Agrodolce. An Italian term that translates to “sour-sweet,” it’s one of the most beautiful words in any language and one of the most powerfully memorable flavors in any culinary tradition.
It’s that gorgeous combination that makes balsamic vinegar so addictive, the tingly juxtaposition of lime and coconut milk in a good Thai curry, the happy marriage of honey and soy sauce on a drumstick of Korean fried chicken, and the unexpected pleasure of a pickled cherry.
Yet it’s also the key to something far less exotic that even the most food-fearful probably eat with abandon: classic American barbecue. That distinct tang of vinegar mixed with brown sugar, a little molasses, maybe a bit of mustard—that’s as classically agrodolce as Mario Batali’s sweet and sour onions.
And American agrodolce finds its pinnacle, its perfect display pedestal, in the following recipe for baked beans. These are not heat-and-serve beans from a can. These are the Blu-Ray version to the VHS pork n’ beans we’ve become accustomed to. Never made baked beans from scratch? Think they’re not worth the effort? You’ll barely break a sweat with these and be handsomely rewarded.
Adapted from a recipe in Food & Wine, I’ve replaced the long prep time for dried beans with the quick peel-and-drain ease of canned beans (and yes, I did in fact make this a vegetarian version. Note this day for posterity.) Though I love sinking my teeth into the offerings of Rancho Gordo and other heirloom beans, a quality canned brand will soak up the fragrantly pungent sauce and get you a casserole’s worth of baked beans in about an hour versus the eight-hour process this recipe becomes when using the dried kind.
However, if you’re willing to wait a little longer once the beans are out of the oven, there’s a big payback in delaying the gratification. Like a braise or a slow-cooked stew, the best time to eat these baked beans is the day after you make ’em. Chill the finished beans in the fridge overnight, and the beans will soak up even more of the intensely flavored sauce.
What smelled too, too much—overly vinegary, overpoweringly spicy—when the ingredients first hit into the saucepan has time to meld into a smooth and mellow yet still tangy sweetness. Make no mistake, these beans are still a hot bowl of filling comfort when they come out of the oven, but they’re really genius when eaten cold the next day.
Adapted from Food & Wine
Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 1 hour
Makes 6 servings
- 1 medium yellow onion or sweet onion, minced (about 1 cup)
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 3 cans (15 oz. each) cannellini beans
Preheat the oven to 400˚.
Place a medium saucepan over medium-low heat and add the olive oil. Add the onion and cook until softened and translucent but not browned, about 8-10 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients except the beans and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or until the liquid has thickened slightly and reduced by a quarter.
While the sauce simmers, drain and rinse the beans. Pour the beans into the sauce, stir to coat evenly, then transfer the beans and sauce to a 9″ x 9″ casserole dish.
Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the beans have absorbed about 2/3 of the sauce. Cool before serving—for the best flavor, refrigerate overnight.