Saturday, January 22, 2011

Barbecued Spam and Other Childhood Traumas...

My late sister Linda, or Lynne as we called her, was a decent cook and baker for most of her life. She did tend to use too many convenience foods, but having 4 children by the age of 28 will do that. Her sons and I still joke about her famous Barbecued Spam, a thrifty dinner that the kids liked. Simple dish, with a salt content that could fill the daily sodium needs of a small army per slice: Cut a can of Spam in thick slices, put it in a small baking dish, pour bottled Barbecue Sauce over, and bake till hot and bubbly. You can even add a chopped green pepper in there. Truth is, as a teen I liked it too. (I was a salt freak then). Scarily, I can still taste it, just now, having called it to mind. It’s rich with memory and chemicals, painfully salty.

Her better dishes were based on fresh, real foods-- chili sauce she made in the summer, sometimes, to go with hot dogs; full of peppers, sweet and sharp and perfect. I still crave it with a soydog now and then. And Lynne’s was the only apple pie I really enjoyed at all until I started making my own. Double crusted and heavy on the cinnamon, she used shortening to get a flaky textured crust instead of the butter I use for mine. She’d make two instead of one, and never bitch about rolling out the way I did when I first tried pastry-making. She baked most of the cakes we ate for years, and I hated her too sweet frosting but loved the cakes. Her iced tea was the best, to me that’s what iced tea is-- a strong black concentrate, sweetened with at least 1 C sugar and lightened with cold water and many lemon or orange slices. I remember figuring out for myself that she used 12-14 teabags to make a gallon’s worth of tea-- she was still alive when I started trying to copy her method, and I tasted hers and mine and finally knew I’d gotten it right. Of course, my other sisters and my nieces all think they do it right too, but their’s is too weak. Good, but not like Linda’s. I’m making a pitcher of it now, to help soothe my sore throat. And I’m thinking about making a version of her best, most loved recipe in our family, Lynne’s 6-hour Beans.

These are the only baked beans in the world, to me. Tangy, super tangy, and more flavor in every bite that anything not fried in bacon fat can be. Unlike most baked beans, they don’t rely on pork for their flavor, although she would usually throw in something porky, like bacon; but it wasn’t a key component. The acidic tang of tomatoes balanced by chili-flavored spices and sweetened just a bit, not like canned versions, is the big taste profile of this dish. It cooks in the oven for a full six hours at 350 F, and after years of experimenting I can tell you that long bake is essential-- the beans gather more flavor than you can possibly believe, caramelizing and getting just barely saucy in the process.

Lynne always used a pound of navy beans, soaked overnight and then cooked for one hour in water to cover, before draining and tossing them in the oven with the rest of the ingredients to let the flavors soak in slowly. I often use black turtle beans, though, because they’re prettier and I like their taste better. They take well to this treatment. As for the rest of the recipe, it’s tough to communicate without giving you a spoonful to judge by first. When I asked her what went into the beans for baking, she said: Throw everything you can think of in there. That helps!

What I saw her use, and know from my palate is needed is: lots of good canned tomato, preferably puree or crushed; some molasses and/or brown sugar (but not too much!) and even a bit of maple if you like; chili powder, cumin, and cayenne; onions, chopped fine; a little garlic (fresh for me, dried for her); prepared mustard and/or barbecue sauce; I throw in some hickory smoke drops or cooked soy bacon for smokiness, and vinegar towards the end to help the acid balance if needed. Salt as little as possible. Keep them covered at first if you like, but at least a couple hours uncovered-- they will need more tomatoes, in the form of crushed or ketchup added, and maybe a little water so they don’t dry out, but at the end, they should be just barely ensconced in a little bit of thickened sauce. So tangy delicious every spoonful gets eaten. If I start the process tonight, they’ll be done for dinner tomorrow, and I can share leftovers with the fam for Monday night’s Baked Potato bar. If I think they deserve it.

A little view from my back door; our ailing shed in the low winter sun.

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