Side dishes are accompaniments that should complement a main dish, make it better, and accentuate its positives. Plunking down an afterthought on the table next to the pièce de résistance is like telling your date to a black tie affair that it’s ok to wear underwear. Some sides are quick and easy like this spicy kale. Others turn a usual suspect on its side, as in the case of this butternut squash. Salads like this slaw, aren’t “just a salad,” but rather attention-getters in their own right.
And sometimes a side dish requires more effort than the main dish it’s meant to bolster. These beans fit into that category and yield results that are worth your time.
The recipe starts with dried beans, which automatically gets it kicked out of the thirty-minute meals club. But remember, good things come to those who wait, and patience is a virtue and all that. There’s simmering, and sweating, and saucing, and in the end, there are tender, sweet and savory beans that make a top notch side dish for burgers (try a ground pork burger topped with grilled apple slices and sharp cheddar), or pulled pork, grilled chicken, or stuffed turkey roulade.
These cidery beans are a match for everything from warm weather barbecues to colder season potlucks. And they make the case for why side dishes are an integral part of a great meal.
Two burgers here, two of our favorites. One a classic old-fashioned burger, juicy and topped with all the right things. The other: truly the best veggie burger we know how to make.
Serves 6 to 8
1 pound dry Great Northern beans, soaked overnight (or using the quick soak method)
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced small (about 2 cups)
1 large carrot, diced small (about 3/4 cup)
1/3 cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons blackstrap molasses (See Recipe Note)
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon or spicy brown mustard
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups apple cider
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (about 20 grinds)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
4 garlic cloves, minced
Put the soaked beans in a medium saucepan and pour in 4 cups of water, or enough to cover the surface of the beans by about 1 inch. Set the pot over medium high heat and bring the liquid to a boil. As soon as it boils, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the beans for 1 1/2 hours, until they are tender and creamy. Don’t boil them. The water should be busy, like a Jacuzzi, but not toiling like a witch’s cauldron. Test several beans from around the pot to determine their texture. (See How to Cook Beans on the Stove)
While the beans cook, heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and carrots and sweat them for 30 minutes until the onions become a little flimsy and take on a smidgen of color from the carrots, whose diced corners will have become less severe as the veggies soften from the heat. Neither the onions nor the carrots should brown at all as they sweat. Keep an eye on the pot to make sure the heat isn’t too high, and give a stir now and again, but for the most part, leave these aromatics to their own devices.
So you don’t obsess over the simmering beans or the sweating vegetables, distract yourself by making the base for the cider sauce. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the tomato paste, molasses, mustard, and brown sugar until smooth and uniform. Slowly add the vinegar, whisking again until a looser paste forms. Pour the cider in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly to make a fluid mixture. Add the salt, pepper, and thyme. Stir again to incorporate. Set aside.
After the onions and carrots have sweated for 30 minutes, add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Pour the cider sauce into the pot with the vegetables and stir everything together.
When you’re certain the beans are relatively unanimously tender, strain them, reserving the cooking liquid. Add the beans to the pot with the cider sauce. Measure 1 1/2 cups of the bean cooking liquid and add it to the beans in the cider sauce. (Note: There’s a good chance the amount of liquid left in your simmered beans will be just right and you can take your chances with dumping everything in without straining or measuring separately. But pot sizes, different guesstimates of initial water coverage, and varying temperatures can make for inconsistent totals of simmer liquid. I’ve been specific here to help avoid watering down beans. If you come up short on simmering liquid, simply add more water to hit the recommended 1 1/2 cups.)
Simmer the beans in this liquid now for another 30 to 45 minutes, until the beans thicken the sauce with their starches to your liking. For saucier beans, simmer closer to 30 minutes. For thicker, richer sauce that coats the beans, simmer for 45 minutes or longer. Stir occasionally as the beans cook in the sauce to prevent any from sticking to the bottom. Adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper to your taste.
Cool leftovers to room temperature before transferring to an airtight container. Refrigerate up to 1 week, or freeze for a month. When reheating the cider beans, add water a few tablespoons at a time to loosen the sauce as it warms.
Blackstrap Molasses: Blackstrap molasses is a little more noir in color and spirit than regular molasses. Its flavor notes are deeper like a cello instead of a violin and it lingers on the back of your tongue, registering more bitter and savory than sweet.
Tara's new book Choosing Sides includes 130 fabulous recipes for side dishes to complement any entrée and complete meals for every occasion. → Find it at an independent bookshop, local library, or on Amazon: Choosing Sides: From Holidays to Every Day, 130 Delicious Recipes to Make the Meal