I did not expect to love beans on toast. I was living in London, 22, and just out of college. My gastronomic sensibilities had yet to mature, but I had already developed an interest in farmers' market produce, artisan bread, and laborious recipes. So, when a friend came to my flat bearing a tin of Heinz baked beans, a loaf of white bread, and a bag of frozen chips (French fries), I was dubious. I figured this curious combination of chips, beans, and toast would join the group of British foods I tried once and never again (see: mushy peas).
After popping the chips in the oven, we started on the beans. Canned baked beans are iconic in England. Cheap, filling, and easy to make, they have long been a staple of students and the working class. Heinz brand beans, with their signature bright green label, are considered by many to be the best (though recently we've heard rumblings of preference for Branston brand...). Different from American or Boston baked beans, the British version is not as sweet and more tomato sauce-based. That night, I also discovered that there is actually a technique to heating baked beans. Before pouring them into a pan, we shook the can vigorously to give the beans a softer consistency. And then I learned the number one rule: cook under a low flame and don't boil the beans (according to instructions on the can, doing so would "impair the flavour").
When everything was heated, we piled our plates with generously-buttered toast, crispy chips, and baked beans. A sprinkle of salt and pepper and drizzles of malt vinegar tied it all together. And what do you know, it was perfect. Hearty, comforting, buttery, and tangy. It was even fun to assemble each bite on my fork – a corner of toast, a morsel of potato, and the tomato-y sauce from the beans. I soon found myself making it again and ordering it in pubs (sometimes just beans on toast, without the chips). It became one of my all-time favorite comfort dishes.
Now, many years later, I live in Los Angeles and am a staunch advocate of local, seasonal, fresh food. But I would never give up chips, beans, and toast. I buy the green Heinz cans at British and Indian import shops. Sometimes I'm "good" and use whole wheat instead of white bread, but I'm always generous with the butter and malt vinegar. I have become one of those LA people who cries at the mere suggestion of rain, but I've found that I can bear rainy days here if I pretend I'm in London and have a plate of beans on toast. It lifts my mood and brings back memories of my time across the pond.
• The top image is of Tamarind and Thyme's baked beans doctored with shallots, chili sauce, and Worcestershire sauce. I happen to love the beans just as they are, but her recipe might be worth a try if you find them too boring. In England, it's also common to eat beans on toast with grated cheese or HP Sauce.
Emily Ho is a writer, recipe developer, and educator. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches classes on food preservation, wild food, and herbalism. Emily is a Master Food Preserver and founder of LA Food Swap and the international Food Swap Network.
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