In Maine, there are bean suppers (I wanted badly to type ‘suppahs’…) on Saturday nights. With a bit of planning, you can find a bean supper to sample most weeks of the year. A suppah (I had to) is a communal meal for a nominal fee, sometimes at a church, often at a Grange or Elks hall, featuring hot dogs (or ham if you’re lucky), biscuits, cold salads and slaws, condiments and pickles, and a homestyle dessert like cobbler, shortcake or pie. Of course, as the name suggests, the star of these meals is the homemade baked beans, often two or three different kinds to suit various needs: pea beans and navy beans, because bean type preferences run deep; maybe a pot made without sugar; perhaps one a little on the spicy side. Bean suppers are also a family tradition, an excuse to get together with our extended family to catch up and share a meal. If dinner is hosted by my Mom, a pot or two of beans goes in the oven Saturday morning for dinner, made by Mom or Aunt Elaine, and they smell as good while they slowly cook as they will eventually taste. These are the baked beans I like, the ones I will always eat. They are tender, well-seasoned and hearty. They are the holy grail of baked beans, and the reason I have been trying for months to make something even partially as good… I think these baked scarlet runner beans are it.
My baked scarlet runner beans are similar in flavor to cowboy beans, slightly sweet thanks to Vidalia onion and tomatoes, and with enough smoked paprika to make you think they could have come off a slow campfire. The beans are tender but still hold their shape. The breadcrumb topping does double duty, soaking up some excess cooking liquid while retaining a nice chewy bite. I used the end of a loaf of plain homemade bread that was on the stale side; I simply cut a few slices into very small cubes, spread them into a single layer on a baking sheet and toasted quickly, before topping the beans. You coould use small, lightly-seasoned croutons as well. Back to the tomatoes for a second: I used a mixture of plain tomato sauce and cherry tomatoes because I wanted the depth of flavor the canned sauce gives and the sweetness and texture of the cherry tomatoes. You can replace some or all of either with canned chopped tomatoes or roughly cut fresh tomatoes. Keep in mind that sauciness is welcome here, so if you choose to use fresh only, make sure they are ripe and juicy.
So why scarlet runner beans? They are a little more expensive and sometimes harder to find. In short, because of taste and texture. Scarlet runner beans have a mild flavor and that wonderful creamy, soft texture that many big, flat dried beans have. I do not care for hard, mealy baked beans– who does? If scarlet runners are hard to find, dried fava or lima beans will do nicely here.
I should say that my Mom’s or Aunt Elaine’s baked beans and my baked scarlet runners are very different. I add a little smoky spice with Spanish smoked paprika and stay away from sweetness, other than what comes from the vegetables. I didn’t hunt for salt pork; in fact, these are vegan beans. Mom’s are pure tradition, down to the molasses, thick hunks of salt pork, halved or quartered onion, and ketchup. I compare our recipes not for ingredient lists, but because they both hit that coveted note of comfort food: simple food done so well it makes you sigh out loud… and reach for a second helping.
Whether you’re looking for a hearty barbecue side dish, a new play on baked beans, or a delicious vegetarian main course, add these baked scarlet runner beans to your to-make list. They keep well and taste even better reheated the next day! I’m already scheming how to adapt them to be cooked or warmed over a campfire this summer, and I’m tempted to host my very own bean supper!
Baked Scarlet Runner Beans (serves 6-8 as a side dish)
- 1 c. dried scarlet runner beans, soaked overnight (reserve 1 c. bean cooking water)
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 T. olive oil, divided
- 1 c. chopped Vidalia onion
- 1 c. tomato sauce
- 1 c. cherry tomatoes
- 2 large cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
- 1/4 c. fresh parsley, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp. smoked paprika
- kosher salt & pepper
- 1 c. homemade breadcrumbs, toasted, or small croutons
Soak the scarlet runner beans in cool water overnight. Drain thoroughly and remove any bits of chaff, etc. that might have risen to the top. Place soaked beans in a 3 – 4 qt. pot and cover again with cool water, twice the volume of beans. Add the bay leaf to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 1 1/2 hrs. Remove from the heat; carefully measure and set aside 1 c. cooking liquid. Strain the beans and add to a 3 qt. glass or ceramic (nonreactive) baking dish. Season with kosher salt; discard the bay leaf.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small skillet, heat 1 T. olive oil. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until translucent and just starting to turn golden brown. Add the cooked onion, and all other ingredients except the breadcrumbs, including reserved cooking liquid, to the baking dish. Cover with tin foil and bake for 45 mins. Remove from the oven, carefully uncover– watch out for escaping steam– and top with breadcrumbs. At this point the beans will look like they have too much liquid, but it’s alright. Return the dish to the oven, uncovered, and bake for another 30 mins. Most of the liquid will be absorbed by the time they are done cooking; keep an eye on them around the 20 min. mark so they don’t dry out completely. Serve immediately.
Leftover beans will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.