My friend Betsy's mom made baked beans every Saturday. I can still smell them — the molasses, the salt pork — as they cooked all day in the oven.
Although I haven't made them in years, I do love baked beans. My husband and I always buy the small can of B&M — original flavor only, please — and then we're surprised to discover that we've eaten the whole can. Nothing left, not even a scoop or two for a baked bean sandwich (on white bread, yum).
It's got to be the sweetness that attracts me. I have a powerful sweet tooth and as for sweet and savory together, well, I can't resist.
So when a colleague here at The Day told me she'd made something thing called Maple-Bourbon Pork and Beans, my taste buds perked right up. She'd found the original recipe in a Williams-Sonoma catalog, of all places, and had made some modifications before passing it on to me. I've made it several times since and have changed her formula very little.
As with all spirits in cooking, it's important to use good bourbon here. If you wouldn't enjoy drinking it, don't cook with it. Also, the recipe calls for chicken sausage. I think a spicy sausage works best — the heat really complements the sweet. Most recently, I used a jalapeno and mango sausage that I found in the meat case at Stop & Shop, and it was delicious. Stay away from an Italian sausage flavor profile. I think Cajun or even Portuguese would be a better direction, but I also think it would be good with turkey kielbasa.
Another plus: this recipe uses a slow cooker. I love the idea of a slow cooker — throw in all the ingredients, go save the world, then come back later to a dinner that's ready to eat. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way. I have only half a dozen or so recipes that work well with this piece of equipment. Often, a meal from the slow cooker is a one-note bowl of mush, but in this case, it's a perfect way to cook beans and it does wonders with the pork and sausage, spreading that boozy sweetness throughout.
Before you declare it done though, taste a random sampling of the beans to make sure they're all cooked through. There's nothing worse than a crunchy bean.
We like to eat a big steamy bowl of this with a coleslaw that my husband makes using broccoli slaw, horseradish, not too much mayo and perhaps a hit of Dijon mustard. Delish.
Maple-Bourbon Pork and Beans
2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 4 chunks
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound chicken sausage, sliced, preferably spicy
3 yellow onions, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
¼ cup bourbon
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 pound dried great northern beans, soaked overnight, drained (see note)
¼ cup maple syrup
3 cups vegetable broth (I used chicken last time because the box was already open. Perfectly fine.)
Stir together tomatoes, beans, maple syrup and broth in slow cooker.
Season pork with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, then brown pork hunks on all sides. This should take 15 or 20 minutes minutes. Leave the hunks undisturbed on one side, about 4 minutes, before turning. You want them good and brown.
Add the browned pork to the slow cooker, nestling it down into the beans.
Next, in the same pan, brown the sausage slices. Add them to the slow cooker.
Finally, reduce the heat under your sauté pan to medium and cook onions and celery for 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, tomato paste, thyme and bay leaf and cook 1 minute. Stir in the bourbon and cook 1 minute more. Add to the beans and pork.
Set the slow cooker to high and cook for 4 hours or until beans are thoroughly cooked and tender. Find the bay leaf and discard it. Remove the pork hunks to a plate and shred, then add the meat back to the slow cooker. Let sit for a few minutes and serve.
Note: I never remember to soak my dried beans overnight, but the quick method works great: Sort and rinse the beans. Put them in a pot with enough water to cover them by about 3 inches. Bring to a good boil. Remove from heat, cover, let stand 1 hour, and they're ready to use.
Original recipe from Williams-Sonoma.
Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Share comments or recipes with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.