Monday, July 9, 2012

Neal Hartman’s Baked Butter Beans

Neal Hartman. Summer 2010
         Neal Hartman was an exceptional man.  He was truly and dearly loved and when he was taken from us a year and a half ago, his loss was felt all over his community of Sag Harbor.  Neal was a pillar of Christ Episcopal Church, a stalwart of the Historical Society, the Sag Harbor Tree Fund, The Bay Street Theater and his bridge club.  On top of that, he grew the sweetest tomatoes, made the most extraordinary Strawberry jam, cooked and baked and pickled.  On the morning that he died of an aortic aneurysm, he was scheduled for an all-day canning session with his and our dear friend Michael.  We were all bereft at his loss, aged just 64, and our heartbreak for his partner of 40 years, David, was unimaginable.  Neal left us a legacy of community service, deep friendship and incredible sorrow that he is no longer here.  And he also left behind something that alone would keep him in our hearts forever, his amazing recipe for Baked Butter Beans.
         What I did not know, as I prepared this dish for our 4th of July festivities, was that people all over town have been clamoring for this recipe ever since Neal died.  They knew he’d given it to someone but no one seemed to know to whom.  They’d asked the usual suspects, the local food glitterati, to no avail.  Then Michael spied the recipe casually opened on our kitchen counter.  He simply could not believe his eyes.  And he asked me to share this on Chewing the Fat.        
         There’s a funny tale attached to this dish:  We were giving a rather large dinner party and this dish is perfect for that kind of occasion.  First of all, the recipe yields a ton of the stuff.  It’s simple as pie and the flavors of the smoky bacon, sweet tomatoes, brown sugar and white wine vinegar combine in an explosion of flavor that put their cousins, regular baked beans, to shame. But back to our dinner party...One of the understandings of entertaining out here is that houseguests will be part of the guest list.
         Enter two men we’d never met before.  Once the meal was set out on the buffet, they informed us that they were vegetarian.  As readers know, I have no problem cooking meatless dishes but for some reason, the only thing that was meatless was a green salad.  Every last item contained meat including the famous Neal Hartman Baked Butter Beans.   I saw the men spooning helpings onto their plates and thought it only fair to admit to the bacon in the dish.  The men were un-phased and said they’d eat around the bacon.   Again and again, they returned to the casserole, heaping beans on their plates.  Need I tell you there was not one piece of bacon left either on their plates nor in the casserole.  I still wonder if that dinner led them down the garden path to eating meat.  Or, at the very least, bacon.   
This is one of those amazingly easy and satisfying dishes that are such pure Americana, they really belong in your repertoire.  Here’s Neal’s recipe and here’s to you, dear friend.

Neal Hartman’s Recipe for Baked Butter Beans:

6 cans of Goya Butter Beans
½ lb of bacon cut into dice
2 cans Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup
½ cup white wine vinegar
1 cup brown sugar

Cook diced bacon in the same casserole you will use to bake the beans.  When bacon releases most of its fat, drain excess leaving 1 – 2 tbsp. in the casserole.  Lower heat to low.

Add soup, vinegar, and brown sugar to bacon in the pan.

Drain beans well, rinse then and then add them to the casserole.

Bake at 325 degrees for 2- 2 ½ hours.  The whole thing can be assembled one day ahead, refrigerated and then baked.  The flavor will develop beautifully if you do.