With the summer grilling season in full swing, there’s no dearth of items to scorch over gas flames or hot coals, but man does not live by char alone. Every steak, burger or grilled pineapple needs something to round out the meal, and here in the South, baked beans are a staple of outdoor eating. Of course, you can cheat, and buy your baked beans in a can. But for the purist there’s nothing like doing it yourself.
For years, my mother wowed the family at get –togethers and family reunions at Paris Mountainstate park near Greenville, and Table Rockstate park just over the border in Pickens County, with her own much-requested baked bean opus. I learned her recipe by staying up until the wee hours after being pressed into service as her sous chef while she scurried around the kitchen preparing various dishes for an upcoming feast. I have taken her recipe including two of the twists she added to the old standby, which greatly improve the flavor.
The first twist she taught me was to add a few drops of maple flavoring. The maple adds a soft undertone to the recipe. The second twist was to make the beans a day ahead and refrigerate them overnight. Many people feel that certain dishes, for instance chili and spaghetti sauce, taste better after refrigeration for a day. My mother extended this technique to her beans. The rest period intensifies the flavors, especially of the onions and peppers, and allows the seasonings extra time to meld and intensify.
I have added a couple of my own tweaks, which I believe complement her effort. Now that my mother has gone on to that great kitchen in the sky, I have taken on the mantle of family beanmeister. This recipe is de rigeur at dinners with the extended family.
As my mother taught me, this recipe gets better with age. Back in the day, before microwave ovens, the beans would end up being re-heated on the stove several times as left overs (it was blasphemy to toss them out) until the sauce acquired the thickness of toothpaste and the beans were small, slightly crunchy shadows of their former selves. The flavors become more and more concentrated as the dish approaches petrification.
I have learned since growing up that these beans are also very good eaten cold out of the fridge at three in the morning when returning from a night of revelry with an acute case of the munchies.
1-31 oz. can Van Camp’spork and beans
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green or red bell pepper, chopped
¼ cup packed brown sugar, honey or molasses( or mix ‘em up!)
2 tbsp. prepared mustard
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
¼ tsp. maple flavoring
1tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste
¼ tsp. liquid smoke
Mix all ingredients, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Pour into a 1-1/2 quart baking dish and bake, uncovered, in a 325° oven for 1-1/2 hours or until sauce is thickened. Serve hot or cold.
In the Northeast, one could substitute real maple syrup for the sugar and maple flavoring, but here in the South maple syrup is neither fresh nor cheap.
If you want to cheat, or are pressed for time, Bush’smarkets what they call “Grillin’ Beans” in four different varieties. TheSouthern Pit Barbecue flavor is very close to that of my mother’s recipe.