These are so delicious you may forget all about the burgers.
Ribs and beans
Credit: Getty / LauriPatterson

Summer cookouts means a return to grilling, and a return to grilling means baked beans are back. And of course, those sweet and savory morsels, in their ruddy thickened sauce, heady with brown sugar and spices, are a great foil for rich meats and the smoke of the grill. But they also pack a sugary wallop. And when they are often the only plant-based protein on offer, that can be a bit much for vegetarians, since they are a great side dish but not a fantastic entrée.

After enjoying a decadent appetizer of rich, creamy beans served with grilled bread at Saint Leo restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi, it dawned on me that the pairing of a grilled item with beans prepared this way was just spectacular. And I had a eureka moment! If you switch up your traditional sweet and sour tomato-based baked beans for one that is rich and creamy, you don't lose any of the ease, but you gain a dish that is both a wonderful side dish, but also a savory entrée. It too can be made ahead, and if you are bean-shy with dried beans, can be made successfully with canned. It is also endlessly adaptable, so you can adjust to your taste.

How to make baked creamy beans

This recipe serves 6-8 as a side dish or 4 as an entrée. If you want it to be a vegetarian main course, serve with thick slabs of grilled bread, or you can round out by serving over rice or polenta.

Baked Creamy Beans

3 cups cooked or canned small white beans like navy beans or cannellini, drained and rinsed

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil plus more for the topping

1 medium yellow onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 small bulb fennel, diced (you can substitute 2-3 ribs celery)

1½ cups vegetable stock (you can use chicken stock if you are not worried about making it vegetarian)

1½ cups heavy cream

1 cup grated fontina or other good creamy melting cheese

¼ cup grated Parmesan

¼ cup plain breadcrumbs

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, a pinch of cayenne, or three dashes hot sauce of your choice (optional)

½ cup chopped flat leaf parsley

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cup thinly sliced scallions, white and green

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

1. In a large straight-sided skillet over medium high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Sauté the onion until it begins to color, then add the garlic and fennel, seasoning well with salt and pepper.

2. Sauté until the vegetables are tender and golden brown on the edges, taking care not to burn the garlic.

3. Add the stock and cream, and simmer until slightly reduced and thickened; it should coat the back of a spoon and leave a trail when you draw your finger through the liquid.

4. Add the pepper flakes if using, and season again with salt and pepper to your taste. Add the fontina and stir to melt, then turn off heat and add the parsley.

5. Stir in the beans, and transfer to a small oval gratin or square casserole dish. If making ahead, set aside to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until the day you want to serve. Let come back up to room temp for one hour before continuing with the recipe.

6. Heat your oven to 375°. In a small bowl, blend the Parmesan and breadcrumbs and scatter evenly over the top. Drizzle with olive oil, then bake for 30-45 minutes until bubbling and hot. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving garnish with scallions and lemon zest.