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.
Stovetop Baked Beans
Adapted from Food & Wine
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Makes 6 servings
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, minced
- 3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard (mustard powder)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 3 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed, or 1 pound dried cannellini beans, cooked
Heat the olive oil in a medium (5-7 quart) Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat.
Stir in the onion and cook until deeply softened and translucent but not browned, about 8-10 minutes.
Raise the heat to medium. Stir in all remaining ingredients except the beans and bring to a simmer.
Stir in the beans and continue to cook uncovered until the liquid comes back to a simmer.
Cover and continue to simmer for 45-60 minutes more, until the beans have absorbed some of the liquid and the remaining liquid has thickened slightly.
Serve warm, or cool and refrigerate in a covered container for up to 3 days. Reheat in a 350-degree oven or over medium-low heat before serving.