Why is it that rustic-looking dishes (ahem, I mean not photogenic dishes) are by far the best to create and enjoy?
Root beer baked beans with Vermont maple bacon almost wasn’t a dinner reality for me, but I am so glad it turned out to be in the end. The saga started last Sunday. I had wanted to make this recipe since the night before, but I just didn’t want to drive, walk, or take the bus to the grocery store to make it happen. I procrastinated with coffee by the glow of the computer. Then I decided in the late afternoon to power walk to the local Whole Foods, even if navigating the aisles on a Sunday is not my idea of fun. I needed to go there no matter what, I realized, because the star ingredient for this recipe is New England Maine Root, which I can’t get anywhere else in my neighborhood.
I first tasted a Maine Root soda in – where else? – Portland, Maine. I ordered a blueberry soda with a burger. It was unexpectedly good, fizzy, and had just the right amount of blueberry. Maine Root sodas use only cane juice as a sweetener, a superior ingredient to high fructose corn syrup. Since that first taste, I’ve tried several other flavors at restaurants in the Boston area. They even have a pumpkin pie.
I found everything at the grocery store except the canned cannellini beans, which bizarrely were out of stock. A bean conspiracy, I bet. I dodged some lady arguing with a stock person about the canola oil to get to the bulk goods section. I considered buying dry beans, but with the evening approaching I decided against it. On the walk home I (of course!) ate some of what I bought at the store. My parents taught me well; you always snack on something after grocery shopping.
After sticking my head into every convenience store in case they had cannellini beans (they didn’t), I made it to another grocery store and found them. I finally got started late in the evening. Drinking one of the root beers motivated me. I used the end of my batch of maple smoked bacon instead of the applewood smoked bacon called for in the original recipe. The extra maple flavor was too good to resist. I added a few extra strips of bacon too.
And what was the result of all that grocery searching? Downright awesome baked beans for dinner. I love making dishes that are usually overlooked. Up until this recipe I believed all baked beans came from a can or that they were those delicious things that accompanied smoked meats at a barbecue restaurant. Now I’m even thinking they would go well with a southern-style Thanksgiving feast. The root beer gives a great sweet flavor reminiscent of a mild barbecue sauce, and the chili powder adds a subtle contrast. Plus, maple and molasses jive so well. Sop up the delicious thick sauce with some cornbread.
The real point of these beans was to enjoy the strange-sounding baked beans on toast. I toasted fresh no-knead bread with a heaping spoon of baked beans and then melted some havarti cheese on top. I used to doubt the power of beans on toast. No longer.
Root Beer and Maple Bacon Baked Beans
Adapted from Epicurious (originally from Bon Appetit)
Makes 6-8 servings
6 slices maple bacon, cut into small lardons (cubes)
3 cups onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 15-ounce cans of cannellini beans, rinsed and patted dry (You could also use the equivalent in home cooked beans.)
1 1/2 cups artisanal root beer
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons dark molasses
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a large oven-proof pot on the stove over medium heat. Cook the bacon until crispy. Remove and blot with a paper towel.
2. Cook the onions in the bacon grease until they are golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir often to keep the onions from burning.
3. Add the garlic, and cook a minute more. Then add the beans, root beer, vinegar, molasses, mustard, and chili powder. Mix vigorously to scrape all the good bacon and onion bits from the bottom of the pot into the mixture. Add the cooked bacon. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Bring to boil. Then move to preheated oven and cook uncovered for 30 minutes until the sauce thickens.