If someone asks my friend Diana what I got her for her birthday this year, she’s very likely to answer: “Beans. I got beans for my birthday.”
That sounds like a negative thing, but in the case of Diana’s birthday dinner, it was entirely positive. These beans, like the beans Jack trades his cow for, were no ordinary beans: they were magic beans. Specifically: the Barefoot Contessa’s Baked Beans, which bake in the oven for six hours with bacon and ketchup and maple syrup and come out a deep rusty red and taste smoky, zippy and intense. In other words: the best beans of your life.
It’s always dangerous to use hyperbole in food writing–surely, you can call any good thing you make “the best ___ of your life”–but I’ve been very selective when I tell you that something is the best ___ of your life. For example, the last time I did that I told you that this broccoli was the best broccoli of your life. And wasn’t it? If you Google “broccoli recipe,” it’s the #1 result!
So believe me when I say that these baked beans are a serious contender for the best beans of your life. I mean, there’s a chance that either (a) you don’t like baked beans (which these are) and prefer another form of beans, in which case these won’t be the best beans of your life; or (b) you can’t eat bacon in which case these beans won’t be as rich or as satisfying when you make them. But for most people, and I include myself in that category, these beans will sit high on the mantle of your personal bean shelf. These beans will outbean any bean you eat forevermore.
To make these beans, you have to start with dry beans. Because they cook for six hours, canned beans will probably fall apart. So if you are a responsible person, you will, the night before, take one pound of dry red kidney beans and soak them in cold water (cover by one inch) in the refrigerator. The next day you will drain them and rinse them.
But, if you are like me, you will only decide to make these beans the morning of Diana’s birthday dinner. In that case, 8 hours before you plan to eat them (I know, I know, that’s a long time!) you can do a quick soak using the technique from the Gourmet Magazine Cookbook. Take your one pound of dry red kidney beans, put them in a pot with cold water and cover by an inch or two. Bring to a boil with the lid off and let boil for two minutes. Then take off the heat, cover and let sit for one hour. That’s it! You’ve quick-soaked your beans.
Now drain those beans, rinse them, and place them back in the same pot with two quarts water (that’s 8 cups), one large yellow onion cut in eighths, one bay leaf, and six whole black peppercorns. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and simmer for 50 minutes until tender. The Barefoot Contessa says, “A good test is to scoop up several beans in a spoon and blow on them: if the skin starts to peel off, they’re done.”
Now, after that, life gets easy. Drain the beans and reserve the cooking liquid. Preheat the oven to 225.
In your Le Creuset Dutch Oven (and this is really the best cooking vessel for this), whisk together: 3/4 cup medium amber pure maple syrup, 1/2 cup light brown sugar (lightly packed), 1/2 cup ketchip, 1 Tbs Chinese chili paste (I used Sriracha, which worked fine), 1 Tbs fresh ginger, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1 1/2 cups of the cooking liquid (still reserving the remaining liquid.) Bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat for six minutes.
Now nuzzle the beans in there with your sauce and–here’s the best part–take 5 oz. thick cut smoked bacon which you’ve cubed up (just cut into bits) and strew them among the beans: stir them through.
Put the lid on, plop in the oven and cook for 6 to 8 hours. That’s it! Isn’t that easy? All the cooking work’s at the beginning, and six hours later (who could wait the full 8?) you have the best beans of your life. Sure, you should check every two hours or so to stir the beans around and if they’re dry, add more cooking liquid. You can start tasting four hours in and adjust the seasoning, but you probably won’t have to adjust much. If you want them thick, take the lid off in the last 30 minutes as they finish. But mine were plenty thick without taking the lid off and look how lovely they are:
I served them with D’Artagnan Chicken Sausages and homemade coleslaw (recipe forthcoming). Look at the happy birthday girl:
Next time someone you love has a birthday, give them the gift that keeps on giving: the best beans of their lives.