Smoky Maple Pinto Beans

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From Around the Southern Table by Sarah Belk

Almost as popular as fried chicken is that universal favorite, barbecue. Wherever one goes, he isn’t far from the smell of some restaurant or backyard grill slowly cooking pork, beef, or chicken in a highly seasoned barbecue sauce. Many restaurants specialize in nothing but barbecue, evidence of the popularity of barbecued meat. There are so many commercial barbecue sauces for the homecook that no one sauce has claimed the number one spot among loyal enthusiasts. The only requirement is that the bottle’s label show that the barbecue sauce, like hot sauce, is manufactured somewhere in the south; otherwise, true barbecue connoisseurs won’t trust it.  —Michael Andrew Grissom, Southern by the Grace of God

There are many great barbecue joints in the South, and Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis is certainly one of them. The Rendezvous is famous for its “dry” ribs, which are tender and highly seasoned with a mixture of dried herbs and spices. Memphis’ other famous rib joint, Gridley’s, offers the more traditional “wet” barbecued ribs. I love both rib styles, as well as the sweet and spicy barbecue beans served with them. John Vergos, the owner’s son, wouldn’t reveal the Rendezvous recipe, but I detected cumin, onions, molasses, and a little tomato and vinegar for sharpness. In this version, I use maple syrup instead of molasses for interest. I’ve also added fresh ginger, a pleasant counterpoint to the cumin. Serve warm as a side dish to hamburgers or sausages, or, as they do in Memphis, to accompany barbecued ribs, or a pork barbecue sandwich. These beans will keep one week in the refrigerator or they may be frozen for several months.

Ingredients
1 pound (2 cups) dried pinto beans, picked over, washed, and soaked overnight in cold water (Or use quick-soak method: Bring water and beans to a boil, then boil for 2 minutes. Cover, and set aside off the heat for 1 hour. Drain thoroughly.)
1 ham hock (or substitute 1/2 pound slab bacon or lean salt pork or fatback)
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and halved
1 herb bouquet, tied in cheesecloth, consisting of:
     2 large cloves garlic, peeled
     8 whole black peppercorns
     1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
     4 whole cloves
     1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed, crushed coarsely in mortar and pestle
3 to 4 tablespoons cider vinegar
4 to 6 tablespoons maple syrup (or substitute 3 to 4 tablespoons molasses)
2 tablespoons prepared spicy brown mustard
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
Crumbled bacon, to garnish (optional)
Chopped parsley, to garnish (optional)

Instructions
1. Transfer the drained, soaked beans to a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan. Add ham hock, onion, and ginger and enough water to cover by 2 inches.

2. Add herb bouquet to the beans and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes. Lower heat and simmer uncovered 45 minutes, skimming as needed and adding more water if necessary. (Beans should be covered at all times by at least 1 inch of water.)

3. After 45 minutes cooking time, add 1 tablespoon vinegar, 4 tablespoons syrup (or 3 tablespoons molasses), 1 tablespoon of the mustard, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir to blend, then simmer 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours longer or until beans are tender and cooking liquid is creamy. Taste for seasoning, adding remaining vinegar, syrup, mustard, or salt, if desired. Serve hot, topped with crumbled bacon and chopped parsley if desired.

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish.

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