reverse engineering food

Once upon a time, when the World Wide Web was but a glimmer in Tim Berner-Lee's eye, the Toronto Star used to run a regular column where readers could write in and request the recipes for dishes they'd had in restaurants. A Star staffer would get the recipe from the chef in question, and then write it up along with an interview with the chef, a description of where the restaurant was and what else they had to offer on the menu, and a quote from the request letter, typically gushing about how great the dish in question was. For the price of one recipe (usually one of the more basic ones, at that — dishes that required an actual professional kitchen tended to be avoided), the chef and the restaurant got some very nice publicity.

These days, we do have the internet, and apparently there's a sizable army of people out there willing to research, reverse engineer, and otherwise discover the secrets of popular restaurant and prepared-food recipes. Once they do find out, they post the results on blogs, foodie sites, and anywhere else that seems appropriate, even in e-mail chain letters.

Once, the recipe-hunters may have been motivated by questions such as, "How do I make this at home so I don't have to trek all the way to Restaurant X?" or "How can I save some money by buying the ingredients myself?" Now, one is just as likely to find recipes motivated by sentiments like, "I love this, but I want to control the portion size/make it less fattening" or "I want to make this without the scary-sounding chemicals included."

Recently I've been reading about how the lining material used in food cans in North America can chemicaly react with certain foods, causing chemicals in the lining material to leach into the food. Baked beans are supposedly one of the worst culprits for this, which dismayed me, because I eat baked beans throughout autumn, winter, and spring. Around the same time that I started hearing about this, I decided to get some cans of Heinz baked beans from the local British grocery. They cost twice as much as domestic cans of beans, but all my British friends insist they taste better, and the article on scary chemicals from tinned foods said that the EU had different, safer standards on canned food linings.

From eating my way through the four-pack of Heinz beans, I learned two things:
  1. My British friends were completely right.
  2. Given (1) above, I was going to have to learn to approximate this recipe.
It took three batches of slow-cooked beans, but I finally have a decent version. They're not the same as Heinz, but they're a lot closer to, and no tin cans are involved.

3 cups of cooked navy beans
about 3/4 c Heinz ketchup (Heinz ketchup = Heinz-ish beans)
about 1 tbl Dijon mustard
a few drops of Worcestershire sauce

Place beans in slow cooker. Add all of the other ingredients to a measuring cup, then add enough hot water to make up about 1 3/4 c total. Stir until combined. Pour over beans and cook on Low setting for 4-6 hours.

This makes a version that has the right flavour, but a strong vinegar smell. Next time I may reduce the ketchup a little and up the water a little (the consistency of the sauce is also a bit thicker than the authentic Heinz British beans, so this makes sense to me).

Did you notice there is absolutely no added sugar in this version? No brown sugar, no maple syrup, no molasses. No wonder I like it so much.

What's your favourite way to do beans?