The slow cooker. It's a kitchen gadget that promises great things. Miraculous things. You become wooed by the tales of throwing in a handful of foodstuffs on your way out to work in the morning and arriving home in the evenings to fragrant wafts from the kitchen and a warm meal ready to dish up. My few experiments with the slow cooker took the shine off that promise.
Our first couple of slow cooked dinners were convenient but lacked something on the taste-front. They were watery, and lacked the rich flavour that a slow-cooked stew normally would. An obvious problem was the amount of liquids we had put in - since it's an enclosed system the water helps steam and cook everything but also doesn't escape, so natural water given off by the food coupled with any liquid added could lead to a rather watery dish.
But I'm not one to give in easily. Work has been busy, leaving me tired when I get home, and the little bubbins growing inside me gets a bit demanding for food too early in the evening for me to think of luxuriating over the chopping board and stove each night. But always on the lookout for slow-cook ideas, I found a recipe for slow-cooked baked beans at The Cottage Smallholder and I determined to give it another go. Real, slow-cooked baked beans are a wonderful thing and aren't a thing like the supposed beans-in-a-can you find anywhere in America. Though this recipe didn't use a slow-cooker to do the deed, there wasn't a great deal of liquid in the recipe and it seemed like a promising start.
To my thinking, an obvious companion to the beans would be pork, and slow-cooked pork belly was another slow-cooking winner. There was the risk of the belly pork, with its tremendous amount of fat, simply feeding its tender fatty juices to the beans over a period of 10 hours, leaving me with a delicious last meal before Mr A&N and I died of spontaneous clogged arteries. I took care to cut away the skin from the pork (it would also let me make crackling later on) as well as most of the visible fat beneath the skin in order to give us half a chance of living through the meal.
Preparation was, of course, nice and easy. Beans soaked over night, everything thrown in the pot in the morning (though I didn't follow the suggested recipe exactly, partly due to lack of ingredients). I doubled the amount of sauce for the beans so that I could coat the pork in that flavoring as well. On went the slow cooker for 10 hours, and off I went to work.
This time, I'm delighted to say, the slow cooker lived up to its potential. The pork hadn't melted into itself or the beans, but was both tender and with enough fat on it that you could trim it off and look forward to living another day. The beans were enough to make any practical New Englander swell (just a polite amount) with pride, with nicely thickened sauce and all its flavours coming together in a perfectly sweet and savory blend. Luckily, there were also plenty of leftovers so we could pat ourselves on the backs for our good work for a few days to come. The slow-cooker lives to cook another day.
Slow Cooked Belly of Pork and Baked Beans, inspired by The Cottage Smallholder
- 500 g Roman (aka borlotti, cranberry, or even pinto) beans
- 1 large onion
- 8 cloves
- 3 Tbsp ketchup
- 3 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2 Tbsp sweet chili sauce (or if you'd rather not, just more ketchup)
- 2 Tbsp barbecue sauce
- 4 Tbsp maple syrup or molasses
- 4 Tbsp muscovado sugar
- 2 Tbsp dijon mustard
- 300-500 ml vegetable stock (approx - enough to cover)
- 1 kg pork belly
- handful of fresh thyme
- Soak the beans overnight in water.
- In the morning, boil the beans in fresh water for 10 minutes and then drain.
- Peel and quarter the onion, and stick 2 cloves into each of the quarters. Set aside.
- Combine the ketchup, tomato paste, chili sauce, barbecue sauce, maple syrup, muscovado sugar, and mustard.
- Place the cooked beans in the slow cooker pot, and add half the ketchup sauce to it. Stir and assess - add a bit more if the beans are't quite coated.
- Pour in about half the vegetable stock and give a stir. The stock should cover the beans and with a little bit more to spare, so add enough stock to reach this point.
- Prepare the pork - cut off the skin and set aside for making crackling later. Cut away most of the visible fat that was under the skin.
- Place the onions, clove side down, on top of the beans.
- Place the thyme on top of the onions.
- Lay the pork with former-skin-side up on top of the onions and thyme. Cover the pork, top and bottom, with any of the left over ketchup mixture.
- Cover and set the slow cooker on for a minimum of 6 hours. (I cooked my for nearly 11 and it was still fine).
- About 45 minutes before you'll be eating, prepare the crackling by turning the oven on to 220 C / 450 F and scoring the skin. Lay the skin on top of something that will let the fat drip off a bit. Cook for about 30-40 minutes.
- Test the beans and pork for salt and pepper, and add as desired.
- Serve the beans and pork warm, with some crackling on the side.