picture courtesy of www.crabcoll.comWhen I met Paul, way back in those halcyon days of 2000, I had no idea really about global heterogeneity. He lived in Florida which I thought was in California! I thought that Denver was in Texas. And I thought that there was only one Disney (apart from the one in Paris. That's Paris, France, not Paris, Texas). I used to think that there was no disparity between American and British cuisine. The only discrepency, I thought, lay in the different types of chocolate.
I used to have dreams about Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, having tasted them for one sweet, fleeting moment in 1985. My friends father worked on the nearby American airbase and he would bring them home all sorts of transatlantic treats. How I envied her, with her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Converse Sneakers and her 'sophisticated' fake American accent.
Of course, as the years passed and I became older and the Internet became de rigueur for shopping purposes, I bought myself a pair of Converse Sneakers. I could pass off a pretty mean Noo Yawk accent (it's better when drunk, trust me). I had a love of obscure American music like the Meat Puppets. I watched Jim Jarmusch movies. And I adored Edie and Andy. Still in my little bubble of naivety, I thought that they too lunched on fish and chips and roast dinners. I had no idea back then Americans didn't put butter on their sandwiches or that pudding meant a soft, custardy cream instead of a stodgy suet dessert, laced with dates, toffee, jam or all three. Paul quickly enlightened me to these differences. He had obviously paid far more attention to the Young Ones and Dr Who than I had to My Two Dads and Blossom.
One of the first foody requests I had of Paul was for him to send me some Twinkies. I believe I had first encountered them in a Judy Blume book, along with Oreos and Cheetoes. How I longed to taste that sweet, sweet taste of American food. When my Twinkies arrived in a large care package that cost Paul several hundreds of dollars to ship, they had grown a mysterious green fungus on one end and looked inedible. I tossed them in the bin.
On my first trip to the US, I quickly discovered that green fungus or not, Twinkies ARE inedible. I also discovered that Hersheys chocolate is not as good as I thought and that there is a BIG difference between candy and chocolate. This was to be a trip of many culinary epiphanies. I insisted on having breakfast, lunch and dinner at a different eatery for every meal. And this was on a 20 day holiday. I came back several pounds heavier and that was just my arteries.
Paul and I ate at virtually every famous, infamous and anonymous diner in the US, from Asheville to Orlando, with Lafayette, Chicago, and LaCrosse in between. We won stuffed toys at every claw machine we came across, Paul stuffing the slots full of quarters until he satiated his need for the claw. With our ever-increasing family of day-glo mice, lime green bears and purple dinosaurs, we visited Waffle House, Fuddruckers (and even now I can't type that without sniggering), Perkins, Applebys, Country Kitchen, Panerra Bread, Fayzees, Taco Bell, Rocky Rococos, TGI Fridays, Olive Garden, Moosehill Cantina, Big Al's Pizza, Cracker Barrel, Dennys, JJs and Arbys. We ate at many more eateries whose names I can't even remember now. This eating at a different stop for every meal was my MO during my first couple of trips but the novelty soon wore thin.
I started to cook for myself and so I became addicted, not to eateries, but to the supermarkets. Vast, imposing places that sell every ingredient I could ever dream of: frozen okra! Coconut Essence! Cinnamon Rolls! Bread and Butter Pickle Spices! Proper Mexican Chorizo! Even now I get chills just thinking about Woodmans, a farmers co-operative supermarket specialising in international ingredients close to Pauls parents house.
Despite all this cross-culturalisation, I still find the oddity in our tastes: Paul has mayonnaise and mustard on every sandwich, he has to have milk with peanut butter and pours maple syrup over French Toast (or as we Brits refer to it, Eggy Bread) instead of having ketchup with it. Paul still shakes his head with bemusement as I spoon baked beans on to my fried breakfast.He didn't shake his head, however, when I made Boston Baked Beans recently (nice segue, huh?). Although he made a comment that they weren't as thick as they were supposed to be. Other than that, they were relatively authentic.
I was so happily surprised at how the Molasses, Molasses Sugar, Onions and Pork Hock got down to business in the oven and produced such a wonderful aroma that if Yankee Candles ever made it into a scent, I'd buy their largest, most overpriced candle in a jar.
A note about the pork. I went all out this month. I have wanted to buy some true organic meat for some time because I don't entirely trust supermarket labelling (although I do trust my own palate). There is a company called The Well Hung Meat Company (stop sniggering at the back) who sell only the finest organic meat: lamb, mutton, beef, pork and chickens. The animals spend a happy life grazing outside on grass, as they should do. They are left to wander around in their herds or flocks and do what normal animals should. Most importantly, they are killed peacefully and humanely. This is important because an animal that dies peacefully leaves a legacy of gentle tasting meat. It sounds like hippy mumbo jumbo but I truly believe that we owe the meat we eat a certain dignity throughout its life and into death, so knowing where it comes from is of the utmost importance to me and grows increasingly more important to me everyday.
My purchase from WHM was two pigs trotters, a large Pork Loin, a Breast of Mutton, some beef bones for the hounds and a large Pork Hock, bought specifically for the purpose of this recipe.
It was well worth the extra money (and really, it wasn't that much extra, just £2.45 for a hock that served the two of us. Coney got to suck the marrow from the large bone that was left. Max wanted to play fetch with his), the flavour was truly porky, not insipid or bland, and it was tender from the four hours of slow cooking. No fuss cooking.
BOSTON BAKED BEANS serves 2. From Tamasins Kitchen Bible.
1 Large Ham Hock
250g Cannelini Beans, dried and soaked for at least 12 hours
1/4 jar of Molasses (approximately a LARGE tablespoon)
150g Molasses Sugar
Chicken Stock to cover (about a litre)
2 Onions, peeled and studded with cloves
1 Star Anise
6 or so Black Peppercorns
2 Teaspoons Dried Mustard Powder
Preheat the oven to 140c.
Place the cannelini beans in a large ovenproof stockpot and cover with the chicken stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
Drain off some of the stock so that the beans are barely covered.
Mix together the mustard powder and both the Molasses and the Molasses Sugar with a spoonful or two of the stock, until dissolved. Add to the beans.
Throw in the studded onion, the star anise and the peppercorns. Tuck the hock in between the beans so it is partially submerged.
Cover tightly and cook in the oven for four hours.
After an hour or so the kitchen will be filled with a wonderful molasses aroma.
When ready, the beans will be soft and the meat will be falling off the bone. I seasoned mine with a little salt just to take the edge of the extreme sweetness but this is entirely optional.
Serve with mashed potatoes.