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Dear Lazyweb: cooking with bacon....
Last week skitten was given some bacon strips, which she rarely if ever uses (it's fatty, see, and therefore axiomatically bad for you). I told her that the next time I made a pot-o-beans, I'd split it in two and cook one half with bacon, as is traditional, as a flavoring.

I've never actually used bacon as a flavoring like that before, being vegetarian and all. As such, I don't know if I should add the bacon uncooked to the pot, fry it up first and then add it (fat and all), if I should add it early or late, or what?

I'm planning on making the pot-o-beans for Tuesday, which means that tomorrow night I'll be starting the beans to soak. I figure this will give plenty of time for advice.

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I'm assuming that you're making a fairly traditional "Boston baked beans" recipe - pea beans, brown sugar/molasses, no onions or tomatoes. (Incidentally, the recipe I inherited from my Bostonian great-grandmother uses ground ginger in place of dry mustard, to give it the required "zing". She apparently just didn't like mustard, and neither do I. You might want to try it.)

Anyway, the really traditional flavoring for baked beans is either salt pork or "fatback" - salt pork has a bit more meat to it. In addition to the cured meat adding its flavor and saltiness to the beans, a bit of the fat cooks into the dish, helping to blend the flavors. (I have seen recipes for "vegetarian beans" where there's a tablespoonful or so of oil in the mixture.)

The way to do it using bacon is to put the prepared bean mixture into your casserole or beanpot, then lay the slices of raw bacon on top in a crisscross arrangement. They won't brown while you're baking this with the lid on, but you can bake them for the last hour or so with the lid off - just make sure the beans don't get too dry while this is happening. Usually the bacon isn't very good that way, so you might as well just remove and discard it when the beans are done.

If you want bits of bacon blended throughout the dish, the best bet is to follow the instructions above, but also chop a few strips of bacon into small pieces and then either pan-fry them or microwave them (carefully, because bacon goes from "not cooked at all" to "overcooked and nearly burnt" in the microwave very quickly) and drain on paper towels. Then just stir the cooked bacon bits into the finished beans.

(Oh, and bacon isn't axiomatically bad for you if it's cooked fairly crisp and drained well. A few slices alongside your breakfast pancakes, or on top of a burger, or in a BLT sandwich, aren't going to give you an instantaneous heart attack. Moderation in all things - even moderation itself.)

Actually, my bean recipe is more of a bean soup than Boston baked beans:

2 cups mixed dry beans, split peas, and lentils

Hot tap water

Put beans and water in a large pot, with lots more water than beans. Let soak overnight. In morning, pour off now-tepid soaking water.

1 Tbsp kosher parve onion soup mix

1 Tbsp kosher parve mushroom soup mix

Hot tap water

Fill pot with beans back up with hot water, add soup bases, and bring to boil, then turn down to low heat and simmer, stirring occasionally most of the day to keep beans from sinking to bottom and burning.

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 onion, diced

salt, pepper, oregano, paprika, basil & other spices as appropriate

In separate skillet, heat up olive oil, put in onion and a sprinkle of salt to sweat it. Add spices, stirring to thoroughly coat onion and spices in oil and cook until onions are translucent.

12oz tomato paste

Add tomato paste to skillet, stirring in a bit at a time. Add some water from beans a bit at a time, stirring until paste/onion combo has a smooth, non-lumpy, consistency.

This treatment of the tomato paste is the best way I've found, to date, to get the tomato paste to integrate into the body of the soup without spending an inordinate amount of time as lumps of tomato. If you have a better way, go for it.

Add contents of skillet to bean pot, stirr thoroughly to integrate it. Let simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30min.

Serve hot.

When I say "bean mix", I really mean that. I found that it works well to take a collection of different types of beans, mix them thoroughly, and cook them like this. My current mix includes kidney, navy, black, red, garbanzo, and pinto beans, as well as black-eyed peas, green and yellow split peas, and lentils. I used about a pound of each, except for the lentils, which I used two pounds of, and mixed them thoroughly before scooping out 2 cups for the soup.

(Oh, it isn't I who hold that fatty foods is axiomatically bad for you. And I'm fully aware of ways to cook bacon to reduce bat content. I'm also fully aware that if I follow your suggestion (put strips of bacon on top, and remove before serving) that what I'm really putting into the beans is bacon fat. My mom grew up in the south; from her I know about fatback. I'd be even partial to frying the bacon in a pan and once its crispy adding it, plus the pan drippings, to the beans and stirring them in for maximum flavor. But that'd be too much fat for skitten's tolerance.)

ah, okay - very different recipe. (bacon doesn't only add fat to a dish, it also adds its smoky flavor, and of course some salt.)

to keep the fat to a digestible level, try this with your beans:
boil the assorted beans with soup base as described. but chop up a few slices of bacon, and cook them gently in your skillet, then pour off all but about 1 tb. of the bacon fat (leaving the bacon in). fry your onion, seasonings, and tomato paste in the bacon fat, leaving out the additional salt. then stir that into your beans. basically you're just replacing the olive oil with a bit of flavorful bacon fat, and adding a little bit of meat.

if it were me, i'd leave out the beans, seasonings, onion, tomato paste, and everything else, and just eat the bacon ;-) (every year at Ashokan, when Chef Michael puts out those big pans of bacon at breakfast, i say, "Dear Goddess, finally, enough bacon!", and go back for seconds and thirds...)

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