Things to Eat at the End of the World

21 Oct

tomato sandwichThis summer, my Dad’s tomato garden was quite possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Abundant and generous far and long beyond the summer season. My lycopene intake since July has been so off the charts, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if eensie little grape tomatoes were currently coursing through my veins.

The summer before, his fence had been infiltrated, and whatever got in there decimated much of the usual seasonal bounty, and also did a number on my dad’s spirits. the timing of which wasn’t great. He’d just had some fairly serious back surgery for an 86-year-old guy who’s barely had so much as a cold, so the death of his garden somehow felt a little bigger than just, “Aw shucks, we’ll get ’em next year.” Because what we realized was, despite his continued and amazing great health for a man his age, at this point “next year” is not something to be taken for granted.

Today, I made a tomato sandwich from one of the last few precious red orbs that he gave to me over the weekend — a big treat for late October not in the least lost on me. I gently cut and generously salted quarter-inch slices, spread a little mayo on some bread, and piled up the layers — brown, red, brown. Such a lucky little lunch. The kind that, next week, will likely just be a juicy, sweet memory. Like I learned last year, you just can’t take these things for granted, and when you are given something so pure and beautiful and lovely, acknowledgment of its fleeting nature goes a long way.

Last Friday morning, before heading out for the weekend to collect what I expect are my final tomatoes for 2014, I got word that an old friend had passed. An old friend who also happened to be my first real love. Which, now that I type that, seems like a dramatic and slightly selfish claim to make, the way people do when something bad happens and they feel compelled to attach themselves to a tragedy. Which it is — he leaves behind the true love of his life and their two young boys; a kind of painful reality that knocks the wind from your chest with the force of its horrible unfairness.

But from my tiny corner of a corner of his life, I will say this: He was a pivotal figure in mine. Like my dad’s decimated garden, we’d lost each other, but for much longer than a season. We broke up, like kids will do, and I hurt him enough that being in touch just wasn’t an option. Twenty years of fallow ground grew thick with other people and experiences and places and things. About five years ago, he contacted me (on Facebook, as people who are out of touch do these days, myself included) and, in whatever small, virtual manner it was, he gave me his friendship again — which, really, was what we always were at the core of it. We talked about food, career dreams and plans, our lives in the present, our worries for our siblings, parents, friends, nieces and nephews. He asked my advice on restaurants a couple of times. I felt a hole had been filled and was grateful; I felt forgiven.

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. I found this out when he sent me an odd, garbled DM that made no sense. But instead of turning angry and negative, cancer just seemed to make him nicer — open, accepting, positive, and perhaps more full of life than anyone I’ve ever known. He changed his Facebook banner to a snapshot of a funky, backlit marquis that said in stark, plain, black letters: Everything Is Going to Be Amazing.” He seized life, loved his family, danced when anyone else would feel silly, embraced the world. It was amazing.

The last time I heard from him, he wrote me this, apropos of nothing and everything: “[You] were so good to me all those years ago. Just wanted to thank you. A good friend and guide.”

I remember feeling a raw streak of panic in my chest. It sounded an awful lot like goodbye. It was. It was also an incredibly generous late-season gift, I just didn’t realize it at the time.

This afternoon, I sat near an open window to feel the warm breeze gently pushing its way through the screen, odd for such a late October afternoon, and consumed my last tomato sandwich of the year. I ate it slowly, carefully. Tasting every bite, feeling the cold of its juice,  its funny, acidic tang on my tongue. A fading kind of sweetness you can only really appreciate in the latest of late seasons, and for which I can feel nothing except entirely, thoroughly grateful.

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Peas and Sympathy

31 Dec

Find me the person who treats the last day of the outgoing year and the first day of the new one with little notice and I’ll show you a liar. Or, in a more sympathetic view, a person who has been sorely disappointed by the days up to now.

It’s not like every year is a banner one or I am possessed by an irrepressible spirit of Pollyanna-ness at the end of December. No matter how good or bad the last 365 were or weren’t, there is bittersweet in varying doses of spoon or bowls-full. I remember one particular New Year’s Eve, counting down what felt like unbearably long final seconds –  10, 9, 8 – and thinking, my god, please let’s stick a fork in this one; it can’t end soon enough. Others end with hearty clinks and big smiles. It’s the beautiful unpredictableness of life, ain’t it?

IMG_0766For me, 2012 was a good year in many ways. I spent more time with my Dad. I got closer with people I wanted to get closer to. A long-held dream of visiting South America was fulfilled, and I made it to new-to-me spots in three other countries, too, in what amounted to some very fortunate and wondrous travel. I reunited with an old friend, made some great new ones. In work, I hit a stride that I’ve been working toward for a long time. And Mitt Romney didn’t become president. For all this, I am a pile of grateful.

And then there’s the balancing bits that simultaneously make me feel like the plates are shifting erratically under my feet and whose vice grip of gravity keeps all the happy stuff in clear perspective. We lost a dear, dear friend to cancer after she waged a long, phenomenal, and righteous battle; I still can’t get it through my head that she’s gone. Hurricane Sandy took our breath away with her wrath. The unspeakable murders in Newtown, CT. After a doctor discovered a bizarre mass on his brain, an old friend I’ve known since age 12 is having brain surgery within the hour that I am writing this.

Unless southern Italy is the place of topic, I am not a southerner by any stretch of geography or imagination. I grew up on Long Island, moved to New York City a long time ago, and have never dwelled in residence outside the Empire State. Still, a few years ago, I adapted the tradition of making Hoppin’ John – black-eyed peas cooked with salt pork – for the New Year. It’s a dish with a sad/happy past, which – when I think about looking back on the good and bad of any year – makes it seem all the more appropriate. In books I have like The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink and the Food Lover’s Companion, similar bits of information are listed on the dish’s origins: It originated in the Caribbean and was brought to the southern United States by people ripped from their homes and families and forced into slavery. But an article I found written by Susan Krumm in 2009 shed a little more light on the dish. She writes:

Black-eyed peas … were brought to the West Indies and made their way to the United States in 1674 by way of the slave trade. They were a staple in the diet of American slaves.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers, following the scorched-earth policy on their march through the South from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga., destroyed all crops such as cotton, tomatoes and potatoes. In part, because they were a staple of the diet of slaves, black-eyed peas were overlooked… Southerners — slave owners, commoners and former slaves — turned to black-eyed peas for survival.”

A homely little legume turned out to be mightier than the sword. Or, at least, a food that sustained people, maybe gave them hope, and certainly kept them alive.

As to the name? The etymology is as murky as a long-cooked pot of peas can be, with versions like the so-called common welcome of, “Hop in, John!” when inviting someone into your house for a dish and some warmth, or that perhaps a children’s game of hopping around the dinner table on one leg before sitting down to the New Year’s Day dish brought good luck (and maybe expended some extra energy to keep little ones sitting still in their seats). The humble bean often has that kind of back story – Jack’s magic beans; my grandmother’s good luck chick peas on All Soul’s Day; lucky fava beans on St. Joseph’s Day. A little talisman to hold onto and wish for all good outcomes for ourselves and the ones we care for deeply.

Southern or not, I’ll make a little pot of Hoppin’ John tomorrow using what I’ve got — some salt pork and stock I’ve got in the freezer, the bag of beans in the pantry, gratefulness for the good I had this year, sorrow for the bad, and the will-it-to-be-better hope for my friend today and anyone else who needs it for the days ahead. Happy New Year, all. May your pots be full of beans and your hearts with ladles full of luck and hope. xo

hoppinHoppin’ John (adapted from the Cookin’ Up the Blues Tobasco Cookbook)
4 cups dried black-eyed peas, rinsed and picked over
3 ham hocks
1 lb thick-sliced speck or pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch or so bits
2 lg Spanish onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 TBSP Tabasco
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp Kosher salt

Soak beans in water overnight. In a large pot filled with water, boil the ham hocks for 45 minutes or so. In a large Dutch overn, cook the speck or pancetta until fat begins to render. Add in onion, celery, and garlic and sautee until soft. Add the peas and stock. When they come to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Add in ham hocks (reserve the liquid), thyme, Tabasco, pepper, and salt. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid is absorbed. If the beans aren’t quite ready, add in a little more liquid from the water used for the ham hocks. Serve with corn bread, look those you toast in the eye, and have a lucky, happy New Year.

Thank You, Anthony Bourdain, aka How Not to Humpty-Dumpty a Hard-Boiled Egg

17 Dec

There are simple kitchen skills at which we all assume we’re adept. Boiling water, brewing coffee, steeping tea, making toast, hard-boiling an egg…

Ah, but hold on a second – that last one. You think you know how to do this, don’t you. Of course you do. What’s easier than boiling an egg? I thought I knew. Of course I did! You boil water, you pop in an egg, you let it boil on for, uh, you know, a bunch of minutes, and then you take it out and, voila! You can’t peel the damned shell from the white because you’ve over-cooked the damn thing. And yet the last time you fancied a little egg salad, your happy little shell-wrapped orbs turned out just fine. Why, for the love of Egbert, why?

I’ll tell you why. Because hard-boiling an egg actually requires that you follow a few simple, fail-safe parameters. I learned this bit of genius from a book Anthony Bourdain put out a few years ago. In The Les Halles Cookbook, under the charming sub-title of “How to Hard Boil a Freakin’ Egg,” I was schooled on a vital bit of kitchen wisdom that allowed me to hard boil 30 freakin’ eggs for a party last weekend and not mess up a single one. Here’s whatcha gotta do:

1. Fill a pot with cold water.

2. Place egg(s) gently into the water-filled pot and cover.

3. Turn the burner onto high to boil.

4. DO NOT GO FAR! This is important — you need to pay attention or you’ll screw this up. Seriously. But to pass the time, fill a bowl with ice and water and set it in the sink.

5. The second the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and set a timer for 10 minutes.

6. When the time’s up, strain the eggs and set them in the ice water.

That’s it. When they’re done, peel ’em. Make a sandwich, a nicoise salad, devil ’em, make a meatloaf and put one in the middle a la Lola (e.g., my mother-in-law’s trick), or salt one up and eat it as it is. All of which will be possible because those shells will come off lickety, peely split.

Cooking with Marie

6 Dec

Marie in Kitchen
I am terrified of the French.

Or I was. I know this is ridiculous and childish – I know – and maybe not just a little bit crazy-town, but there it is. The language! The food! The wine! The clothes! The culture! The… Frennnnnchness!

 

As lovely as it all is, those items seemed to play upon my worst personal fears of clumsiness and ineptitude. So much so, that after more than a decade of writing about food and wine, I only took my first trip to that lovely country a few short years ago – prior to that, I feared that setting foot in Paris would only bring about the villagers to point their fingers (J’ACUSE!) exposing me for the two-bit fraud I feared I was: a dabbler not worthy to indulge in the greatness of Gallic culture.

So you see the depth of craziness that my sweet, lovely ex-pat Parisian neighbors had to battle before convincing me that they come in peace – and, at times, pate.

 

A few years ago, my friends Jean-Francois and Marie moved into a sweet, set-back Tudor home across the street from my husband, Dan, and me. The intimidation bar was set high – J-F worked for a high-profile fashion designer and M is an extraordinarily talented artist. She also happens to be the kind of cook that played upon my worst fears – traditional, phenomenal, instinctual. You know – French.
Recipe

As our friendship has grown, they’ve become very dear to us. They are, really, the best neighbors you could possibly ask for and despite my enormous hang-ups and bullet-riddled insecurities, we go to each other’s homes for dinners, share wine at our respective tables, and look out for each other when the occasion for neighborly attentions arise. They even spend Thanksgiving with us. And at this last one, M invited me to come and cook with her for the umpteenth time, and I finally said yes.

One week to the day later, I was in her tidy kitchen learning to make sweetbread pate, a recipe of her mother’s, written in M’s neat handwriting on a sheet of paper. M doesn’t speak much English, and my French is about as terrific as my dog’s, but we muddled through (with only one phone call to J-F for a particularly tricky translation) and I learned to make something I never believed I could.

I wish I possessed the kind of storied bravery and openness of a woman like Julia Child (and even some contemporaries of mine – I’m talking about you, Caroline and Mindy!) who took Paris by storm with the kind of fearless wonder that allowed her not just to learn, but to bring her cooking adventures back home to fascinated American masses. My god, it’s taken me five years (and a lifetime) just to set foot in M’s kitchen and stand beside her, lining Le Creuset terrine with pork, veal, and Port-marinated sweetbreads. But you know, it was really worth the wait. We have another cooking lesson today – a traditional veal stew and chocolate mousse – and we’ll eat it together with them tomorrow night.
but as for the pate, here’s how it went:

 Boil the sweetbreads (200 grams, or about half a pound) for 10 minutes. Allow to cool; pull off any loose bits of fat. Marinate for 2 hours in ruby Port (in the ‘fridge, if that’s not obvious) and freshly ground nutmeg.

Boil the sweetbreads (200 grams, or about half a pound) for 10 minutes. Allow to cool; pull off any loose bits of fat. Marinate for 2 hours in ruby Port (in the ‘fridge, if that’s not obvious) and freshly ground nutmeg. Meanwhile, marinate (separately) about a pound of pork loin and a pound of veal, cut into 2-inch pieces, in Cognac and freshly grated nutmeg, also for 2 hours.

When the marinade time is almost up, mince three shallots and sauté in about a tablespoon of butter. Add salt and pepper and set aside.

Mixed meat

When marinade time is up, reserve the Cognac and put the pork and veal in a food processor and chop until consistently ground and smooth.
Combine the ground meat in a large bowl with the residual Cognace, 2 eggs, salt and pepper, about a half cup of sour cream, and freshly ground nutmeg. Set aside.

Slicing pork breast 2

Slicing pork breast

Remove skin from a breast of pork and slice the meat into long, thin strips.
Remove the sweetbreads from the Port, and slice into thin pieces.

lining terrine
Line an earthenware terrine with some of the pork strips. Add a layer of the chopped, mixed meat.Add a layer of the sweetbreads.

Terrine pre-cookRepeat until the terrine is full. Top with any leftover pork strips and cover.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

water bath
Place the terrine in an oven-proof dish filled with water. When oven is ready, carefully put it on the middle rack and cook for 1 ½ hours. When time is up, remove and allow to cool completely. When terrine is cool, remove the top and press down with something flat (most terrines come with a gizmo for this, but a plate of fat-edged section of a butcher knife will probably do just fine) and refrigerate overnight. Voila.

I, Tomato Hoarder

10 Sep

ImageRight around the end of August every year, I start getting a little crazy. Not in the seasonal-light-disorder-panic kind of way, but in the “ohmuhgod, all these delicious tomatoes are here for but a fortnight x 3! (or so)” kind of way. The red and yellow and green and purple of it is blinding. It’s all I can see. If I were in a roller derby and the prize were tomatoes? I would knock down everyone in my way. Which would be all the peoples. It’s kind of bad news. Which is probably why my dad sends me back with bags of them, myriad friends leave gifts of garden tomatoes on my stoop,and  my local veg guy with all the good Jersey ones sees me coming and clears a path. I just came home with a few pints of eensie, indescribably sweet yellow ones from him and ate half of them in a sitting. Feed the beast and the beast will leave you alone.

This year, with our weird, warm East Coast winter and dry as crackers summer, it was quite possibly the best in memory for ‘matoes. And so I’ve been using them every chance I get. Simple stuff, but I’m fairly certain I’ve eaten a tomato at least every day since early August. Not bad. And I even shared them sometimes. One week, I made tomato and cheddar and mayo sandwiches for my co-workers at the wine shop I write for, and another I made tomato-saffron-orange marmalade and gave it away to anyone I thought who might dig it.

But now it’s mid-September and my dad informed me a few days ago that his garden is all done. On my kitchen sill today sat 6 heirlooms from a friend who texted with a tomato SOS over-abundance (thank you, Mary Kay), a pile of chubby red grape tomatoes that I grew in pots in the few dollops of sun I get in my yard, and the rest of the little Jersey yellows I got for a song down the street. Tonight, I thought, tomato pie seemed in order.

ImageKnowing Heidi Swanson is a wiz with making really fresh ingredients stand-out, I found two great recipes on 101 Cookbooks, but as I read them through and thought about the other ingredients I had and might want to use, I wound up morphing them into something slightly different. The one I was leaning toward most heavily – an uncooked tomato tart in a crunchy parmesan crust – sounded great, but I took the advice of one of her readers and gently heated the slices, as well as a bunch of the yellows, with a little olive oil, butter, and garlic, and then let the juices run off so the tart wouldn’t get soggy. Also, I didn’t really have enough parmesan, but I did have cheddar. I made the butter-flour crust with cheddar subbed for parmesan, baked it as Swanson suggested (with a few extra minutes added for my oven), and lined the bottom with the rest of my cheddar to keep the drained tomatoes from doing any leaky damage (another one of Swanson’s awesome suggestions). This, by the way, tastes like the most delicious Cheez-It ever.

There’s an onion tart recipe that I make often for parties from French Tarts: 50 Savory and Sweet Recipes (great book) and I was craving some caramelized Vidalias, so they became the base with a little anchovy paste and fresh thyme mixed in. The layering was as such: onions, yellows, reds arranged as concentrically as I could manage. A salad on the side rounded the whole meal out. And while I’m inconsolably bummed that my tomato feasting and hoarding is pretty much at an end, this was a pretty good savory note to go out on. Also, I think my friends and family might stop avoiding me now that they’re safe from being knocked to the ground by my alter roller-skating ego, Early Riot Grrrrl.

Last Tomato Tart

Filling:
6 medium tomatoes, slice about a quarter inch
½ pint of yellow cherries, cut in half
1 large, or 2 small, garlic cloves, cut in half and slivered
1 Vidalia onion, sliced thin
1 tsp anchovy paste
1 tsp fresh thyme
2 TBS olive oil
1 ½ TBS unsalted butter
Kosher salt

Crust:
1 1/4 cups white flour
1 tsp kosher salt
3 TBS ice water
½ cup cold, unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar, plus ¼ cup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor, combine the flour, salt, and cheddar, and pulse until the texture is grainy. Add in the ice water, one tablespoon at a time, until mixture can be pinched with your fingers and won’t fall apart. Immediately press into a tart dish (removable sides are best so you can see the pretty ridged pattern when all is said and cooked), line with wax paper or aluminum foil, fill with pie weights, rice, or beans, and bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven, take out weights and liner, and then put back in and bake for another 15 minutes or until deep golden in color. Remove from oven and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup of cheddar.

ImageMeanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and the butter in a medium-sized pan. Add in onions and cook until caramelized, stirring and turning over occasionally; about 15 minutes. Add in 1 teaspoon anchovy paste, chopped thyme, and a pinch of kosher salt. Cook for one more minute.

In another medium-sized pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and the rest of the butter over medium heat. Add in garlic and let cook until fragrant, about a minute. Place the sliced tomatoes in the pan in one layer, gently salt, and cook for about 1 minute. Remove from pan and place in a colander set over a place (to catch the juice). Repeat until all tomatoes are cooked.

To assemble the tart, evenly spread the onions on the bottom, followed by the yellow tomatoes, then the slices formed in a concentric circle. Be fancy and garnish with a few sprigs of thyme. Eat and be happy.

The Salad Days of Summer – Mindy Style

27 Aug

As Labor Day makes its “My gourd, how did that happen so fast?” rapid approach, I’m eyeballing the veggies and such from my dad’s garden and my local greenmarket with increasing amounts of hoarder’s greed. And thinking a little extra about my mom.

See, my mom used to make great salads. Nothing fancy, I guess — we still ate the middle-class expecteds of iceberg lettuce drizzled in Good Seasons salad dressing, but her greens always went above and beyond what I’d get at my friends’ houses at dinner, if there was salad at all.

My mom’s salads were ever-chock full of fun surprises — bits of salami and provolone cheese, quartered artichoke hearts, plump, pitted olives, always seasoned beyond the Good Seasons and tossed, properly, with tongs, so each bit and bite had a little bit of dressing, a bit of this, a bit of that. We also ate the salad last, post meal. A kind of “voila!” finale, maybe with an extra piece of Italian bread to sop up the oil and vinegar and herbs. And I remember always really, really looking forward to that, and wondering, as an adult, how I lost that tradition along the way.

Somehow, salads started to feel like an afterthought. Or a pill. Or just a bunch of extra work when all I really wanted to do was eat a bowl of pasta in front of the TV while watching Glee and call it a night.

But I miss salads. Which maybe — or, well, not maybe; certainly — is also a little bit about missing my mom and the care she put into the things she did. “I love you; here’s a nice salad I made!” Seriously, what’s nicer than that?

There’s a great book that hit shelves this summer, and it’s written by a friend of mine, Mindy Fox. I knew she’d been working furiously on a follow-up to her great and much-used in my house book, A Bird in the Oven and Then Some. But as it happens in New York, or any big city or town for that matter, it’s easy to get caught up in the grind and lose track of what your friends are up to.

Both food writers, Mindy and I met through a mutual chef friend and his wife a few years ago, and learned on that first meeting over salted, buttered radishes and wine that we were born on the same day in the same year, and were married to our respective husbands only a day apart, as well. The joke between became that we were twins — except, well, she’s tall and blonde and blue-eyed and just really lovely and I’m… shorter. And not blonde. And not blue-eyed. Still, I’d take her as a sister any time. Especially if it meant I’d get to have her cook for me more.

Which brings me to the topic at hand today. Mindy’s new book, Salads: Beyond the Bowl (Kyle Books, $19.95). I have spent pretty much this entire summer preparing what’s in it. It not only feeds my produce-hoarder tendencies, but for those of you who have fallen into the salad-as-afterthought rut, I guarantee you will be  inspired far and beyond the bowl. I was.

Some of the recipes are sidedishes, some are stand-alones; all are a tangle of texture, flavor, and color. I’ve mixed and matched them, getting excited about one dish and taking pieces and combining them with something else I had on hand, which is another really great aspect of the book: It’s utterly approachable. It’s not the kind of book that makes you feel fenced in to rarified ingredients or strict parameters. Follow the recipes to the letter and you’ll be thrilled with the results; diverge using what you have on hand as subsitutes and you’ll still be excited with what you put on the table. Like Mindy’s addictive, super-summery zucchini and corn salad. In her book, the recipe pairs it with an amazing crab-stuffed grilled squid, but I had some great skirt steak on hand one night and used it as a sidedish for that, such a perfect complement to the smoky meat with its snappy greens and sweet crunch of fresh corn. I’ve also just made it and eaten it with a little grilled shrimp on top as a supper salad all on its own.

Another favorite – her recipe for warm Mediterranean-inspired tuna brochettes over fresh cilantro-spiked tomatoes. It’s the kind of dish that feels simultaneously good for you and healthy, and yet a little decadent thanks to the velvety, flavorful tuna and sweet, summery tomatoes – everywhere in all their bright, chubby red glory right now. I also can’t get enough of the (easy and VERY impressive!) Roman spiced, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin (hello, pork-on-pork!) with sweet roasted grapes and bright, bitter arugula, topped with Marcona almonds. Hot damn.

I have many more recipes to make from this book, and I’m constantly satiated and surprised as I work through it. Which another great bit about this: It’s a workhorse book. Full of impressive dishes you can make for one or a dinner party for 12, I’m finding it pretty indispensible. As the sun is starting wane in the summery sky, it’s helping me not just to make use of what I’ve got (a problem sometimes when I’m feeling less than inspired and my dad has sent me home with, say, 5 enormous zucchini), but to re-discover and celebrate a sidedish – and now, sometimes, main dish – that I used to love. The salad days, I think, might be back for good. And maybe Mindy isn’t exactly my twin, but she’s re-gifted me something my mom gave me years ago, and if that’s not some good, crunchy sisterly karma, I don’t know what it.

Bean There, Ate That

29 May

Corny! Yes, that was a very corny title I threw up there. But that’s the thing about baked beans — they have to be about the least sexy sidedish on the planet. At least, this is what’s happened to them over the years, as a long-cooked, honest, pot o’ beans morphed into a can of Heinz fwopped into a microwaveable bowl and, ding, ready! Gargh.

But my husband loves them. Loves them! And is always prodding me to buy cans of the gooey, congealed, sweet sacrilege, to the point that my inner prickly food fiend screams, “FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, NO! OVER MY DEAD, BEAN-SPLATTERED BODY WILL I SERVE THAT!” Sigh. Even if there’s a certain retro-cool Don Draper-ness potentially going on with them now. Remember that whole Rolling Stones/Baked Beans thing that happened this season? Well, it’s not so far away from reality–yup, that’s Roger Daltry to the right, wading in a pile of Heinz beans and hugging an enormous can of them. The best part about that photo is he looks utterly insane. But how else would you look if you were sitting in beans? Exactly the same, that’s how.

Anyway…

We decided to lay low this Memorial Day Weekend for myriad reasons, and had a little cook-out one night with family and a couple of close friends. As per usual, when I was heading out to the store, Dan said, “Let’s have baked beans!” Which I promptly ignored and didn’t buy (mean), and then felt bad about it (sucker).

As luck would have it, my kitchen-happy friend and former book-publishing colleague Renee Wilmeth had posted a recipe for her mom’s baked bean recipe on Facebook yesterday, and I happened to catch it. She’d tweaked it with her own very good updated twists — smoked sea salt being the kicker that makes this recipe so great, and which makes me kind of want to take a cue from Daltry, fill a tub with them, and roll around in it. (That was too much sharing, wasn’t it? Yes. Yes it was.)

I had all the ingredients on hand (yippie!), which, with the exception of the smoked sea salt, aren’t super complicated (and you could do without that — kosher salt would do just fine, and it wouldn’t ruin the recipe a lick). Also, full disclosure:  I used turkey bacon. Stop judging. I had it on hand because, ugh, I love crispy things and BLTs and we’re trying to cut down just a tiny, tiny bit around here, so sue me. I am not sorry!

The most complicated thing about making it is… having time. But once you throw them in the oven, you can pretty much forget about them. Never mind the substitutes or the slow-cookin’ lazy factor, though; just make these because they are uh-mazing. They were happily and, dare I say, greedily spooned up by a few family members who are, um, usually super-duper sniffy, picky eaters. Ha! I win! Cha-cha-cha.

Renee Wilmeth & Her Mom’s Bodacious Baked Beans

1 lb small white beans (navy beans or similar)
1 white onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ lb bacon, chopped, plus another 3-4 strips for the top of the beans (I didn’t do this for obvious reasons)
1-2 tablespoons, mustard (Renee’s mom used yellow; she uses Guildan’s; I used Dijon)
1.5 teaspoons smoked salt (I used 2, because I know I like just a little extra salty-salty)
1/3 cup molasses, mild or blackstrap
½ cup packed brown sugar
9 cups water
1-2 teaspoons cider vinegar

So says Renee: “In a large dutch oven, fry the bacon until it’s cooked but not crispy. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until it’s all soft.  Then add molasses, mustard, beans, salt, water and brown sugar. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop then pop into 300 degree oven.  [NOTE: I went up to 325 because I find my oven runs a little cool.]

“Cook beans for 4-5 hours with lid on.  Then add strips of bacon, take lid off, and cook in oven for another 2 hours to thicken sauce.”

If you need to adjust the water during the ‘lid on’ phase, go for it. Taste every now and again for seasonings along the way and tool with that, too, if you like — I found all of it just fine as instructed.

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