“Gouda is ze best cheese in ze world”. According to a former Claridges colleague, Michael from Germany that is. Gouda, ham, warm bread, jam and coffee. These were things you ate for breakfast in Germany, and this is why he could not get used to seeing baked beans in the canteen.
The British it seems are as famous for baked beans as fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire puddings. But beans are beans - they taste the same pretty much wherever you are in the world. That is until you make your own.
Boston bean hot pot - the traditional all American dish cooked in billy cans over an open fire was a regular staple on the Benson family repetoire when I was young. My mum tried to vary our meals as much as possible, although the concept of a meal that wasn’t meat and two veg to my dad with his Yorkshire roots seemed abhorrent (she did at least save the smoked haddock and poached egg for when he was away on business). The beans would be soaked overnight then put in the slow cooker early in the morning before work and school and it was ready for the evening - if you could wait that long. It goes very well with garlic bread and tomato salad, and tastes even better heated up the next day, but then slow cooked things always do.
It wasn’t till May this year when I first tried making baked beans. At Claridges we would make endless braised harricot blanc. The secret for the best flavour was to sneak in to the veg section’s fridge before they got in in the morning and drain some of their chicken consomme (“must have evaporated overnight“), then add some onion, garlic and thyme from their soup mis en place, then it was into the sauce fridge and shave off some duck fat before they got in, so it wasn’t noticeable and you could hide it in your fridge for later in the day. The harricot beans could then be added to the pilfered ingredients, covered with foil and left in the legendary big red oven when the veal bones came out. The big red oven was the last of the original Claridges ovens - over a hundred years old, the one shown off to all the tours that past through the kitchens and putting something in it was like putting live meat in a lions mouth and hoping for the best. It had a wonderful dry heat - like an aga that seems to be great for baking beans, and drying tomatoes (as long as you remembered they were in there). From the cooked braised beans we made white bean puree to accompany foie gras and corn-fed chicken terrine, or peppered salmon.
Provençal style harricot beans on test, May '08
When you cook your own beans from raw they soak up all the flavour you add. On that occasion I had some provencal sauce left from my salmon dish - so there were capers, olives, peppers and basil among the tomatoes and onion, now you can’t get that in a can. Yet. Once cooked till soft and the sauce reduced and thickened I found they went awfully well with smoked cod and sautéed nettles. Also with poached chicken and rocket. And on toasted ciabatta with blue cheese. In fact I liked them so much it was only a matter of time before they made it on to the menu.
Cannellini beans, bistro menu, 20th September '08
Because cannellini beans are 3 or 4 times the size of a harricot bean they have more texture and they feel more substatial. Cannellini beans like red kidney beans need soaking ovenight and must be boilled vigorously for 10 minutes before braising or simmering otherwise they can be toxic - remember all those cases of food poisoning in the 70’s when the nation started eating red kidney beans in chilli but hadn’t boiled them.
A provençal base - onions, peppers, and a family tomato sauce recipe that has certain vintage Delia origins which is cooked down with a splash of balsamic.
Once boiled they are braised in tomato sauce - onions, peppers, and a tomato sauce. Then either chicken stock (for meat eaters) or vegetable stock (vegetarians) and a bit of thyme and the beans are cooked for 3 - 4 hours till tender. After 4 hours if they are tender and you added too much stock and your tomato sauce is still a little watery, as happened on this occasion (with only 20 minutes to go before I had to leave with them chilled and packed - I love my blast chiller) you can whip them out of the oven and put them on the stove top to reduce fast. Taste them too, adding seasoning, herbs, tobasco, Worcester sauce, balsamic syrup, cherry tomatoes - whatever it takes to make them taste the best…….
To this day I think hake is a really underrated fish - don’t forget monkfish was once the poor man’s fish - and now look at it.
What the hake?
Smoked cod or haddock goes very well with the baked beans, but so does the silky soft, melt in the mouth texture of hake - it's a natural combination, especially when you crisp the skin under the grill.
Here it is prepared for a delivery with sliced lemons, baby plum tomatoes and thyme underneath which will all add to the flavour as the fish is re-heated. It was filleted, baked and chilled first, with instructions to be finished under the grill which will give you a crispy skin. What could be better? Well yes, maybe dauphinoise potato with it as well. But I made those too.