American Sandwich Project – Baked Bean Sandwiches
It’s sandwich time again!
Or it was, back in February, when I started this article that I didn’t get done until just now. Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the needs of a sandwich.
I meant to do French Dips in February, since it was Valentine’s Day and France = romance. But French Dips are rather costly, and since I was broke that month from buying a boxcar full of 50% off chocolate, it seemed better to focus on something cheap and working-class rather than expensive and ooh-la-la. I shall revisit French Dips when my ship comes in, by which I mean my tax return. And since many people are celebrating? Enduring? Surviving? Lent right now, it seems like a good time for a meatless sammie.
So in keeping with the spirit of the words “Ordinary Times” I give you the humble bean sandwich.
If a sandwich of beans is a strange and foreign concept to you, give it a whirl. They’re better than you might expect. I know, I know, carbs on carbs on carbs. True, this is not a class of sandwich suitable for a keto dieter. That having been said, bean sandwiches are not only affordable, but American, and can be surprisingly good. Plus, bean sammies are great for vegetarians and even vegans depending on the recipe you use to make them.
With a few notable exceptions -- favas, soybeans, garbanzos, lentils and peas which are of course not beans at all but legumes -- what we think of as beans originated here in the Americas alongside tamales and turkeys and were brought back to Europe by the early explorers.
Along with corn and squash, beans make up the Three Sisters of Agriculture. It is believed that Native American farmers grew the Three Sisters together as companion plants (for the non-gardeners in the audience, companion plants are plants that when grown together, confer some benefit upon one another) -- a hill of corn, interplanted with beans so the bean vines can grow up the corn stalks. The squash vines, which are prolific, fast-growing, and exceedingly prickly, were planted around the outside of the hill to keep nosy corn-loving raccoons at bay. I tried this once in my garden and it worked so well I found it also kept a nosy corn-loving ME at bay. My beans waved at me sarcastically while I wondered how on earth I could pick them. Ever since that day, I’ve wondered how the clever Native American farmers got through the vicious squash vines to harvest their beans and corn all summer long, and I’ve decided it was most probably levitation, a skill raccoons have not developed. Yet.
Brief aside, what most Americans call “summer squash” is not what the Native Americans grew in their corny beany raccoon-proof hills. While they’re related plants (unfortunately, closely enough so they can cross-pollinate one another and make saving your own garden seeds an interesting nightmare) the squash that Native Americans grew is what we think of as “winter squash”. The Brits call them marrows -- orange-fleshed, hard-shelled, pumpkin-y. After squash seeds were brought to Europe by early explorers, intrepid Italian gardeners bred those suckers like crazy and created an entirely new thing that is now referred to as zucchini or courgette depending on where you live.
This is totally about beans tho so stop distracting me.
Anyhoo, beans, by virtue of their long-keeping nature, relatively high protein (for a plant, anyway), and affordability have become popular dietary staples around the world, including in the city of Boston, which is so gloriously beany that it is actually called Beantown.
You can make your own beans on the stove (which is hard) in an Instant Pot (which is easy). You can find a good basic recipe at ThisOldGal.com. Please note, this is NOT an authentic Boston Baked Beans recipe. It’s a fab recipe and my personal favorite, but it’s not authentic, not unlike a rap song by John Cena.
Real Boston Baked Beans have molasses, onion, salt pork or bacon, mustard, and NO tomato.
Molasses is of critical import to authentic Boston Baked Beans. In fact, molasses kind of invented Boston Baked Beans. You see, Boston was a key hub in the production of rum, and molasses is a key ingredient in the production of rum. Boston was figuratively brimming over with molasses. This one time Boston was even literally brimming over with molasses and The Great Molasses Flood occurred which sounds fun like a Willy Wonka kinda thing but was actually horrible. Even when not in Beast Mode, the stuff was everywhere, and even though molasses is super expensive now, back in olden times, it was cheaper than white sugar, especially in Ye Olde Bostyn Towhn. Bostonians were roaming the streets not only looking for a place to pahk their cah, but for a flavoring agent for their dry beans. Or maybe for something to possibly absorb excess molasses with, and then someone was like “hey I know this sounds crazy, but…”
Thus, a legend was born.
Like many legends, the Boston Baked Beans story has a grimy underbelly. Because that cheap molasses came at a very high price in human life as part of the slave trade. Molasses and slavery were so closely intertwined that New England abolitionists refused to eat molasses for ethical reasons and instead started making their beans with maple syrup instead, which also makes for a delicious and equally authentically American, if significantly more expensive, bean.
Or, you could totally just use a can of Bush’s. That dog may talk, but he’ll keep your secret.
Do not, and I repeat, do NOT use pork and beans. They’re good, but are best reserved for a different application.
Boston Baked Bean Sandwich
Some Boston-style baked beans (Amount will vary depending on how many you’re feeding. You can use hot beans or cold beans -- I preferred the hot version but you do you. See “on beans” below for a helpful tip if cooking your own.)
Brown bread (I used wheat, but I was thinking sourdough might be good here. Maybe even rye, but I didn’t try it so I can’t confirm it. White bread is too sugary for this sandwich, which is already as sugary as a Cindy-centric episode of The Brady Bunch.)
Butter (see “on butter” below)
Optional bordering on mandatory -- Cheddar cheese
Optional -- thinly sliced deli meat, particularly ham, or maybe some bacon bits
Optional -- other sandwich fixings like lettuce, tomato, pickle, sliced onion
Optional and NOT recommended -- ketchup (I saw sooo many recipes that called for ketchup on top of beans. That is one carb too many.)
On butter -- Quite a few bean sandwich recipes called for mayonnaise. This doesn’t sound at all appealing to me. What you’re after is some sort of impermeable bread-bean barrier to prevent sog. Butter worked for me, but if you are #TeamMayo let me know how it works for you.
On beans -- Navy or “pea” beans are what you’re after here. And a hard-won tip for those who are making their own beans from dry -- precook your beans BEFORE adding any seasonings -- particularly salt or anything acidic. Cooking dry beans with salt or acids makes them stay hard exponentially longer (by which I mean to the edge of forever) than cooking them without those seasonings and in the course of cooking things exponentially long, you may find as I have that they exponentially burn. Even in the Instant Pot, precook them. Even when the directions say it’s not necessary, precook them. Even if the ghost of Julia Child herself appears and tells you it is not necessary to pre-cook the beans, precook them anyway.
I did nothing but fail at beanery (even with the miraculous Instant Pot!) until I figured this out. I cooked them in the oven. I cooked them on the stove. I cooked them in a Crock Pot. I bought a special clay contraption -- allegedly foolproof -- to bake beans in. Fail after fail. The secret is precooking the beans alone without salt or tomato or vinegar or even molasses. It takes slightly longer in terms of hands-on prep work since you have to cook ‘em then drain ‘em then add seasoning and cook ‘em again, but the result is always edible whereas adding the salt/acids to still-hard beans is a gamble and takes even longer since you’ll end up cooking them from here to eternity.
And PSA -- if you ever cook kidney beans (well, any beans, really, but especially kidney beans) and they’re still hard even just a little bit, DO NOT EAT THEM. They are poisonous and will make you very very ill. Not a bite of Uncle Fred’s Crunchy Kidney Bean Chili, even to be polite. Friends don’t let friends eat raw kidney beans. The FDA tells me that even just eating 4-5 of those little red demon seeds will do you in. Especially if they’re prepared in a Crock Pot or similar slow cooker as low temperature cooking makes them even more toxic. Boil yer beans within an inch of their lives, peeps. Cook them till they are as mushy as a Cindy-centric episode of The Brady Bunch.
On bacon vs. salt pork: Salt pork is authentic, bacon is more accessible. I bought salt pork once and even though I felt like Ma Ingalls for a few minutes while I cut it up with the sharpened clamshell I was using as a knife for the sake of authenticity, I found I preferred bacon. Bacon is really expensive these days though -- so expensive it seems like a waste to put it in a pot with a bunch of other crap where it will lose its unique character. But I have a hint for you. You can find something called “bacon ends” or “bacon pieces” for about 1/3 of the price of individual strips.
As Martha Stewart always says, probably, “Slightly irregular bacon. It’s a good thing.”
When you open your package of bacon ends you’ll get some usable strips if you’re lucky and then some completely misshapen wads of meat and fat, all held together by lots and lots of little preshredded bacon bits. If you’re careful you can tease out the strips undamaged, set aside the meat-and-fatwads for making beans and pea soup, and fry up the little baby bacon bits for potatoes or casseroles. And even if you aren’t lucky/careful and don’t get any strips, the wads and bits are totally worth the price of admission.
In a baconless pinch, though, I’ve used leftover ham bits and even (gasp!) Spam. Believe it or not, the Spam was better than the ham.
Sandwich construction: Butter the bread -- or use buttered toast. I didn’t use toast but it would have been better that way, I suspect. Top it with a small amount of well-drained baked beans, and then the cheese. Remember, you want it to be a sandwich, not a hot shower in boiling bean juice, so use a slotted spoon and a healthy dollop of Yankee forbearance.
Sandwich analysis: It was too sweet for me, not unlike this song.
Like, way too sweet. I adore sweet + savory foods and it was still too sweet by a factor of, ohgeewhiz…maybe a million? If I had to describe this sandwich in two words, those two words would be “cotton” and “candy”. I didn’t put ham or any of the optional ingredients on it, though, and that would have likely helped mitigate the overwhelming saccharinity. A little thinly sliced red onion and green pepper to break up the “OMG molasses” flavor might have been nice? But in its defense, it WAS cheap, and it stretched a long way. Plus, it felt more “lunchy” than a dull bowl of reheated beans, so, on the whole, I can envision the bean sandwich having a well-earned place in the pantheon of poverty cuisine.
But it didn’t beat my preferred form of leftover beans -- baked beans and cheddar cheese on buttered cornbread. Because that, my friends, is the shizz.
My advice is, have baked bean sandwiches one time to say you’ve tried them and then take the beans and the cheese and the butter and slap it on some cornbread instead.
Suggested sides -- How about a cold and refreshing, historically New English Moxie Soda just to be sure you actually die from the diabetic coma you’re about to slip into from eating a baked bean sandwich?
If you survive, Boston Baked Beans are also the name of a pretty tasty old school candy. Dessert, perchance?
So now onto Bean Sandwich Two -- British Beans on Toast.
Although this dish does to some extent push the envelope of what a sandwich is, and certainly what an American sandwich is, it’s a polite nod to America’s British forebears who we quickly overthrew. Heckin’ limeys.
Google informs me that there are 675,000 people born in Britain and living in the US right now, let alone the millions of Americans of British or part-British descent. That seems like reason enough to call this an American sandwich. So there.
Beans on toast is a humble British meal that perhaps shockingly, and I hope you’re sitting down for this revelation, consists of some beans on toast. It’s such a popular meal that the folk dwelling in the tiny British Isles actually consumes 90% of the world’s canned beans.
The catch is, beans on toast is properly made with Heinz beans which are not always commonly available in the US (although you can order them from Amazon.) In some American locales they sell beans in a Heinz wrapper but these are NOT British style beans. They’re imposters, reformulated for American tastes, which I suppose involves dumping in a gallon of corn syrup, some gunpowder, and then another gallon of corn syrup.
But if ordering canned beans off Amazon feels like a bridge too far, that’s cool, you can totally make your own British-style beans as well.
I made this recipe somewhat differently, though. Not only did I pre-cook, and then regular cook, my beans in the intrepid Instant Pot rather than on the stove, I skipped the canned tomatoes and instead of the sugar and ketchup (ketchup tastes SO ketchupy and frankly after eating the Boston Baked Bean sandwich I never wanted to see sugar again) I used a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. You know the stuff in the cheery red and white can, made famous by American artist Andy Warhol, and also your grandmother, who put it in everything? Campbell’s tomato soup + ground beef + macaroni noodles + grandma magic is haute grandma cuisine.
And my basically British beans were bloody brilliant! The thing that was crazy about them is that it really did seem like an entirely different thing than the Boston-style baked beans -- which is important when you’re eating on the cheap. Changing it up even just a little helps to avoid the “OMG beans again” groans you’ll surely receive when you serve OMG beans again.
Just for fun I used Great Northern Beans instead of the smaller navy beans. It was also vegan (although to be honest after making this recipe the first time I started adding some of my bacon meat-and-fatwads and have never looked back).
British Style Beans on Toast
Some tomato-sauced beans (These have got to be hot. Piping.)
Toasted, buttered, white or sourdough bread (I’ve seen this classed up using baguettes)
Optional -- a fried egg (It adds something.)
Optional -- a bit of green onion, chopped
Sandwich Construction -- This is an open-faced sandwich, so you put the buttered toast on the plate, top with the hot beans, the cheese, the fried egg and green onion if you so desire, and then eat it with a fork. The beans should be hot enough so the cheese obediently melts without any further attention. Unlike with the Boston Baked Bean sandwich, the sauce does quite a bit of heavy lifting here so you want it pretty juiced up. No slotted spoons. Get saucy!
Sandwich analysis -- It’s good! My kids liked it (even the picky one) and it’s become part of my breakfast repertoire. The Harshest Critic (as you may recall, my husband is my harshest critic) declined to try the sandwich, although he did like the British style beans.
Suggested sides -- Tea, naturally, and HP Sauce. There is little more British than HP Sauce. I have heard Meghan Markle is encouraged to drink a bottle of HP Sauce every day in order to increase her BQ (British Quotient). Excessive exposure to HP Sauce is also the reason Madonna now speaks with an English accent, kind of.
Advanced Placement Beans on Toast -- While beans on toast is considered teatime food, it’s also a component in a culinary delight called a Full English breakfast, a Full Monty, or a fry up if you’re in too big a rush for extraneous syllables. So the next time you’re feeling peckish, fry up some sausages and/or some bacon, some eggs (which you’d likely have fried for the beans on toast anyway), then for some reason also fry some tomatoes (the firm plum or Roma type) and mushrooms in the leftover grease, and serve the entire lot alongside your beans on toast along with a scone or a crumpet with marmalade. (English muffins are not really a thing. They jokingly call them American muffins).
And that’s only the most basic incarnation of the Full Monty. Depending on where you go in Britain, the contents of the Full English breakfast can include fried or mashed potato of various types, small onions fried alongside the tomato and mushroom, tons of different regional breads, kippers, and an array of sausages each one more horrifying than the next. The British make sausages out of anything and some of the things they make sausages out of make hot dogs look downright tame in comparison. Again, many of these sausages can be had on Amazon if you’re more adventurous than I am and think “hmm a sausage of blood mixed with pork fat stuffed into intestines sounds like the ideal thing to round off this delicious breakfast I’m having”.
I think I’ll stick with this Full Monty. I’ll have all your Hot Stuff -- like French Dips -- coming soon!
Photo by Charkrem