Sunday, April 01, 2007

Home-Baked Beans

About seven years ago, I worked at a global education museum, where I helped develop exhibits that introduced U.S. schoolchildren to the world outside their country’s borders. One of the exhibits encouraged kids to think about how people around the world are connected by international trade. In an effort to make these connections, sometimes I’d talk with groups of children about where their favorite foods came from. Here is the start of a typical discussion:

Me: Today, let’s talk about some of your very favorite foods and think about where they come from. Who wants to tell us their favorite food? Let’s hear from you [pointing to the 8-year-old in the blue sweatshirt jumping up and down with his hand raised].

Boy: Hot dogs!

Me [thinking, oh dear, I really don’t want to get in a discussion about where hot dogs come from]: Great, that’s a great favorite food. Let’s hear from someone else, too. How about you [pointing to the girl in the purple shirt]?

Girl: Macaroni and cheese!

Me: What kind of macaroni and cheese, the kind you make at home, or the kind you buy in a box?

Girl [screwing up her face as if confused]: Well, we make it at home but it comes from a box!

Me: Oh, right, of course. Now, where does that macaroni and cheese come from?

All the kids in unison: THE SUPERMARKET!

Me: But, how did the box get to the supermarket?

Children [blank stares, silence].

Me: And how did the noodles and cheese get into the box?

Children [blank stares, silence].

Me: And where did the noodles and cheese come from?

Children [blank stares, silence].

Me: Do you think that boxes of macaroni and cheese grow on supermarket shelves?

Children [laughter, followed by blank stares].

Me: Okay, let’s try to work backwards and figure out how this box got to your supermarket….

This story brings me, somehow, to baked beans. Because, not too long ago, if you had asked me how a can of baked beans got to my house, I would probably stutter and stumble and say something like: well, obviously, the beans need to be baked, probably in big batches in a very big oven. Hmm, I’m not sure what type of beans they are, though – maybe a special baking bean? And then there is the sweet and salty sauce that goes on them, or maybe that is what they are baked in – I’m not sure. And then the whole mixture gets poured into a can and goes by truck to the supermarket where I buy it!

Being from Boston, the home of Boston baked beans, I feel I should definitely know more about baked beans and where they come from. Lucky for me, food writers and bloggers have been quite interested in baked beans lately.

While seeking out an African version of baked beans, I found Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for Baked Beans with Nigerian Seasonings. These beans are warmth itself, satisfying and hearty with a hint of spice. They work well as a light dinner or side dish – just remember that the recipe takes two hours to bake, so its not something you want to start preparing at 7:30 on a weeknight! If you have leftovers, try a breakfast of whole-wheat toast topped with the beans.

The main seasoning in these beans is curry powder, which I more closely associate with the East African coastal cooking of Kenya and Tanzania and the Cape Malay cuisine of South Africa rather than with Nigerian cooking. But Jaffrey is one of my favorite chefs, so who I am to question her? After all, the recipe does ask for a hefty amount of black pepper – a very Nigerian touch. The other interesting ingredient in these baked beans is peanut butter, an item used in many dishes in sub-Saharan Africa (including this stew and this snack). In fact, to my mind, these beans are better named “Africa-inspired baked beans.”

I’ve prepared Jaffrey’s baked beans several times now, and I like to make them even more Africa-inspired (and a bit more colorful) by adding a locally-grown green leafy vegetable (such as rape, covo or pumpkin leaves). I’ve added greens both before and after the baking stage. I think “after” works better, although this is not how I did things on the day my husband took the photo above. The recipe works best with delicate cannellini beans, but any small-to-medium white bean will do. When I can’t find white beans at the store, I use local sugar beans instead. Finally, note that you can modify the proportion of hot versus mild curry powder depending on your heat preferences. Enjoy!

Baked Beans with Nigerian Seasonings
Slightly adapted from World Vegetarian
Serves 4-6

180 grams / 1 cup dried cannellini beans
62 milliliters / ¼ cup peanut or canola oil
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon hot curry powder
10 milliliters / 2 teaspoons mild curry powder
2 large tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
22.5 milliliters / 1½ tablespoons smooth peanut butter
6.2 milliliters / 1¼ teaspoons salt
Very generous grind of black pepper
45 grams / 1½ cups of your favorite green leafy vegetable, finely chopped

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. Drain.

Put the beans in a pot with 875 milliliters / 3½ cups of water and bring to a boil, skimming off the foam that rises to the top. Cover partially, turn the heat down to medium-low, and simmer gently for 40-60 minutes until the beans are just tender.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large fry pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for 1-2 minutes until the onion has just wilted, stirring almost constantly to ensure it doesn’t burn. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the curry powders and stir, then add the tomatoes and stir again. Cook for 7-10 minutes, until the tomatoes have softened. Transfer this mixture into a medium casserole dish.

Pre-heat the oven to 162°C / 325°F while you wait for the beans to finish cooking.

Spoon the peanut butter into a small bowl. When the beans are ready, remove 6 tablespoons of the cooking water from the pot and slowly add it to the peanut butter, stirring as you go. Pour the beans and their remaining liquid into the casserole dish. Stir in the peanut butter mixture, salt and pepper.

Bake, uncovered, for two hours until much of the liquid has evaporated and the beans are very tender. Add the greens just after you remove the dish from the oven, and stir them around until they wilt. Serve hot.


Loulou said...

What a great looking recipe! I have everything I need in my pantry so I might be putting those beans to soak tonight.

Jeanne said...

Mmmm, I can't believe I never liked beans as a child! Now I can't get enough of them in any form :-) I have been toying with making my own baked beans for a while now - I mean, if I can get organised enough to soak and boil up big batches of red kidney beans for frijoles, surely I can manage this?! Might be time to actually set a date ;-) I love the idea of the African flavours in this dish, as will my curry-loving husband I suspect. Thanks for sharing!

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Elisa (ITalia9 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

This looks delicious!