Be it as the sidekick to a tender, juicy rack of ribs or as a stand-alone star accompanied by cornbread, baked beans can really hit the spot.

One of the hearty main dishes of our nation’s colonists was Boston Baked Beans. But the dish was actually popular throughout all of the colonies. Because baked beans could be made a day ahead, this dish was a favorite with those whose religion restricted work on the Sabbath. Often it was served fresh for Saturday supper, and then warm or cold on Sunday.

As the West was opened to trade and transport, beans went along for the ride. No range cook would dream of hitting the trail without a good supply of dried beans. In fact, mealtime was often referred to as “bean time.” Some cooks placed their beans over a slow fire to cook for up to five hours. Others buried the bucket of beans in a hole with hot embers. Everyone in camp, from cook to cowboy, would tend the fire throughout the day.

There’s no getting around the fact that baked beans are crowd-pleasers, and they are perfect for autumn gatherings. Baked beans travel gracefully, be it to a tailgate party or cross-country ski trail, without suffering in quality.

Besides, they simply hit the spot. I would guess that most families have a standard baked-beans offering that has survived from generation to generation. If not, perhaps one of the following recipes will become just that!

Quick and Awesome Baked Beans

Makes about 8 to 10 servings.

You jump-start this recipe with 4 cans of Van Camps pork and beans. But the results taste nothing like what you pour from a can. These baked beans look and taste homemade thanks to the zing provided by barbecue sauce, vinegar, Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce — plus a little extra depth from smokey bacon and slow-cooked onions and sweet bell peppers.

8 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into thirds

1 cup chopped yellow onion

½ cup chopped green bell pepper

7½ cups canned pork and beans (4 15-ounce cans)

½ cup barbecue sauce (I use Sweet Baby Ray’s)

¼ cup brown sugar

¼ cup cider vinegar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Adjust the oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Slowly cook the bacon in a large, deep, cast-iron skillet (mine is 11 inches wide and 3 inches deep) until the bacon has become limp and just partially cooked enough to release about 2 to 3 tablespoons of drippings.

Remove the bacon to paper towels.

Saute the onion and bell pepper in the skillet over medium heat until tender and lightly golden brown, which will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the 4 cans of beans to the skillet and remove from heat.

In a small bowl, combine the barbecue sauce, brown sugar, cider vinegar, Dijon mustard and Worcestershire. Stir this mixture into the beans.

Arrange the partially cooked bacon pieces on top of the beans and bake in the cast-iron skillet (or other oven-proof pan) until the beans are bubbly and the sauce has cooked down to the consistency of pancake syrup, which will take about 2 hours. Let the beans stand to thicken slightly, then serve.

 

Rio Arriba Baked Beans

Makes 4 servings.

Many baked-bean recipes call for a smoked meat of some sort; this recipe is meat free and very flavorful.

1 cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped poblano chile or green bell pepper

1 jalapeno chile, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

3½ cups (2 15-ounce cans) cooked pinto or black beans

½ cup beer or water

¼ cup sliced softened sun-dried tomatoes

¼ cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 bay leaf

½ teaspoon salt, more to taste

Saute the onion, chiles and garlic in the olive oil in large skillet until tender, about 8 minutes.

Combine the onion mixture with the beans, beer, sun-dried tomatoes, brown sugar, cumin, thyme, bay leaf and salt in a 1½ quart casserole. Bake in a 350-degree oven, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until the liquid is nearly absorbed.

Nantucket Baked Beans with Linguica sausage

Makes 6 servings

Linguica is a Portuguese smoked sausage traditionally used in many dishes along coastal New England. It is typically spiced with garlic, cumin and red pepper; chorizo or another smoked sausage can be substituted.

8 ounces smoked sausage or linguica, diced

½ pound lean ground beef

1 cup chopped onion

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

3½ cups (2 15-ounce cans) cooked kidney or navy beans

1 cup tomato sauce

1 cup chicken broth

½ cup dry white wine

¼ cup packed light brown sugar

1½ teaspoons ground cumin

1½ teaspoons dried oregano leaves

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

2/3 cup fresh white bread crumbs

Saute the sausage, ground beef, onion and garlic in a large skillet until the meat is browned and the onion is tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well.

Combine the meat mixture with the beans, tomato sauce, chicken broth and white wine (if used), brown sugar, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper in a 2½ quart casserole. Bake in a 350-degree oven, uncovered, for 1 hour. Sprinkle top of the casserole with the bread crumbs and bake until crumbs are lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes.

Tuscan Beans

Makes 4 servings.

Here’s a short-cut version of the classic Italian bean dish. Complete the meal with a tossed green salad and homemade Italian vinaigrette.

½ cup diced pancetta, or 4 strips bacon, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

½ cup chopped yellow onion

2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely minced

3½ cups (2 15-ounce cans) cooked cannellini (white kidney beans), rinsed and drained

1 can (15 ounces) ready-cut peeled tomatoes, juice from can included

1 teaspoon dried and crumbled sage

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 to 3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for sprinkling on top

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small skillet over medium heat, cook pancetta 4 minutes in the olive oil (if using bacon you won’t need the olive oil). Add onion and garlic and saute until the onions are tender and the pancetta is crisp, about 5 minutes longer; set aside.

In a 2½ quart casserole dish lightly coated with cooking spray or oil, add the beans, tomatoes, seasonings and pancetta-onion mixture; mix well.

Bake uncovered, until bubbly, about 35 minutes. Stir in the vinegar and sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan before serving.

— Adapted from “The Big Book of Casseroles,” by Maryana Vollstedt.

 

— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Contact her at janrd@proaxis.com, and see her blog at www.janrd.com.