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Baked Beans And Friends

Beans in a cast iron skillet sitting on a wooden cutting block with a knife, onion, garlic, pepper, and ham.
Beans. Photo by jeffreyw via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Somewhere along the line I picked up the British taste for baked beans on toast. While enjoying this indulgence the other day it occurred to me that I enjoyed beans any number of ways. Beans are certainly one of the easiest ingredients in the world to work with. And they are very healthy too.

There are two ways to buy them: canned or dried. Canned beans have already been cooked, so they are ready to go. Dry beans require at least 12 hours of soaking to re-hydrate and get ready for cooking. Some people will boil dried beans, and claim that after a mere 30 minutes they're good to go, but I'm pretty skeptical of that working all the time. If it's not a bother, soak them overnight.

The most common beans we encounter are the familiar navy beans, very similar to great northern beans. These pale beans are useful because they can absorb a ton of flavor without getting mushy.

Butter beans are very popular and very useful. They are actually the same thing as a lima bean. Their creamy, buttery texture is appealing, and they are easy to cook with.

Kidney beans, the dark red hero of many a chili recipe, are known for their mild flavor and high protein content.

Cannellini beans are quite similar to navy beans, are a bit larger, quite flavorful and find their way into many a soup recipe.

Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, are small round beans that appear in lots of Indian and Latino recipes. They are also the main ingredient of humus.

Black beans, which are a mainstay of Mexican and Caribbean cuisine, are an excellent counterpoint to spices and hot peppers.

Let's not forget fava beans and the pretty little speckled pinto beans.

Home made baked beans are super easy. It's a matter of browning up some bacon or ham and onion, tossing in your softened navy beans, the sweeteners of your choice (molasses and brown sugar are favorites) and a little dry mustard. Cover them with the water you used to soak the beans, cook for an hour or so, and then finish in the oven.

A not so well known variation on traditional baked beans is a dish called Settler Beans. This is a favorite of my wife who got the recipe in hand-me-down fashion. The same idea as baked beans, except you use at least three different beans, and brown up some ground beef with your bacon. She uses a healthy serving of coarsely chopped onions and garlic for extra flavor.

I love to get my black beans from farmer Tom McCarthy, the celebrated "bean man" of the Baltimore farmers markets. Whenever I grill a flank steak or skirt steak, I automatically make a Cuban inspired black bean stew. Italian canned tomatoes, onions, green and red peppers, cumin and cayenne go into the beans which I cook in chicken broth, low and slow for about two hours.

In colder months I love to make a big pot of simple bean soup. One of the simplest recipes I know, you just simmer your navy beans in a vegetable broth, toss in a meaty old ham hock, plus some onions and grated carrot. Let it go for a couple hours and allow the ham to fall off the bone for extra flavor and texture. Crusty toasted bread is almost obligatory.

The recipe for Tuscan White Bean Soup (known as Ribollita) sounds similar, but turns out different. You'll want to use cannellini beans, which are Italian after all. You'll be using a lot more vegetables, including chopped up leafy greens like escarole or kale. In addition, parmesan cheese is a mandatory ingredient, and often there's a few thin slices of toasted bread involved.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.