Baked Beans

MAKES: 6 to 8 servings

TIME: About 3 hours, largely unattended

It’s tough to find a vegetarian version of baked beans with bacon, with that creamy texture and delicate balance of sweet and smoky flavors. Enter kelp, also known as kombu, the sea green used to make dashi (see Kombu Dashi). Kelp contains a natural acid that tenderizes the beans as the seaweed itself melts away, leaving behind a luxurious sauce with complex flavor. If you’re looking for extra texture and flavor, try the hearty variation with dulse stirred in at the last minute.

Once you cook the onions and put everything in the pot, which takes about 10 minutes tops you can literally walk away for two hours. If you don’t have time (or forgot) to soak the beans first, the beans will probably take another hour in the oven. Serve bowls of baked beans with Boston Brown Bread or Biscuits and Marinated Garden Vegetables on the side.

Other beans you can use: pinto or pink, Great Northern, black, and kidney beans, though they might take slightly longer to cook.

1/4 cup neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn

2 medium onions, chopped

1/4 cup tomato paste

One 5-inch piece kombu

1 pound dried navy, pea, or other white beans, washed, picked over, and soaked if you like

1/2 cup molasses, or more to taste

2 teaspoons dry mustard or 2 tablespoons prepared, or more to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 300В°F. Put the oil in a large ovenproof pot or casserole with a lid over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and golden, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir until deeply colored, another minute or so. Stir in 6 cups water, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot.

Add the kombu, beans, molasses, and mustard. Cover and bake for 2 hours, ignoring it. Stir, then add water if needed to keep the beans covered, then cover again and cook until the beans are completely cooked, another 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on the beans.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper, stir well to help break up the kombu, then taste and add more molasses or mustard if you like. Turn the oven up to 400В°F. Return the pot to the oven, uncovered, and bake until the beans are creamy and the liquid has thickened, another 30 minutes or so. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve. (Or cool the beans down a bit, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 days; reheat gently.)

Variations

Buttery Baked Beans. Not vegan or even traditional, but rich and luxurious: Instead of using neutral oil in Step 1, cook the onions in 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter.

Maple-Baked Apple Butter Beans. Lighter in color and flavor: Instead of the tomato paste, use 1/2 cup apple butter. Instead of the molasses, use maple syrup.

Heartier Baked Beans. Closer to bacon-baked beans: Add 1/2 cup shredded dried dulse (see The Sea Green Lexicon) to the pot after uncovering the pot in Step 3. Make sure there is still enough water to cover.

Baked Beans with Cracker Crumb Crust. After uncovering the beans and raising the oven temperature at the end of Step 3, sprinkle the top of the beans with about 11/2 cups of crumbled soda or saltine crackers. Return the pot to the oven and cook until the crust is golden (20 to 30 minutes), then serve.

Curried Baked Beans. The coconut milk adds incredible creaminess: Omit the tomato paste and the molasses. After you cook the onions in Step 1, stir in 2 tablespoons curry powder (to make your own, see Fragrant Curry Powder). Reduce the amount of water to 1 quart; in Step 2, stir in 2 cups coconut milk, either made from scratch (see Coconut Milk) or canned (use 1 can, slightly less than 2 cups, with a little water).