On Baked Beans, and an Enduring Love

[Pacific Ocean, Drake’s, March 2009.]

The other day I ran 10 miles down through the park — with a mile along the ocean tucked in for good measure — and then sat for a bit on the sea wall at Ocean Beach to watch a tanker ship sail slowly away out to sea, bound perhaps for Asia or who-knows-where. I imagined it packed carefully with things like perfect apples from Sonoma County or beautiful Brussels sprouts grown in the Salinas Valley, but in truth it was probably full of oil barrels, or computers. (I like my imaginings much better, however.)

Anyway, it was clear and bright along the coast and the Cliff House shone white and still up the street as it is so very wont to do. I thought about the last time I’d gone there on a day when the fog had seemed settled in for the long haul but unexpectedly blew out to sea; the ocean was that deep and dark blue of early evening, the sky turned golden with sun. I drank a few gin and tonics and watched pelicans wheel and dive for their dinner, splashing down with that great crash every time. After, it was cold but there were surfers out in the waves as the sun set and it was beautiful, the light washing all the mist out into blue and pink against the horizon line.

This past Sunday was a beautiful afternoon to be out there, but a little bit I wished to be up north, away, on a deserted beach near to sundown when seals swim close to shore and if you’re very lucky you might see a whale or two. Days like those are the most perfect imaginable along the coast. Once, the sea threw a fish into one of the little sand puddles left by the surf; my friend picked it up and threw it back into the ocean and I thought of it frantically finning itself back into the open water, to be eaten by a shark, or one of the dolphins I’d seen earlier. That empty ocean brimming with possibility.

I still dream of California sometimes even though I live here — the light, the clear blue. It’s a funny thing when a place is so worked into your heart; when I took my break the other day to look at the Pacific all I could think of was home, yes, forever and always here to be perched on the edge of the continent like this. But there are other beautiful places in the world, too, of course — white-walled Spetses and the boats bumping gently against each other in the harbor, the blazingly hot afternoons (and the winter storms my brother told me about), the cats climbing all over themselves in hopes of food. And Cambridge: the cool sun and stone streets, the way the light streams in through the stained glass of the cathedral. And yet Northern California for me is my place — this is not news but maybe bears repeating every so often if only as a way to curb my occasional .

[Near Salmon Creek, winter 2005.]

The dark comes down so early now, though this week San Francisco has been full of sweet autumn sun. Thanksgiving is almost close enough to glimpse, and until then there are plans for upcoming workday lentil soups and cornbread and pumpkin pie and even a few friends coming over for dinner. But regardless of all the holiday cookie-baking to be done, the pies to prepare, the roasted root vegetables to eagerly anticipate, all I’ve been wanting to eat lately is baked beans in tomato sauce — call it a holdover from my U.K. trip but let’s be honest here: I’ve always loved them. And they are really just so good.

So on Sunday when I came home sunned out and sweaty, ravenous as I tend to be after such exertion, I whipped out the last can of Heinz vegetarian baked beans from my stash (note: these things are like tinned gold to me and I covet them fiercely and save them for special occasions. I’ll never forget the time a former boyfriend and his brother casually took a can on a camping trip, leaving me bean-less and bereft — but that’s another story for another time.). I quickly fried an egg, toasted an English muffin-with-cheese, warmed my beans, and set to work.

Much like nothing tastes quite like a sunwarmed apple pulled straight from the tree, there’s nothing quite like vegetarian baked beans. And thank goodness for it — I want, in fact need, things to taste of themselves unique and constant; there’s an intrinsic comfort, after all, in things being as they ‘should.’ Baked beans (particularly on toast) are one of my especial pleasures — it might seem a bit strange to be so enamored of something so simple and plain and yet … and yet. From the moment I first ate them while on a backpacking trip ages ago they shot up near the top of that list of Things I Love, which includes but is not limited to:

* California

*roasted cauliflower

* (baked beans on toast)
* homemade chocolate cream pie
* Greece
* hand-written letters

* Sigg water bottles filled with cold water

* etc.

When I’m eating my baked beans pre-made I mostly always make the effort to seek out Heinz, vegetarian, imported from the U.K. Although I also enjoy the maple-sweetened, style (as always, please hold the pork) my enduring favorite is the British version involving tomato sauce. When it came time to make them from scratch, a cursory scouring of the internet did not yield the Heinzified recipe of my dreams, but I did remember a recipe in Gourmet for “slow-cooked tomato and herb beans” that did the trick well enough (I’ll get back to it, and work on it some more). Last night I ate the leftovers along with a piece of toast and a quick scramble of faux sausage, corn, spinach, and mushrooms, and was inordinately pleased with my Thursday night dinner.

Beans, baked or roasted or pureed or or or, are a huge part of my vegetarian diet. Lately it feels like I’ve been eating them every other night — either roasted with cauliflower and garlic olive oil, or in pots of , or stirfried with spinach — but when I’ve come home late, it’s been dark for hours, and I feel the cool wind of fall coming through my window, baked beans are the perfect thing, satisfying and nourishing both.

Much, one could argue, like California.

Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce, adapted from

For beans:
1 cup dried navy beans (or 1 cup canned white beans, drained)
6 cups water
1 medium carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped
4 (3-inch) thyme sprigs
1 (3-inch) rosemary sprig

1 (3-inch) sage sprig
1 teaspoon salt

For tomato sauce:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium white onion, chopped
1/4 cup minced garlic (from 1 to 2 heads)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound tomatoes, chopped (3 cups)

1/2 cup canned tomato purée
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped thyme

Cook beans:
Bring beans, water (6 cups), carrot, onion, and herb sprigs to a simmer in a 4-quart heavy pot, then simmer, partially covered, until beans are al dente, about 45 minutes. Add kosher salt, then continue to simmer until beans are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour more.

Make tomato sauce while beans simmer:
Cook bacon in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Add oil and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden, about 12 minutes. Add garlic, kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is softened, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato purée, and thyme and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 30 minutes.

Finish beans:
Discard carrot and herb sprigs. Drain beans in a sieve set over a bowl, reserving cooking liquid, and return beans to pot. Add tomato sauce and 1 1/2 cups bean-cooking liquid and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 45 minutes.

Join the Conversation

  1. One day, I really will come over!

    Turns out I was in SF last month when you were in the UK, so I looked after it a bit for you….It was my last fling before a very un-fun rotator cuff repair surgery. My old friend and tour guide took me to Greens and Stinson Beach, where I stood barefoot in the cold and mist and I did think of you.

    Keep on keepin’ on!


  2. I tried making homemade baked beans last year, with some scarlet runners we’d grown in our yard. The beans, so pretty when shelled, turn an odd grey when cooked. So…not so pretty, but quite tasty. Perhaps I’ll try again, with some pretty beans this time. I must admit, I’m even more intrigued by your love for the Heinz U.K. version baked beans. I want to try those too. Enjoy your weekend!

Comments are closed.

nicole spiridakis © copyright 2023