Thursday, October 30, 2014

Boston Baked Beans

To tell the truth, I’ve never been a big fan of baked beans.  Here in the South, people make them too damn sweet.  Cloyingly sweet.  Sickeningly sweet.  Sometimes it tastes as if people just pour a big bottle of Karo Syrup over their beans and serve ‘em up.  Hmm, maybe they do. 

Store-bought beans are no better.  I’ve tried pretty much every brand and it’s pretty much the same thing:  Sugar city.

It’s not that I don’t want to like such an old time, down home, ubiquitous dish.  I do, I really do.  But nothing I had ever been served could satisfy me. 

Until Boston.  

Yes, recently we had a day in Boston on our way to Maine, and we supped at the venerable Union Oyster House, 

where I ordered some of the local Skrod fish, which came out battered up and fried.  It also came out with a side of Boston Baked Beans. 

I was credulous, but I tried them.  Wow, just a hint of sweetness, but otherwise some nice savory complexity going on here.  I was hooked.  Boston baked beans seemed to be an different animal than the super sugar beans I’d been getting back home.  I had to make these babies for myself. 

So I did a little research, and it turns out the sweetener in Boston baked beans is molasses, for which the town has a historical association.  Molasses has some sweetness to it (I used to make a brown ale with it in my beer brewing days), but it’s also got some almost coffee-like roasted complexity and bitterness and add a unique flavor to the beans.  Salt pork or bacon is also a usual guest at this party, adding a savory, smoky flavor to the mix. 

I did my usual tricks.  Tried several different recipes, added, subtracted and combined until this is what I came up with below.  It was pretty damn close to the Union Oyster House, and so, I hope it is a good rendition of the dish. 

Boston Baked Beans

1.5 pounds dried white beans
3 Tablespoons Butter
1 onion, chopped
3/4 Cup Molasses
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1/4 Cup Tomato Paste
1/4 Cup Brown Mustard
1 8 oz smoked ham steak, cubed and pureed (optional)
1/4 lb salt pork or bacon, diced
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Pinch ground cloves
Pinch Smoked Paprika
5 Cups water

So basically, making baked beans is sort of like smoking a brisket in that you’re going to do it low and slow.  Adding sugar and calcium (in the form of the molasses) to beans tends to toughen them, so it takes a longer cooking time to make them nicely soft.  The advantage to this arrangement is that during that long, slow cooking time the other ingredients you have put in meld to create an amazingly flavorful and rich sauce for the beans, and the beans absorb a bit of that flavor as well.  It’s all good. 

Most of the recipes I found called for just adding most of your ingredients to the pot with the beans and cooking away, low and slow.  I thought we could develop a bit more flavor if we sautéed the onions and the bacon first, so that’s what we’re gonna do. 

First, the night before, soak your beans in enough water to cover them by a couple of inches.  Next morning, drain the beans and discard this water.  Set beans aside. 

Preheat oven to 300F.

Melt the butter in your bean pot or Dutch oven and add the chopped onions.  

Sauté the onions for 8-10 minutes until they turn clear and start to brown.  Dice your bacon or salt pork...

And add it to the onions, stir, and sauté this mixture for five minutes more or so. 

While this is going on, make your molasses infusion.  To a mixing bowl, add the molasses, 

the brown sugar, 

tomato paste, 


Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, cloves and paprika.  Add a cup of water to this and whisk it up well and set aside. 

If you’re using the ham steak, 

dice it 

and puree it 

and add it to the onion bacon mixture.  This is my little twist/secret ingredient to boost the savory, smoky flavor of the beans.  It’s not trad, dad, but since you’re pureeing it, no one will notice anything but the boosted, amped up flavor, which they should love. 

Next, add the beans to the pot, then top up with four cups water.  

Finally, add your molasses mixture.  

Do not stir the beans at this point.  We want everything layered for the initial cooking stage so that he sugars don’t sink to the bottom and potentially burn. 

Cover the pot with its lid 

and place in the oven.  Bake for eight hours or more, checking the pot every couple of hours to add a bit of water if it gets below the level of the top of the beans.  After four hours you can stir your beans.  After eight to ten they will be ready to serve.  They should look like this:

Serve ‘em up and enjoy!

Until Next Time,

Bake ya some beans,


Monday, October 20, 2014

Flashback to Maine: Lobster Rolls at Red's Eats

Those of you who know me well know that I have an uncanny attraction to the state of Maine.  Even though I was born in, raised, and have lived almost all of my life in Texas, something about The Pine Tree State has always drawn me in and fascinated me.  I really can’t explain why.  I had no real exposure to anything remotely related to Maine as a child, other than perhaps Hawkeye Pierce’s wistful reminiscences of his (fictional) home town of Crabapple Cove, Maine.  Since I looked up to Hawkeye as a role model, that was probably it. 

So, finally after college I was able to visit Maine.  I fortuitously chose October for my visit, and much of the state was afire with autumn splendor.  It was like a fall fantasy land.  Everything that should be right and sweet and proper about a fall that could only be remembered (but had never existed) from one’s childhood was right here in Maine.  Fall colors to rival a Maxfield Parrish palette, little country roads, carnivals, pumpkin patches and fields of Indian corn.  It was as if I’d landed in a Ray Bradbury novel, only without the supernatural shenanigans.   



Yes, Maine is a trip back in time, a best-kept secret, a throwback to an idealistic era.  Here is a land where people don’t lock their doors, where people are kind and gregarious, if a little reserved in that Yankee charm sort of way.  Even the ‘big’ cities (Portland, Bangor) are little. And charming.  And quaint.  But take care, particularly if you’re looking for a meal.  Restaurants and pubs, particularly out of season, can have notoriously quirky hours, and some of the smaller towns in Maine roll up the sidewalks at dusk. 

One of these places I discovered on a coastal drive in Maine many many years ago was Red’s Eats.  It’s a little roadside stand (or, more appropriately, lobster shack) in Wiscasset, Maine, and I discovered it on my way to Castine, or Stonington, or one of those other little coastal Maine towns I’ve visited way back when.  It was the middle of the day, half way between lunch and dinner, but something made me stop and check out this little place. 

I decided to get something I could carry with me and eat in the car, and for some reason, hot dogs sounded like a good bet from a place called ‘Red’s.’  (Red Hots, get yer Red Hots!)  Well, I wasn’t disappointed.  Red’s turned out to take hot dog production to a new level.  It was, indeed, the best hot dog I’ve ever had.  They start by splitting the plump beef frank and sort of butterflying it open, 

then they grill it on their ancient griddle, weighed down with a cooking weight so it gets a nice sear.

Then they load it up with relish, mustard and sauerkraut and serve it on a buttered and toasted New England style hot dog bun. 

The N.E. hot dog bun took me for a bit of a loop when I first saw it.  Coming from Texas I’d never seen anything like it, so I at first thought that they had just folded a piece of bread around the frank, for the sides of a New England hot dog bun look like white bread, and not the brown crust color of the buns I was used to here in Texas.  

After eating my dog on this bun, however, I have to say that I don’t know why they are made any other way.  This exposed crumb texture (looks like a slice of white bread from the side) allows them to be buttered and grilled, giving one’s dog a much more crispy, savory taste.  Also, the split is on the top, and not the side, so all the ingredients and fillings stay put.  Gravity works, my friends. 

This of course, is a good thing, when it comes to a proper lobster roll, the item that Red’s is actually famous for.  I didn’t try one that first time, but I did the next, and the next, and so on and so on. 

The N.E. hot dog bun is proper because it can hold a lot of lobster, and that, in my opinion, is absolutely required in a good lobster roll.  And Red’s doesn’t skimp on theirs.  There is more than a whole lobster in each roll.  


Another thing in their favor is they don’t try to turn their lobster meat into some sort of salad, like some places do.  There’s no celery to be seen, and if you want mayo or drawn butter, it’s served on the side.  No, it is the unadulterated flavor of lobster that you get from a Red’s roll, and that is as it should be.  The lobster is always perfectly cooked and served chilled on the hot bun.  Basically, what you’re getting with a lobster roll like this is the same thing you’re getting from a whole lobster, just without all the work.  With a lobster roll, someone has deconstructed your lobster for you.  I like to eat mine starting out with a fork, 

as the meat is spilling over the bun, with just maybe an occasional dip in the butter.  

When the lobster’s under control, I’ll pick up the bun and get down to business. 

So, to sum up, here’s how to make the perfect lobster roll. 

Get one more lobster than the number of rolls you’re going to make.  I.E., if you’re going to make four, get five, so that you can have some extra meat, and have ‘more than one lobster in each roll.’

Boil or steam the lobsters as you choose, just don’t overcook them.  Overcooked lobster is rubbery.  Separate the meat out of the claws and tail.  Coarsely chop it.

Try your best to acquire New England style hot dog buns.  Butter them and toast them on the side.  Fill them with the lobster meat and serve with a little drawn butter on the side. 

That’s it.  You’re done.  Go and enjoy your lobstah rolls. 

Note, if you can’t get New England hot dog buns, regular can be used, or even a hamburger bun.  Try to butter and toast them as best you can.  This really ramps up the experience.  One other alternative is to make your own buns.  I have this handy-dandy New England hot dog bun pan from King Arthur flour that makes a perfect batch of buns every time. 

Until Next Time,


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mushroom Vol au Vents

There’s something about French cuisine that sends my heart (and my stomach) on flights of culinary fantasy.  The very names of the dishes seem steeped in legend and lore, calling forth images of the finest of tables laden with dishes of renown.  These names in the French tongue, perhaps the most beautiful of any language I’ve ever heard, lend themselves to this fancy.  Cordon Bleu, Coq au Vin, Pot au Feu…and of course, Vol au Vents.  It’s both beautiful and fun to say as well.

Vol au Vent means 'blowing wind' (more or less) in French, and perhaps this pastry got that name because they are light and airy, as if filled with the air from the very wind that blows across the land.  These pastries are often filled with sweet, fruity or creamy concoctions at French patisseries, but they are also served savory style, and that is where we are going today, courtesy of the champignon, or as we say here in ‘merica, the mushroom.

Mushroom Vol au Vents

2 Sheets Puff Pastry, Rolled Out 10”x10” Square
1 Egg, Beaten
1 Lb Cremini Mushrooms, Chopped
1 Large Onion, Diced
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
1 Tablespoon Herbs de Province
1/2 Cup Dry White Wine
1/4 Cup Flour
1/3 Cup Milk
1/3 Cup Heavy Cream
6 Tablespoons Butter

For this recipe I use frozen puff pastry sheets.  

They are quite good, and making homemade puff pastry at this point in life is beyond my skill set.  If you want to make things even easier, you can by puff pastry shells for your Vol au Vents, but I think this takes some of the fun out of the process, and they don’t seem to taste as good as making them out of the sheets.

Preheat Oven to 400F.  Thaw the puff pastry sheets according to directions on the box and, when they are fully thawed, lightly flour a work surface and roll out the sheets with a rolling pin until each is about ten inches by ten inches.  (you can do them one at a time, if space is a premium)  

With the first sheet, use a four inch biscuit or cookie cutter and cut out four disks of puff pastry.  If you’re like me and don’t have a four inch biscuit cutter, use a small bowl, and press it down firmly onto the dough. 

Lay these disks on a baking sheet that is greased or lined with parchment paper.  

Brush the egg wash over the disks. 

Now, with the other sheet of puff pastry, cut four more disks, then, using a smaller two and a half inch cutter, cut another circle centered in each of the disks.  

Now take each of these doughnut-like rings you’ve created and place them on the solid disks.  

Brush again with the egg wash.  

If you want, you can also place the smaller, two and a half inch disks on the baking tray.  They’ll puff up as well and make little lids for your Vol au Vents. 

Place the baking sheet in the 400F degree oven and bake for 20 minutes, until they are puffed up and golden brown. 

While these are baking, you can make your filling.

Melt three tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet.  Add the diced onion and sauté until translucent.  Clean and chop your mushrooms, 

then add them to the skillet.  

Cook until the mushrooms have softened and reduced in size.  At this point, add the minced garlic and herbs de province and let cook for about a minute.  Add the white wine and stir to deglaze the pan.  Let the wine reduce by half and then sift in the flour and stir.  

Cook for 30-40 seconds and then add the milk.  

Stir and lit this reduce a bit.  Add the heavy cream 

and allow this to reduce by about a third.  Finally, add the last three tablespoons butter and allow this to melt, stirring frequently.  

When butter is melted, turn off heat.

When the puff pastries are baked, remove from oven and let stand a minute or two.  

Sometimes the middle of the pastries will have risen as much as the outer ring—if this is the case, remove the middle cap and any thin pastry crumb that may be inside.  

Use a knife to gently cut the disk out if you have too. 

When this is done, spoon the hot mushroom filling into the pastries, 

partially cover with a pastry cap, and serve immediately, either as an appetizer course or as a side.

Here we’ve served one with some Chicken Normandy

Until Next Time,

Bon Appétit!