A couple of weeks ago, The Gentleman went away for training for his job — it was the first time he’d been away from home for more than a night — he’d left the Wednesday before, come home Friday night and left again Sunday for another week. In one way, I’m glad we got it out of the way, and I was glad he was able to be home for the weekend, but it was a long week for him, me and the hounds.
So I thought I would bribe him to never leave again by having the house smell amazing – AMAZING – when he came home. And since I (now) have a normal 8 to 5 job that means I got to enlist the help of my lovely and trusty crock pot.
Crock pots are magic. True magic. But I rarely use mine, honestly. I have a few trusted recipes, and I’ve been checking out Pinterest (you can follow me here) for some new ones – I’ll let you know how that goes.
Now I love to talk cooking, and I’ve started a new job and have been getting to know everyone and have finally stumbled upon my new cooking co-worker buddies. Phew. I was worried for a minute that they may not exist. But their prowess was confirmed when I asked them if when using a crock pot, if I should saute my onions – and their heads, all three of them, in unison, were shaking NO before I could finish my question. New best cooking friends. (And I will tell you right now, these women mean business.)
So in my attempt at bribery, I decided to make a classic — and one I had not made for the gentleman before — navy beans. The house would smell amazing, we’d have good food for a couple of days, and I could make my favorite thing — baked beans.
Now I will apologize — this is not a recipe. Much of how I learn about cooking is from people: I ask how they make things. Sometimes they tell me specific recipes they use, and that’s amazing, and sometimes they just tell me how they make it, what thing things they put in, a look, a smell. I love it all.
I learned how to make beans from many, many people – wonderful people from the boats, from my Grandmother, from some hilarious cookbooks about the Oregon Trail, cowboys and Alaska settlers, and just plain old trial and error (remember, I was sautéing my onions for the crock pot).
So – my beans – are what some would call a soup. Sometimes it’s clear broth, sometimes mushy, thick beans. I don’t know why. It’s mad science or magic.
So – in the crock pot, dump in a couple cups of dried navy beans. Some chopped onions, carrots, celery, garlic. Bay leaves – two or three – salt, lots of pepper, and a dash of cayenne pepper. Sometimes I throw in a couple of ham hocks, but this time I tried something new — I added six italian sausages. Or you can have it be all vegetables. Stir it all up, cover with water, add a few chicken bullion cubes, put on that lid and turn on the crock pot. Now if you want to do it right, be running around frantically as you try to straighten your hair for work and not forget your coffee so that you can function – and put it on low for 8 to 10 hours – and run out the door.
So, you could eat them this way — the way some would call soup — take out the bay leaves, shred the ham hocks or chop the sausages, add some more salt and pepper. I like a pat of butter in mine. A salad, some rolls. Dinner, done. You can also serve it over rice or mix in some cooked pasta — or save that for day two, because there will be leftovers.
And since it makes a huge crock pot full of beans, here’s another idea: take half the beans and put them in a soup pot. Chop up the sausages, add a can of diced tomatoes, chop up a bunch of kale, cover that until everything came to temp. This is what we had for dinner the night The Gentleman came home. Some good, crusty baguette with butter. Amazing, welcome home dinner that I did not take a picture of. You’ll just have to make it to see.
The Gentleman brought home beautiful new dishes that are perfect for a big bowls of soup, and they’ve been put to good use every day since. He also bought large tea strainer balls we use for making kombucha. Sometime I’ll share with you that mad science project we have going on!
The third way to use these amazing beans is on the next day, when the beans have absorbed some of their broth and become mushier (this is good I promise), they are perfect for making baked beans. Take a pan and butter it — you want the beans to be shallow, an inch deep at the most; the shallower the better, otherwise it will take forever to cook. In your beans, you’ll want to mix spices and sweetness and maybe some meat (bacon?). This is very much personal preference and is absolutely worth the experiment. There is only one wrong answer: what your family won’t eat. So, add brown sugar, cumin, paprika, dash of cayenne pepper, salt, mustard (I didn’t have any dried so I used what was in my fridge) – again all per your taste. Some people swear by liquid smoke. Keep in mind as you’re tasting, the flavors are going to get darker and richer, so don’t season too heavily but don’t be scared to try different things.
Mix it all together, pour it in the prepared pan and then drizzle it with molasses. I use backstrap so I go a little light. If you want sweeter beans (we’re not big on that in this household), sprinkle more brown sugar on top.
Bake in a low oven – between 300 and 325 – for anywhere between one to three hours. You’re looking for the color to deepen and there to be very little liquid left. There’s really only one wrong answer and that’s burning it – if the edges start to brown, pull it out and call it dinner.
I would have liked to cook these another half hour, but we had a dinner party to take them to so they had to come out of the oven. They were amazing, so no complaints, I just know they would have been a bit richer (both in flavor and color) with a little more time. (I didn’t really even have time to get a good picture of them finished!)
One cookbook where I really learned how to make beans and especially baked beans was written by a retired Alaska State Trooper that I found at my local library — and I have no idea the name of the cookbook! The stories have stuck with me and so has his mom’s way to bake beans. And now that I’m thinking of this, I’ll add a forth way to eat beans — the author said that if there was any baked beans left (and this was rarely ever), his mom would make a sandwich from big thick slabs of homemade toasted bread, with the left over baked beans spread in between. I’ve tried it. It’s wonderful, in a warm, hearty, I absolutely get why this was prized, way.
So please, take out your crock pot, and make a big pot of beans and a try a few of these variations. Ask your mom, your friends, your neighbors how they make theirs, or how their mommas used to make theirs — and then make them your way. There really is no wrong way, and every time it will be different, and amazing. And the best kind of potpourri you can have. And if you have more beans then you know what to do with, take a bowlful to your neighbors. They smelled you cooking them; it’s the nice thing to do, really.
I want to say a special thanks to my IG friend and fellow blogger — Kristin @urbanchickenmama — she and I would be hanging out if we lived in the same quadrant of the Pacific Northwest. Please check out her blog, berrybeanfarm — she’s got chickens, bees, garden, food and a beautiful family. Plus bonfires and wine. She’s a smart lady! Thanks, Kristin for the great idea! Hope you enjoy it!