Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Baked Beans, Cousins and Robert DeNiro

I must say, I make good beans.

This has been the one dish I have made and perfected for my family for almost 20 years, long before I took a serious commitment to the kitchen.  I'm delighted to say my recipe has made it into one of the most requested and/or expected dishes to be served at all family events from May through September. The demand is almost close enough to the expectation for stuffed cabbage on Christmas to my aunt's French onion chip dip, which is expected at EVERY family event and national holiday.  Since my husband has been a welcome part of this family and a hungry fan of her dip, she now makes a double batch that seems to go just as quickly as before he was around.

I am honored that my fantastic younger cousins (16 to late 20s)  have said they have loved growing up knowing that my beans were going to be part of the family bbqs.  Food is so much more than taste.

I volunteered to take this position.  It was the first opportunity I had as a young, independent adult to create and contribute.

My mom's late cousin Linda used to make the beans for family functions when I was young, and when she was available.  Linda was quite a character in my family, though her beans did lack some.  I was six in 1977 when scenes for The Deer Hunter were being filmed in the Tremont neighborhood and the steel mills in Cleveland, Ohio.  Linda was a bar maid at one of the bars by the mills.  I'll never know if Linda worked at the bar that was in the film, but she did work in one in the area.

Linda.  Mom and Uncle's cousin they grew up with off Buckeye Rd, then off Chevy Blvd playing kick the can and going to Saturday matinees  She was someone Mom called 'street wise' when I was young.  She sometimes arrived on a loud, grumbling motorcycle with the tallest man I had ever seen.  His name was Kenny.  His faced looked like Jesus.  But, he wore a leather vest with a white t-shirt and had tattoos all over his arms of crosses with skulls and flames.  I was confused.  I was afraid of him, although he was always nice and friendly to me when he greeted me, then left me alone.

Nowadays, lots of our acquaintances and a number of our beloved friends look like that, including Hubby's best friend in our wedding party.

I remember the day when our brassy haired, brassy-living Linda was ecstatic.  All the adults gathered around and gasped as they gazed at some small picture she pulled from her wallet.  They then explained to my younger brother and me under their waists in simple terms that she met a movie star.

Years later I learned from Mom that she spent an afternoon drinking Rolling Rock beer with Robert DeNiro in his trailer while shooting the Deer Hunter.

Years later when we were young teens she spent more time with Mom, Brother and me, and it was so much fun.  Kenny fell off the radar somewhere between my ages of 6 and 10, I guess; and her newer boyfriend, "Butch," was ..... well ..... away for a few years .....

Linda was a grandparent, buddy and truant officer when she took my brother and me on a few adventures of our own.

She spoiled us on junk food even though Mom told her not to.  She took us to see Purple Rain when I was 13 and Brother was 11.  We thought she was cool.  Sarcastic. Funny. Tough. She frosted over a few stories of her past; not to sugar coat it, but to let us know in Teen Terms that her path was one both of us should not take, and she'd kick our ass if we did.

"DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO OR DID," said Linda about 1,000 times.

She passed in the late 90's from leukemia.  She was 47.

Surprisingly, her beans lacked the lust for life I thought she had, especially after knowing some savory stories.  She'd pour a few generic cans of " 'pork 'n beans' in tomato sauce" into a baking pan, added salt and pepper, and layered strips of raw bacon on the top, then baked until the bacon was slimy and greasy.

I think of Linda and her beans each time I make them.  I'll always remember her flavored life and spicy stories.  My beans have been created with some spice and sass both in her honor, and in my desire to make a dish my family will pass down.

Many have asked for this recipe, but until now, there hasn't been one.  I've just opened cans of beans until the pot was full, then I started playing with all kinds of flavors: A big squirt of mustard, stir, taste, add another dash of vinegar, stir, taste, until I started to be able to 'eyeball' how much was to go in.

As I make these for my lovely cousin's Sweet 16 party, I've finally measured and jotted down how I make this.

I can never make too much it seems.  Even though there seems to be a lot of leftovers after first helpings, my family usually grabs seconds or makes sure a spoonful goes into the take-home leftovers for work the next day.

If you like tangy beans with a nice balance of spice and sweetness be sure to give this one a try.

This recipe can easily be made as vegan or vegetarian.

It's not hard to make and most of the ingredients are probably already in your fridge.

Before you begin, a few notes:

Rule #1 - MUST be made a day or two ahead of time.

The beauty of this recipe is that you are welcome to customize it to suit your own taste.  A little more or a little less of anything I've included in this recipe won't be bad.  If you are making this for your first time, start with 1/2 of the seasoning I suggested, stir, let cook for at least 15 minutes (30 is better), taste, then gradually add the rest of the seasonings until it has the taste you enjoy.

But, be mindful the flavors will mellow and get more intense leaving it overnight.  You can always add the rest or more of the seasonings before you bake it the next day.

I have never had the need to add salt to this recipe, even when I've left out the bacon.  There is enough salt in the canned beans and other ingredients.

Cooking it low and slow is the key.  It must marry and have a honeymoon overnight in the refridgerator.  It's the only way to get the best flavor.

As you can see in the photo, a significant visual drop from where the sauce surfaced., the sauce will reduce and thicken during cooking and cooling and will repeat the next day.

Serves 20-25

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F


1/2 to 1 pound of sliced bacon (preferably thick cut, preferably lower sodium) *OMIT FOR VEGAN OPTION

1 cup of onions, diced
3 15 oz cans of black beans, drained
3 15 oz cans of pork and beans or baked beans in tomato sauce
2 cans pinto beans
* spicier option: 1/2 to 1 whole jalapeno seeded and finely diced 
** really hot and spicy option: throw a few of those jalapeno seeds in

1 Tablespoon garlic powder (NOT garlic salt!)
Another Cleveland Tradition
1 Tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon pepper
1 Tablespoon sweet paprika
1 Tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup Cider vinegar
2 Tablespoons spicy brown mustard (my favorite is Cleveland's Satadium Mustard)
2 Tablespoons yellow mustard
2 teaspoons liquid smoke (not entirely necessary if you don't have it, but it does give a distinctive BBQ flavor)

1/3 cup of honey (or brown sugar, but I like honey the best for its taste and better nutritional value, plus, I use the honey my uncle has been making with his neighbor for over a decade)

One stove top pot
one baker, bean pot, cake pan, etc, aluminium.

Slice bacon into thin strips 

Add to stove pot, turn stove onto medium high (6-8).  Once bacon starts to sizzle, stir once every 30 seconds until some pieces start to appear done with slightly brown or crispy edges.

Turn stove down to low.

Add the raw onions.  I like that all of the onion flavor cooks slowly.  It goes right into the sauce instead of sauteing first.  Plus, I know the sauce isn't done yet if the onions aren't clear and tender.

Add beans and optional pepper or pepper seeds.

Add spices, stir.

Add liquids, stir. Turn to medium high (6 to 8)

(you can add these all at once or once at a time, I'm just trying to keep this first written recipe organized)

After the ingredients have cooked together at medium for about 15 minutes, until everything is warmed through, hot enough to taste, then add the honey
Stir and incorporate the honey into the rest of the sauce.   Turn up to high if necessary, until there are rapid bubbles in the sauce, but not boiling.  Then, turn down to low (lo to 2), until there is a very low, but steady stream of a few bubbles; a low but active simmer. 

Cook for 60 to 90 minutes, stirring occasionally (every 15 to 30 minutes), until onions are clear and very tender.  This is important, because the beans will settle at the bottom - even more important if you don't have a non-stick pan.

Let cool for at least 30 minutes before covering and resting them in the fridge for the night.  The beans can be transferred at this time to the baking container for the next day.  Or, you can leave it in the stove pot, then transfer to the baker before going into the oven.

The next day is Bake Time.  Even if you are doing these beans to take to a party, bake them before at home, unless you know you have enough time and oven space to watch it.  It needs to bake for a certain amount of time to thicken the sauce, as well as cooling it until warm.  It will be dense, so it should stay warm for a while.

Set in a covered baking pan or pot in a preheated 350 degree oven. 

***** These baking times below are just approximate, ovens and pans will vary. *****

Bake about 30 minutes in a covered (lid or foil) square or rectangle baking pan until it starts to bubble, stir gently, remove cover.
- OR - 
Bake about 45 to 60 minutes in a deeper covered baker, stirring once halfway.  Remove cover.

Reduce oven to 300 and bake for another 20, 30 or 40 minutes, depending on the shallowness of the dish and how thick and blackened you may want your beans.  

The more you bake it and stir it uncovered, the thicker the sauce will get, especially upon cooling.  

Enjoy, and thank you for reading.

As you can see, there's not much left for the lucky few who wants seconds or leftovers.

Different shapes, different colors, different textures in a tangy sauce that doesn't run into your hot dog or burger bun.  It's hefty enough to stand on its own.


  1. Enjoyed the read Charlene.

    Funnily enough, I'm just discovering baked beans after all these years!

    Shall give your recipe a try, probably with a Sangiovese...especially with our Downunder winter only one day off!
    Cheers, ic

    1. Thank you, Ian. Baked beans are the perfect comfort food in your seasonal transition. If you plan on making this just for yourself, your Lady and a few blokes, just add a can of each bean and reduce the other ingredients by half. You almost can't get this too saucy. If it is, stir and keep it in the oven for another 10 minutes or so.

      I have made it for 8 to 10 and up to 40 for my Godson's graduation party, but never for two.

  2. Charlene, I was so taken by Linda's story, I was surprised when you started with the beans again! She seems to have been quite the star of the circuit. Sad, she had to go like that.

    I go weak at the knees at the thought of a plate of beans to go with rice. We have a slightly different curry here but the end product looks quite like the shots you have posted. I am going to share with my wife right away! :)Incidentally, that is fine food photography, especially the last shot.

    1. Uma, thank you very much. Coming from a writer that knows how to capture a soul in just a few words, I thank you. As we have discussed with your recent story, I also feel there was plenty of time and space to expand on the Linda concept, as I'm guessing that you can and could have written volumes on Cleo/Ruby, Sonjia, and even the sly banter between the inspector and Samir.

      But, Dickens would have died online.

    2. Umashankar, my knees quiver a bit with beans. I'm quite used to making them in a Mexican or American BBQ style, but not Indian.

      I have a few spices used in Indian cooking, some I've used in others, some I have yet to use - I've been a bit nervous about trying Indian at home, fearing it won't be as good as it has been in the few Indian places I've visited and enjoyed.

      I have cumin powder, cardamon powder, Garam Masala powder, and sweet curry powder. I also have coconut milk.

      If you or your lovely wife have any recipes that you'd like to share, I'm all eyes and ears!!!!

    3. 'Dickens would have died online.' You never know, Charlene! He was one industrious writer. Anyway, my chest has swollen momentarily by that allusion. Thank you!

      I will coax my wife into jotting down some of her recipes! ;)

    4. I'd be honored and delighted. And, I'd give you and your beloved credit, of course!

      You're right about Dickens.

  3. Now, THIS is what a food blog is all about, IMO. I absolutely loved reading this, Charlene, how you wove together a snapshot of free-spirited, wild at heart Cousin Linda and the irony of her bland baked beans, a glimpse into your family's way of celebrating with food, and your own fondness of cooking and local Cleveland color. Your recipe sounds fabulous, and I like the addition of cocoa (when I make chili, I always use Guinness, strong coffee, and unsweetened chocolate to add depth of flavor). Wonderful!

    1. Kris, I really can't thank you enough for your kind words.

      Yes, I also use cocoa in my chili, and sometimes beer. They do give extra depth! Never tried coffee though,,,, yet..... Thanks for the tip!

  4. Reading this was so much fun. I'd have liked to know Linda. She would certainly have added color to my life! And the beans look delicious, too. What a wonderful combo -- great story, great food.

    1. Thank you, Janene! A colorful spirit like yourself would have appreciated the extra hues.

  5. Great post, Charlene. Every kid needs a cousin Linda in their life and a plate of delicious homemade baked beans.

  6. A recipe and a tale to go with it. Linda sounds like somebody who made life interesting. Good post.

  7. Having my father working for Heinz for my entire childhood, and with a constant supply of their most famous product on tap, I have always been somewhat biased. However, I am sorely tempted by this recipe. Great story too, thanks.

    1. Dale, I understand and respect family loyalty. Grandpa worked for Ford, so guess what cars we drove?

      I do like Heinz beans. And, Heinz ketchup is my ALL time favorite. I use it in my recipe.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. Charlene, yours is the kind of family I'd like to be an honorary member of. Not that I can complain as a useless (in the kitchen) male in my own family where my wife produces culinary magic, but I'd love to try those beans and hear some more family stories. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Neil, thank you, and pull yourself up to the table! I'll be posting more family recipes and stories to accompany them.

  9. Charlene, I love baked beans! Your recipe is a winner, an interesting combination of ingredients and different beans. Thanks for the detailed instructions and photos.

    What a story about your cousin, Linda. She was such an independent free spirit, I would have liked her. Wow about her spending an afternoon drinking beer with Robert DeNiro in his trailer while he was shooting Deer Hunter!! Love DeNiro, fantastic actor, and Deer Hunter was a great movie. So sorry Linda lost her life to leukemia.

    You have written a loving tribute to your cousin Linda in this post. And you have also honored her by spicing up her baked beans to match her spice and sass for life! Thank you for sharing a piece of her with us, and for sharing that yummy baked bean recipe!

    1. Thank you so much, JerseyLil! I can only imagine that Mr. DeNiro thought she was as unique as we do.

  10. I'll have to try this at our next BBQ. :)