Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ruth Reichl, Mothers, French Canadian Baked Beans: A Love Story

Tomorrow night (Thursday, May 7, at 7pm), Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl will be at Politics & Prose to discuss her latest book, Not Becoming My Mother. I'm planning to go, but I don't think I will ever read the book. For now at least, it's available only in hardcover, and the Economical Epicurean would never waste her money that way. And, besides, Not Becoming My Mother is -- surprise -- about Ruth Reichl's mother and, frankly, I'm sick and tired of Ruth Reichl's mother. Within the past few months, I've read two other Reichl memoirs, Tender at the Bone (loved it) and Garlic and Sapphires (liked it). Both of these memoirs center around Reichl's life's work -- cooking and eating. The former is about her years as a burgeoning home cook and then chef, and the latter is about her experience as the New York Times restaurant critic. Both books are engaging page-turners, filled with mouth-watering recipes and a heaping side of angst. (I think I liked Garlic and Sapphires less because I just couldn't sympathize with all the angst that apparently went with getting paid to write about four-star meals for America's most prestigious newspaper. I felt only jealousy, sometimes to the point of rage.)

Another thing these books have in common is a fixation on Reichl's literally and figuratively toxic mother. As "The Queen of Mold," she provides some great material for Reichl's more humorous pages, but for the most part she is a huge source of conflict in her daughter's otherwise enviable life. I really don't need to read any more about this difficult woman, especially since probably most of the books I read involve the tenuousness of mother-daughter relationships as a major theme. Enough, already! But I still can't get enough of Ruth Reichl, so I will go see her anyway. And I hope -- and fully expect -- that her stories of reconciliation and forgiveness are peppered throughout with stories about food, as those stories are what Reichl does best.

That reminds me of baked beans, which I used to think were disgusting. I promise, there is a proper segue on its way. As I discussed in my last post, we celebrated my friend and roommate Mike Sanders' birthday this past weekend with a barbecue. He smoked a brisket, and I made the side dishes, all traditional barbecue fare like cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, biscuits, and baked beans. Best supporting role went to the baked beans, hands down. I had loosely followed the recipe for Maple Baked Beans from the
Gourmet Cookbook, whose editor is...Ruth Reichl. (There! Segue as promised, though maybe not so proper as I had hoped it would be.)

These beans are incredibly delicious and incredibly easy, despite some lengthy hands-off cooking time. I did a bit of research on the French Canadian origins of this dish, known in Quebec as
feves au lard. According to Ken Albala's Beans: A History (yes, I am a dork with a capital D), the Quebecois started making this dish, or at least writing down the recipe, in the 19th century, and would follow almost exactly the directions that now appear in the Gourmet cookbook:

Soak navy beans or Great Northern beans in water overnight. Drain and rinse. Boil covered with 2 inches of water and simmer until the beans are somewhat tender. Place in a bean pot with the cooking liquid, maple syrup, mustard, thyme, a hunk of salt pork and a chopped onion. Bake for about six hours at a low temperature. Add a little more syrup and serve.

For my version, I omitted the salt pork so the dish could be enjoyed by vegetarians and omnivories alike. Because I feared this omission might be detrimental to the depth of flavor, I added a couple teaspoons of chili powder to smoken things up. Due to time constraints, I cooked the beans for a shorter period of time -- and at higher heat, to compensate -- than the Gourmet version calls for. To keep costs down, I also used less maple syrup, and I'm glad I did -- I think following the original recipe exactly would have produced some excessively sweet legumes.

Even though baked beans are a side dish, they have great main course potential. They can be served over rice or barley or a baked potato. In the last hour or so of cooking, you could add some chopped bitter greens, like kale, collards, or mustard greens, for a boost of nutrients and an interesting twist of flavor. You could even eat them in a tortilla or pita, maybe with a sprinkling of cheese. Any way you eat them, you will be thankful for the Quebecois for coming up with the recipe, Ruth Reichl for including it in her cookbook, and Ruth Reichl's mom -- however horrifying she may have been -- for bringing this great epicurean into the world.

Recipe: Feves au Lard, or Maple Baked Beans

Adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook. Serves 12-15 as a side dish. If you're cooking this for just yourself, halve the recipe. You will have no trouble finishing it over the course of a couple days. Maple syrup aside, it costs pittance to make.

1 (16 oz.) bag of dried navy beans
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 t salt
1 t pepper
2 T chili powder
2/3 C real maple syrup
1 t dijon mustard (the original recipe calls for dry mustard -- use whichever you have or prefer)
6 C water

Soak the beans overnight. Drain, and put them in a Dutch oven. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Stir into beans the onion, salt, pepper, chili powder, maple syrup, and mustard. Add the water to the beans. Bring to a boil on the stove, then cover and bake for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally. Remove cover and bake for another hour or until liquid is mostly absorbed.


Sarah said...

You forgot the splash of Pete's Wicked Ale!

Loved these beans.

DEO said...

Oh my gosh, that's right, how could I forget? But it was such a scant amount -- I wonder if it made much of a difference. Ha! One of my finer moments.

Ms. Cavanaugh said...

Tell me how the talk is! I wanted to go but have other plans that night.

And I also read "Garlic and Sapphires" and "Tender at the Bone" over the past month or so and loved them both, though I'd give the edge to "G & S."

gourmandemodeste said...

As a French-Canadian humble reader of your blog I applaud your dicreet credit to this fantastic dish which makes refried beans taste like ze puke.
Also a clay dish used in the oven makes these even more awesomer.

Thank you.