When I was a kid I spent a lot of time with our next door neighbor Mrs. Stemple who was the most wonderful old lady that all the neighborhood kids flocked to. She would feed me cookies and tea with milk and sugar (something we never did at my house – all herbal tea for us) and we would chatter or watch some tv or just sit around together. She always had time for me and never told me to stop talking so much. Every once in a while she would feed me something other than cookies. One afternoon she fed me a bowl of baked beans from a can. My mom didn’t buy much canned food so it was pretty novel for me. Those beans were amazing! I happily ate that magical dish until I got something in my mouth that was not food. It was kind of slick and meaty and I reflexively spat it out and asked what else was in the beans.
Pork. Of course. This was in the early 1980′s and being a vegetarian wasn’t as mainstream or common as it is today. Mrs. Stemple knew I didn’t eat meat but like most people back then she didn’t count pieces of pork as “meat”. The dish was mostly beans so who cares if there’s some funky globules of lard and a bit of flesh or cartilage in it? It’s not like she gave me a hunk of steak. I loved the flavor and texture of those little navy beans and the tomato-y sweet and sour sauce they were cooked in. I wished very much I could have those beans without the pork.
Many years later, I saw canned vegetarian baked beans at Trader Joe’s and bought some. They were so much like pork and beans but without the meat they became a favorite of mine, so when I opened a can up one day and discovered they tasted different (and not in a pleasant way) I hoped it was just a fluke. It wasn’t. Every once in a while I’ve tried another can of them and been disappointed. I realized that they must have changed something in the recipe. At last I decided I was going to have to learn to make my own baked beans. So I’ve been working at making a recipe for baked beans for a couple of years now.
I started with Deborah Madison‘s recipe in “The American Vegetarian Table” because she’s one of my favorite cookbook authors but she used soy beans and chipotle peppers and it was too dark and smokey. It just wasn’t what I was looking for. I have looked at many many recipes and most of them depend on some cut of pig for the flavor and the other vegetarian ones generally have too many exotic or weird ingredients that baked beans shouldn’t need. So I decided to use the ingredient list on the Trader Joe’s can as a starting point.
This version I’m sharing today is really good – but it’s not quite where I want it to be yet. I decided to put it up here because I lost all my notes on my previous versions – which I wish I could reference. I won’t lose it here and I can tell you that my mom thinks these beans are perfect as they are. I want something more from them. I will post my next good version here too so I can keep track of the development. If you try this version, please please let me know what you thought of it and what you would change. This is a food quest and takes time to reach excellence.
Incidentally, David Leite is writing a new cookbook and said he’d consider working on the ultimate vegetarian baked bean recipe but I think I just might beat him to it. (I am a David Leite fan – he’s really kind and funny and responds to his commenters on his blog which I find charming)