The Other Beantown
We’re pretty much over the jet lag from our trip to Italy (finally!), but not the wine and food lag. I still find myself with a hankering for Prosecco, pasta and gelato at the oddest times of the day. I find this strange, though, particularly because I actually became bored eating the same pasta and gelato flavors day in and day out. Don’t get me wrong. It was all usually delicious. Yet, after hearing from a native Italian that there are over two thousand types of pasta, I couldn’t figure out why almost every restaurant we ate in only offered the same three or four pastas with even fewer sauces. And as hard as it might be to believe, not all gelato is created (or served) equally. The kids didn’t care about the fine nuances of gelati by the end of the trip, but I certainly wasn’t going to waste calories on gelato flavors that didn’t excite my taste buds.
When we first arrived, we tried them all. It was noodleroni heaven for the boys and the carb-starved teenager. Oops! I forgot. Two of the boys turned into teen-achers halfway through our trip. As for me, I reached the half-century mark two days after the boys turned the tide on the previously delicate balance of hormones in our household. Nonetheless, we’re a carb-lovin’ family and some of us (old farts) are paying the post-vacation price for our addiction. I’m officially going on the same high-protein/low-no alcohol diet I was on to prepare for the trip. And thank Guido I did or I’d be in such sad physical shape now that I’d probably be a candidate for the fat-vibrator machines I saw on many Italian infomercials. [Ed. Note: From what I saw on the infomercials, Italians are trying to tackle their flabby body problems and are marketing “exercise” machines for the overweight, the elderly and even the busty. No exercise required! Just stick a fat limb, booty or even a neck on the vibrating plate and watch the LB’s melt away!]
Anyway, I digress. For those of you still following along, most of the family is tired of the same offerings at dinner every night—except for Rich, who by this point has tried every animal that has ever starred in a Disney movie. I’m talking rabbit (Thumper from Bambi), wild boar (Pumbaa from Lion King), venison (Bambi from Bambi), donkey (Donkey from Shrek—oops! Not a Disney movie. Oh well, you get the point!). So, he never developed the cravings that some of us dyed-in-the-wool Southern Californians developed. For instance, the eldest teenager could think of nothing better to eat than Mexican food, but that was not to be found in Italy. She tried satisfying her bean cravings with pasta e fagioli (and it worked, to a point). I, on the other hand, was looking for anything other than pasta and Disney animals. I guess in the parts of Italy we were touring, chickens are saved for egg-laying. And fish, well, they were mostly available along the coast. (Note to self: Next time we tour Italy, keep to the coast). We did try some seafood in a very expensive restaurant in Verona (wisely, without bringing the whiners along), and it was a 99% heavenly dining experience. The 1% ding was for one dish that I ordered on the assumption that it would include flown-in fresh crab meat, but it was unfortunately frozen and rather mealy in the texture department. At least the sauce was good, though. And the chef gave me a bouquet of flowers. How cool is that!
The point of this is that it’s great to live in a city that has such a wide variety of cultures so we can experience their many cuisines any time we want—especially this time of year, when we perform what’s known around our place as the Holy Grail of the Grill. We love the ritual of barbecuing and all of the Americana side dishes that go along with it. To assuage the eldest teenager’s craving for beans, I made Los Angeles Crocked Beans (my version of Boston Baked Beans) for the Fourth of July. These aren’t the Mexican beans she craved while in Italy, though this recipe has a south of the border influence that works well with the sweetness of typical baked beans. It makes a great side dish for any kind of BBQ fare and even makes a satisfying main dish when served with a big hunk of cornbread. Even though our beloved Lakers had their butts kicked by the Boston Celtics while we were in Italy (I like to think it was because we weren’t on the continent cheering them on), Bostonians still make a mean bean dish. I like mine better, of course, because I’m from LA and I put jalapeno peppers and beer in my beans and cook it in a crock pot (my salute to the Slow Food movement). The Wine Imbiber would prefer that I used wine instead of beer but, come on, we’re talkin’ beans here!
See what you think. Maybe you have your own regional version of baked or BBQ beans, but I bet you’re going to love mine!
1 pound dried pinto or navy beans (or combination)
12 ounces bacon
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 large onion, finely diced
1 medium jalapeno pepper, finely diced
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons molasses
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup ketchup
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1-1/2 tablespoons minced garlic or 1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
1/2 teaspoon arbol or other hot sauce
1 bottle of beer (optional, but highly recommended by the WI)
Place dried beans in a large bowl and add enough water to cover by 2-3 inches (about 8 cups). Let the beans soak overnight (about 7-8 hours).
Drain and rinse the beans. Simmer beans in 8 cups of water and 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar until tender, about 1 to 2 hours. Drain and set aside, reserving 2 cups of the cooking liquid. Meanwhile, fry up all of the bacon until crisp and reserve about 2/3 of the rendered fat. Crumble the bacon and reserve 1-2 tablespoons for garnish later when the beans are served.
Turn your crock pot on to high. Add the beans and all other remaining ingredients (including the crumbled bacon and reserved bacon fat). If the mixture appears too thick, add some of the reserved cooking liquid and as much of the beer as you want. Or you could just drink the beer while the beans are cooking and use only the cooking liquid for thinning. Whatever you choose to do, be sure to save some liquid for later as the beans will most likely need thinning towards the end of the cooking time.
Cook for 6-7 hours (on high the entire time). The beans should be tender, not mushy. Test them frequently towards the end of the cooking time to avoid over-cooking them. Be sure to stir the beans well a few times as they cook and scrape up anything that sticks to the bottom of the crock pot. Serve the beans with the reserved crumbled bacon sprinkled on top.