, then stir the mash back into the sauce. Remember that the sauce will thicken as the beans cool.

Taste the beans adding more salt or a few drops of vinegar, if needed. Serve hot. Leftovers keep well in the fridge for several days or freeze well for a few weeks.


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