After all the fuss and complication of a Thanksgiving feast, a crockpot dinner will seem mighty appealing. November, December and January are peak months for the slow cooker, when something easy yet warming is the perfect pick-me-up for cold, dark nights (or interminable football games).
Doug Hamilton has been perfecting his recipe for crockpot barbecued beans for 30 years, making small adjustments over the years until reaching what he believes are the ideal proportions. It takes time — 20 to 40 minutes of preparation, he said, plus at least five or six hours in the crockpot, with a gentle stir every 45 to 90 minutes.
“It’s its own reward,” said Hamilton, who lives in the Sifton area northeast of Vancouver. “It’s an unusual and enticing dish. I don’t mind doing it at all because I figure I’m going to be bringing pleasure to guests.”
The original recipe was given to Hamilton by a colleague at Evergreen Public Schools, where he held various positions over 38 years before retiring in 2008. He made the bean dish again and again, usually as an accompaniment to grilled burgers at backyard cookouts. He said the original recipe contained no barbecue sauce; that was a later addition, at the suggestion of a friend. Now he always adds a dollop of Stubb’s Smokey Mesquite or Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, as well as his own secret ingredient: ¼ cup of molasses.
He said he starts by opening the beans and letting them drain in a colander. This step is crucial, he said; otherwise, the dish turns out watery. (Hamilton said he’s given the recipe out many times over the years, and the most common mistake others make is to skip the bean-draining step.) Another blunder is to use flavored beans (such as hickory or chili) instead of plain pork-and-beans because that will significantly affect the overall taste. Hamilton also advised against omitting the pepper and celery, even if — like Hamilton — you don’t normally enjoy those vegetables. After so many hours of cooking, he said, they dissolve, leaving nothing but mellow flavors.
“Make it hours in advance or overnight,” Hamilton said. “That’s what does it: sitting in the pot overnight or all day.”
He favors real bacon bits over cooked-from-scratch bacon, a time-saving adjustment suggested by his wife of 55 years, Susan. This tidy, efficient change knocks about 30 minutes off the preparation time, said Hamilton, and the difference in flavor is undetectable.
If it weren’t for an unusually lucky turn in Hamilton’s younger years, he might never have worked for the Evergreen schools and never have known the person who gave him the recipe. He grew up enduring the extreme privations of an Alaskan homestead, he said, and missed about three months of school every year.
“I was the eldest of four children on the homestead, so I did a lot of work,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t go to school until snow had fallen on the soil. I got out of school when the snow melted and I could plow again.”
Then, “purely out of the sky,” he said, he was given a one-semester scholarship at Warner Pacific University in Portland. He jumped at the chance to live in a building with flush toilets, windows and beds, he said. He figured he could stay at least four months before being asked to leave. With no graduation goal in mind, he simply took every class that interested him — and he loved it. He didn’t go home but stayed to study speech, drama and language arts, earning a Bachelor of Arts before continuing with a master’s degree from the University of Portland.
He taught English, speech and drama at Evergreen High School for 10 years and spent the remainder of his career working in administrative positions, such as instructional technology, facility design, library media and public relations. He also worked in television production, helping to produce educational programming for Clark County’s local cable channel.
“It was an interesting career,” Hamilton said, “but I took the time to slow down and make a pot of beans every now and then.”
He and Susan don’t often cook at home and prefer to eat out, Hamilton said, but they do work together to prepare food for large family gatherings. Hamilton said he’ll do the main dishes and Susan will shop for ingredients and make the side dishes. He calls himself a “concrete sequential,” meaning that he finds satisfaction in tasks that are ordered, sequential and linear, with objectively measurable results. He said that he doesn’t necessarily find the process of cooking to be soothing or therapeutic in the way that some people do. Rather, he likes knowing that if he follows the steps in a particular order, he’ll get the desired outcome. His favorite part of making this bean dish, he said, is that others so clearly appreciate the results of his labor.
“My daughter loves it and she’ll get the last scoop,” Hamilton said. “It’s not a hard recipe, but a lot of it is just letting the flavors interact with each other.”
Crockpot Barbecue Beans
4 15-ounce cans of VanCamp’s plain pork and beans; can use up to 6 cans if cooking for large crowd
1 medium green pepper
2 small celery stalks
1 medium onion
1½ cups brown sugar (don’t pack)
¼ cup molasses
1½ tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
12 strips crumbled bacon or 1 cup (a 4.3-ounce bag) of Hormel Real Bacon Bits
1 tablespoon bacon grease (omit this ingredient if bacon bits are used)
8 to 10 all-beef hot dogs
¾ cup ketchup
¼ cup barbecue sauce
Drain most of the sauce from the pork and beans by pouring them into a sieve and placing it in the sink while you prepare the other ingredients. Dice the vegetables. Dice the hot dogs. Combine all the ingredients in a large crock pot and mix thoroughly but not vigorously. Cook the beans overnight or all day at low setting, with minimum cooking time of about 5-6 hours. Stir gently every 45-90 minutes. (If stirred too often or too vigorously, the mixture can get mushy.) If the mixture gets too watery while cooking, remove or adjust the lid to let steam (and the delicious aroma) escape. Turn crock pot to high for the last hour of cooking time. Add ingredients or change amounts to suit individual tastes.