I’ll fess up right at the start and say that I was never very close to my grandfather on my mother’s side. He was an imposing, stocky, bulldog of a man with a gruff demeanor and intractable opinions. That’s not to say that he was unkind; beneath that protective shell was a huge, soft and squishy heart. He was devoted to my grandmother, whom he affectionately referred to as “jo”, a Scottish term of endearment, which means “dear” or “love”. (My parents gave me the name “Myjo” as a tribute to her.) Any time we’d visit as children, whether it be at their powder blue trailer amidst the towering evergreens or at the bait shop where he worked for a time, Grandpa would always stop us on our way out the door. “Here,” he’d say with a conspiratorial wink, shoving his hand deep into a candy jar and extracting all manner of wrapped sweets for the trip home. Occasionally he’d add, “Don’t tell your parents.”
But for all of that, I am saddened to admit that he still kind of scared me, a thought I’m sure would have broken his heart. Sensitive child that I was, I didn’t understand at the time that his seemingly stern, deadpan delivery was the product of a dry sense of humor or that his attempts to tease me were born of affection. I came to understand that a little better as I got older, came to appreciate his fixed stare with that one raised eyebrow and slightly upturned corner of his mouth, which let on that he was pulling someone’s leg. Still, even his occasional wheezing laughter, a sound I will always associate with unbridled glee, was not enough to truly put me at ease. His was a big personality, and I was too intimidated to get past it in order to build a relationship with him. Needless to say, I really regret that now. I think it is for this reason that I so cherish the connection we have through food.
Grandpa adored food. For a time he was an award winning chef at a swanky hotel in the Tacoma area. (Or so I’m told; this was before I was born.) He worked in fine dining, but when he cooked for us at home, it was always rustic comfort foods: hunks of meat, mashed potatoes, gravy, and so forth. My favorite dish, which, oddly, I only remember him making once, was his baked beans. To me at the time, baked beans meant Heinz: mushy navy beans swimming around in watery, overly sweet tomato sauce, accompanied by insipid squares of gelatinous pork fat. Grandpa’s beans were about as different from that as you could get. His were hearty; dark and rich and smoky, with thick, oozing sauce that was the perfect balance of tangy and sweet. Best of all, they were riddled with chunks of juicy pineapple and bits of chewy bacon.
To me, Grandpa’s beans were a revelation, and they stuck with me for decades. They became the baked beans by which all other baked beans were judged. So it seemed only natural when, shortly after taking my first timid steps into the world of cooking, I found myself standing in the grocery store, looking at a bag of dried red beans and thinking, “How hard can it be?” I loaded up on said beans, brown sugar, hickory smoked bacon, and can upon can of pineapple chunks, and using James Beal’s Wild Boar Barbeque Sauce as a base, went to town in my kitchen.
What resulted was a recipe which, with only a few minor tweaks over the years, I have continued to make for about a decade now. In fact, it’s become an annual tradition; I set aside an entire weekend in late spring/early summer and make a monster batch of sauce and beans, which I then freeze (or this year, can), so that I always have plenty on hand for parties and barbeques. The area all around my stove gets painted in brown glops and speckles of tangy goodness, and the entire apartment smells like liquid smoke for days, but the result is completely worth it. My beans aren’t exactly the way Grandpa made them, but they’re close, and most importantly to me, they make me think of that lopsided grin of his every time I add in that lovely bacon and pineapple. He passed away shortly after I started making baked beans, and so never got a chance to taste them. I hope they would have made him proud.
Here’s how I do it:
Firstly, let me say that baked beans aren’t all that hard to make; it’s just a matter of putting together the right combination of a few simple ingredients. What they are, and what makes them prohibitive for a lot of people, is time-consuming. In order to really do them right, you have to start out with dried beans so that the beans have a chance to absorb all the flavors of the sauce as they cook, a process that can take many hours, depending on how much you’re making. (I usually figure 6-8 hours for the entire process, but one epic batch I made several years ago took 15 hours over the course of two days. Yikes!)
Don’t let the time commitment intimidate you, though! For most of the process, the beans don’t need a lot of attention, which means they can be bubbling away on the stove while you do laundry or tend the garden or even just watch TV. If that still doesn’t appeal, you can use the trick I discovered a couple of years ago, and make them in a pressure cooker, slashing hours off the cook time without sacrificing flavor. Right, let’s get going!
Sheila Myjo’s Baked Beans
- 2lbs dried red beans
Rinse beans to remove any field dirt, pebbles, sticks, etc. Transfer to a pressure cooker and add water to just below the fill line.
Put the lid on the cooker according to the manufacturer’s specifications, and bring the contents up to pressure (15 lbs) over medium heat. Once at pressure, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and release the pressure. Be careful removing the lid, as the contents will be crazy hot and steamy!
If not using a pressure cooker, rinse and soak beans according to instructions on package.
When beans have soaked, drain beans and return to pot. You can retain the water to use as a base for other dishes, if you wish.
- 4 cups of Wild Boar Barbeque Sauce
- 1 (20oz) can of crushed pineapple Chunked pineapple will also work, but I prefer crushed.
Adding anything acidic to beans, like barbeque sauce and pineapple slows the cooking process, but because these need to cook for a long time, anyhow, it doesn’t really hurt them.
- 1 heaping cup brown sugar
- ½ lb hickory smoked bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
Stir to combine, and then add water, being careful not to go over the fill line. Put the cooker lid on and bring it to 15 lbs of pressure over medium heat, reducing that heat to low once pressure is achieved. Cook for 40 minutes. Remove the cooker from the heat, release pressure and remove the lid. Stir contents and then put back over medium heat.
If you are using a standard pot as opposed to a pressurized one, begin cooking the mixture over medium heat. Finish as with the pressure cooking instructions below, keeping in mind that it will take several hours more via this method.
Here’s one for you guys:
When contents begin to boil, reduce heat to low and continue cooking. Add water as needed to keep the sauce from thickening, stirring occasionally until the beans are done (easily squished, but more or less retaining their shape).
Continue cooking over low heat, stirring regularly to prevent burning, as sauce reduces and thickens.
When the mixture has cooked down to about half its volume, and the sauce is nice and dark and clinging thickly to the beans like so…
…you’re done! Remove from the burner and allow the baked beans to cool a bit before eating, as they retain a ton of heat! Take the word of someone who has burned her mouth more than once because she was impatient to scarf down a bowl full!
And there you have it! A simple recipe guaranteed to fill your house with incredible smells and earn you a few cries of, “These took you how long?!” at parties. I know I have a long way to go to be as good a cook as my grandfather was, but I like to think of this recipe as one of my first steps in that direction, and it brings me joy to feel that I’m carrying on his legacy in some small way.
Next time: More about the goings on in our little garden. Stay happy, folks!