Sunday, April 26, 2009

Vegetarian baked beans

(For an update of this recipe without ketchup, please click here.)

Canned baked beans are one of the few convenience foods I buy regularly. And since I'm not exactly a vegetarian (except sometimes, ha ha), and I live with omnivores, I can happily eat Bush's baked beans and just avoid that chunk of pork they put in there and not get too worked up about it. But still. If you're me, you reach a point where you wonder why, exactly, you're so dependent on that can. Surely we can come up with good baked beans with a little tinkering . . .

I've tried most of the vegetarian baked beans out there, and I have not been impressed. They seem overwhelmingly sweet, which led me to conclude that, without meat, it must be hard to make full-flavored baked beans. What was I thinking?

Here's the other thing: as someone who is frequently choosing to make a meal out of low-protein "side dishes," I really like having a "side dish" that provides a real alternative protein to the meat on the grill. Vegetarian baked beans fill the bill: they're familiar; everyone likes them, but they still mean I don't HAVE to eat meat or get protein-deprived. (My other standby on these occasions is hummus, of course. Any others?)

I had amazingly good luck with Goya navy beans (available at the Hannaford down the hill for $1.67) (but doesn't that seem sort of steep for pre-packaged dry beans? Am I hallucinating that a few short years ago, they were about a buck cheaper than that?)

I didn't plan ahead terribly well, but did a strong saltwater (2 hefty T of salt dissolved in about 3 quarts of water) soak for 4 hours in warmish water, and it worked fine. I brought the beans to a boil for about 5 minutes, then added a medium onion, chopped fine, and some garlic. I covered the pot and let it simmer for about 45 minutes and they were done: tender but still holding their shape. Bean perfection!

My sauce is a work in progress, and I would strongly suggest playing with the proportions to suit your own tastes. (Expect updates throughout grilling season as I continue to refine the recipe.) It's a long ingredient list, but don't let that intimidate you: if you don't have some of the items, just leave them out.

Optional sauce additions, particularly if you don't have some of the items on my list: bottled barbecue sauce (we like Dinosaur in our house), if you happen to have some around; citrus, like a splash of lemon or orange juice; pineapple; hoisin sauce. Personally, I think that citrus can easily become overwhelming, which is why it's not part of my recipe, but everyone's palate is different.

My inspirations for this recipe come from Laurel's Kitchen, The Moosewood Restaurant's Low-Fat Favorites, and Emeril's Every Day's a Party.

2-3 medium onions, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 T vegetable oil
1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground fennel
1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp tamari
generous 1/2 cup of ketchup
scant 1/4 cup molasses
1/4 to 1/2 cup brown sugar
1 generous tablespoon brown mustard
1-2 tsp Pickapeppa sauce
1 tsp tamarind concentrate
2-3 tsp cider vinegar (go easy -- it can easily become too tangy!)
1 tsp vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
several generous grindings of black pepper

Saute onions in oil with a couple of pinches of salt, stirring often. Allow them to caramelize for as much time as you have. Add garlic, fennel and allspice, stirring constantly. Add remaining ingredients (except beans) and bring to a simmer.

I use about 3/4 of the beans (rough guess) for this much sauce. Adding more ketchup is a good plan if there doesn't seem to be enough sauce, but you can also thin the sauce with some of the bean broth. Be sure to taste for salt and add more if you need to.

After the sauce has simmered a few minutes, add the beans. Bring it back to a simmer, then put it, covered, in a 250-degree oven for 45 minutes. Needless to say, they can be made ahead and they reheat beautifully.