Savory Smoky Baked Beans

Just about every baked bean recipe I’ve ever eaten has hit me a little too heavy on the sweet tooth. Do they really need to have brown sugar and honey and molasses and maple syrup? Geez, it hurts my teeth just thinking about it. My version has some sweetness, but it’s a deep, earthy kind of sweet, thanks to molasses, and balanced with only a bit of brown sugar. There’s dark-roast coffee, cumin, ancho chile, coriander and ginger, too—plenty of savory notes to keep these beans off the dessert end of the potluck table.

You could sauté the onions in olive oil and this recipe would make even a vegan happy. But don’t lament, carnivores. Your beloved bacon will feel right at home in this dish, too. Y’all go ahead and make it your own!

Ingredients

About 4 cups cooked pinto and great northern beans* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. bacon drippings (or extra virgin olive oil)

1 sweet onion, chopped

1 Tbsp. spicy coffee rub*

1 tsp. coarse kosher salt

8 oz. can tomato sauce

2 Tbsp. ketchup (Heinz organic made with sugar)

3 Tbsp. molasses

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 Tbsp. maple-flavored balsamic vinegar*

(Optional) chopped cooked bacon and/or browned meat*

Notes

I cooked the beans from dry, which is easy to do after an overnight soak. For me, the texture of from-scratch beans is worth the minimal effort, and a lot cheaper. If you prefer, use two or three varieties of canned beans. You’ll need 3 cans, and you’ll want to drain and rinse them well before proceeding.

My recipe for spicy coffee rub follows, or substitute any pre-made spice blend that includes coffee, sugar and chili spices, but be mindful of the sodium content and adjust the recipe accordingly.

I’m a very devoted follower of flavored oils and vinegars, and I think the maple balsamic brings a nice maple flavor to these beans, without more “sweet.” Use any other dark balsamic you like (perhaps espresso or dark chocolate), or omit it altogether. It’s kind of like the cherry on top of a sundae—nice, but not necessary.

We had 3 slices of leftover cooked bacon from breakfast and about 1 cup cooked ground bison (a leftover from chili for hot dogs). Both found their way into the baked beans, and the dish was even more hearty and satisfying for it.

Instructions

Sauté onion in bacon drippings (or olive oil) until they’re slightly soft and translucent.

Add spicy coffee rub and salt, and cook until fragrant. Add tomato sauce, ketchup, molasses, brown sugar and maple balsamic vinegar. Cook until sugar is dissolved, and mixture is thick and syrupy.

Preheat oven to 350° F. 

Put prepared or canned beans in an oven-safe, lidded casserole. Pour sauce over beans and fold gently to combine. Bake about 45 minutes, until fully hot and bubbly. I left the lid on for most of the baking time, but removed it for the last 15 minutes. That dark, sticky crust just makes me so happy, and I can’t wait to eat the leftovers cold from the fridge.

Spicy Coffee Rub – my take on a Bobby Flay recipe

Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup ancho chile powder

1/4 cup finely ground dark roast coffee*

2 Tbsp. sweet Spanish paprika

2 Tbsp. dark brown sugar

1 Tbsp. dry mustard

1 Tbsp. ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. ground coriander seed*

2 tsp. ground ginger

2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper (optional to taste)

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 tsp. kosher salt*

Notes

The coffee should be ground as finely as powder, not just ground for coffee. If you have a spice grinder, that’s the best way to achieve the proper grind texture.

Coriander is the seed form of cilantro, but the taste is not similar. You can find it pre-ground at the market, but I much prefer the flavor of freshly ground seeds for this rub. I use a mortar and pestle to crush the seeds, but you could also use a spice grinder, as used for the coffee.

I keep the salt to a minimum in this spice rub recipe to allow more flexibility in its use. If you want a more intense flavor when you use the rub, you don’t end up making your end dish too salty.

Instructions

Combine all ingredients and keep in a tightly covered jar for up to four months.

Use it as a dry rub on steak or ribs before grilling, add a tablespoon to your favorite chili recipe or mixed in with your meat for burgers or tacos. Obviously, use it also in this recipe for savory baked beans.

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Maple Bacon Bourbon Onion Marmalade

There have never been two flavors more perfectly designed for each other than bourbon and bacon. My friend Linda would give an amen, and we’d be correct. Or maybe it’s chocolate and cherry. I’d ask my husband, but it would probably prompt further discussion of all the recipes we should concoct to incorporate all four—bourbon and bacon and chocolate and cherry. Maybe brownies? Or ice cream? That sounds like a rewarding challenge for later—I’ll work on it and let you know (wink).

For now, I’m cooking up a storm in advance of Memorial Day weekend. I know, none of us are likely spending the weekend quite as we’d planned. That’s a given on just about everything this year. My husband, Les, and I have already missed a dreamy beach weekend with Linda and her husband, and my heart positively aches for everyone who has sacrificed once-in-a-lifetime plans for weddings, graduations and funerals. Just thinking about that makes me feel guilty and selfish lamenting a weekend getaway. For sure, the pandemic is revealing all that we’ve taken for granted, and given us new appreciation for the simplest things in life—like a backyard cookout. So this weekend, Les and I are following tradition and firing up the grill to usher in the summer season, even if it ends up being just the two of us. Chances are, you’ll be doing the same.

Everyone has their own favorite thing to put on the grill, and our burgers are no better than yours. But if you’re looking for something new to dress up whatever you’re putting on the grill—well, cue the bourbon and bacon!

My inspiration for this recipe is a book that literally jumped into my cart a few years ago while I was casually browsing at a discount store.

What could possibly go wrong?

It includes plenty of discussion about bourbon etiquette and whiskey history, what type of glass is correct for different types of bourbon cocktails, and what it means for a bourbon to be “bottled in bond” (if you’re wondering, it’s the result of one season, one distillation, and one distillery, and it’s bottled at a minimum of 100 proof; that’s on page 28). But there are also dozens of mouthwatering recipes—for bourbon, for bacon and for a few crossovers that include both. The latter are, without question, my favorites. Here’s my adaptation of one of them, and I’ve elevated everyone’s happy with yet another complementary flavor, maple. Oh yes, I did. The end result is a delicious smoky, savory, sweet and slightly spicy topper for your burgers, steaks, chicken and perhaps even slipped inside a grilled cheese sandwich. (You’re welcome, Linda!)

The recipe will make just about 1 cup and it’ll keep in a jar in the fridge for several weeks. But you’ll be lucky if you have any left after the three-day weekend, especially if you find yourself eating it straight from the jar at 3 am while everyone else is asleep—not that I’ve done that.

Ingredients

2 slices smoked, uncured bacon* (see notes), chopped into pieces

1 small sweet onion, cut into thin, crescent-shaped strips (not rings)

1 small red onion, roughly chopped into pieces

1/4 cup maple sugar*

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

2 Tbsp. bourbon

Pinch of crushed red pepper (or as much as you like)

About 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves

Pinch kosher salt (maybe)*

*Notes

I only purchase “uncured” bacon, which is free of the unnecessary preservative sodium nitrite. If you can find the maple kind of bacon, that’s a win-win. If you aren’t sure what “the maple kind” is, maybe you need to watch this. I literally cannot think or write about bacon without hearing this dog’s “voice.”

So, the maple bacon will be a nice extra touch, but the real flavor comes from the sugar.

Maple sugar is literally a dehydrated, granulated form of real maple syrup. I buy it online, directly from a sugar shack in upstate New York, my old stomping ground. Click here to get some from Big Tree Maple. If you can’t wait for it, substitute 1 Tbsp. light brown sugar and 2 Tbsp. real maple syrup.

You may not want additional salt in the recipe, depending on the sodium content of your bacon. Ours is house-cured by a local butcher and puts a perfectly salty kiss on this. Wait until your marmalade is finished, and add salt only if desired.

Instructions

Cook bacon in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until crisp; remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Drain and discard all but about 1 Tbsp. of the bacon grease. Add sweet and red onions to the same skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until onions are soft and caramelized.

Add maple sugar, stir until dissolved. Stir in vinegar, bourbon, red pepper and thyme leaves. Cook a few minutes until liquid is the consistency of syrup.

Crumble the bacon into smaller pieces, if desired, and add to the onion mixture. Continue to cook several minutes, until mixture is thickened to a jam-like consistency. Adjust salt to taste.

Transfer to a covered jar and store in the fridge up to a month. Slather it on your favorite grilled meat. Or just eat it with a spoon—there’s no judgment here.

The finished marmalade will keep nicely in a sealed jar, or any dish with a tight lid. Keep it in the fridge, but bring to room temperature when you’re ready to use it.

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Kentucky Hot Brown Dip

Not everyone has the time (or the patience) to make a fussy Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict, or the traditional open-faced brioche sandwich that served as inspiration for it. Here’s a super simple way to enjoy all the same flavors, but in a make-ahead dip version. You’ll notice that my recipe does not mention adding salt—this is not accidental. I’ve used deli sliced turkey to keep it simple. Between that and the bacon, the recipe doesn’t need more salt.

Ingredients

4 slices thin uncured bacon, cut into 1/2” pieces

About 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup sweet onion

3 oz. thinly sliced deli turkey, chopped into smaller pieces—about 1/2 cup packed

1 pkg. (8 oz.) Neufchatel cream cheese

1/4 cup light mayo

1/4 cup light sour cream

Small handful fresh Italian parsley, cleaned and chopped

1 small (10 oz.) can Rotel tomatoes (mild version), drained completely

3/4 cup Swiss-Gruyere cheese blend from Trader Joe’s

2 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese (and extra to sprinkle on top)

Freshly ground black pepper

Tools

Cast-iron skillet
Stand mixer or electric hand mixer
Rubber spatula
Cutting board and knife
Small non-stick skillet
Oven-safe baking dish (volume about 4 cups)*

Instructions

Place cast iron skillet over medium heat and cook bacon pieces until crispy. Set aside on paper towels to drain; when cool, chop the crispy pieces into smaller, basically uniform bits.

Place small skillet over medium heat and add olive oil. When it begins to shimmer, add chopped onions and sauté until caramelized. Add chopped turkey to the pan and continue to sauté until turkey pieces have browned edges. Set aside to cool.

In mixer bowl, whip cream cheese until smooth. Add mayonnaise and sour cream and whip again until blended, stopping once to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add Swiss-Gruyere blend, parmesan, parsley and tomatoes and mix gently until blended (don’t whip too much or tomatoes will lose their shape and turn the cream cheese pink). Season with freshly ground black pepper.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a silicone spatula to gently fold the turkey and onions, plus half of the crispy bacon, into the cream cheese mixture. Transfer the dip mixture to an oven-safe baking dish*, and top with remaining crispy bacon and another sprinkle of parmesan.

* We are still doing physical distancing (which is really bumming me out, but still necessary), so I’ve divided the dip mixture into separate ramekins to share with friends and neighbors for their own private Virtual Kentucky Derby gatherings (of two). These adorable dishes were handed down from my grandma, and I just love them! Each holds about 1 1/4 cups of dip mixture.

Proceed with baking, or cover and store in the fridge up to 3 days, until ready to serve.

Baking and Serving

Preheat oven to 350° F. Bake, loosely covered with foil, for about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes longer, or until hot and bubbly.

Serve piping hot, spread on crackers, baguette slices or these dainty little brioche toasts I found at Trader Joe’s.

These seem appropriate, in keeping with the traditional “Hot Brown” open face sandwich on brioche.

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