Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Carefully Guarded Secrets

Baked Beans are as American as Apple Pie, pre-American actually--Indian Baked Beans would be a more accurate name.  Native to North America beans were among the first cultivated crops along with maize and squash.  These crops were called the Three Sisters and were staples of the Native American diet.  Native Americans of the Northeast sweetened their baked beans with maple syrup and cooked them in earthenware pots buried in coals to cook over night or longer.  Colonists were not unfamiliar with beans, which had been known in Europe since the middle of the sixteenth century. They adopted the Native American method of cooking beans substituting molasses for the maple syrup, and the dish became an important part of their diet as well. 

I grew up in New England, and every woman of my childhood made Baked Beans.  They were brought to Church, American Legion, and family pot luck suppers and picnics.  The Baked Beans of my childhood were sweetened with molasses, and every recipe varied just a little.  Women took great pride in their Baked Beans and the ingredients were carefully guarded secrets.  It wasn’t until moving to Vermont that I encountered Baked Beans sweetened with maple syrup.  These beans had a more subtle flavor and were absolutely delicious.  So delicious that I became a convert—no more molasses in Baked Beans for me!  It took a while to get the recipe just right.  I broke with tradition by substituting bacon for the salt pork normally used in Baked Beans, and this cook thinks it is a flavor change for the better.  Hope you agree.  Enjoy!

Notes for this recipe: When simmering the beans, do NOT over cook them.  It is important that the beans be cooked only to just tender.  If the beans split, you will need to start over with new beans.  For the best flavor, use Grade B maple syrup.  Maple Sugar can be difficult to find, but not impossible.  Mine is purchased at The Morse Farm—click here for their link.  Navy Beans are the beans of choice for Baked Beans.  Their small size and smooth, creamy texture when cooked are perfect for this dish.  For a vegetarian version of this dish, just eliminate the bacon.  Bean pots are traditionally used for making Baked Beans as the narrow mouth helps reduce evaporation, but any large heavy casserole or Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid can be used.

Unfortunately, I did not take a picture of the finished beans, which I will remedy next time this dish is made.  The picture above is one taken after the liquor was added, but before the beans were cooked.  The picture below shows the ingredients doubled for a hoard-sized gathering.

Maple Baked Beans

1 large whole onion, peeled
3 slices bacon, halved
½ c. Grade B maple syrup
¼ c. maple sugar
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. white pepper
1 lb. (approx. 2 c.) dried Navy Beans

Wash beans and place in a large bowl or pot.  Fill the pot with cold water, covering the beans to at least two inches above the level of the beans.  Set aside to soak over night.  In the morning, drain and rinse the beans.  Return to the pot and cover with fresh cold water.  Set the pot on the stove, and bring to a boil.  Cover and reduce heat.  Simmer beans 1 to 2 hours or until just tender. Drain the beans, reserving the liquor (cooking liquid).  Thoroughly rinse the beans.  (Alternately:  Place beans in a large pan.  Cover with cold water.  Place on the stove and bring to a full roiling boil.  Cook beans at full rolling boil for 2 minutes.  Remove from heat.  Cover and let stand for 1 hour.  Drain beans and rinse.  Return to pot and cover with fresh cold water.  Bring to a full rolling boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for 1 to 1-1/2 hours or until beans are just tender.  Add boiling water as necessary, to keep beans covered.  Drain beans and reserve the liquor.)

Preheat the oven to 300.  Put the beans in a 2 quart bean pot or oven proof Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid. Push the onion down into the middle of the beans.  Next, push the bacon down into the beans.  Pour the reserved bean liquor into a 4 cup measure, add enough water to make four cups and set aside.  In a small bowl mix the maple syrup, maple sugar, dried mustard, salt and a good grind of white pepper, stir to combine, and pour over the beans.  Pour in enough of the reserved bean liquor to cover the beans.   Set any unused liquor aside. Place the bean pot in the preheated oven.  Bake for 8 hours.  Remove lid for the last hour or two of cooking.  With a long-handled, heat-proof fork pull the bacon to the surface.  If the beans begin to dry out, heat the reserved liquor to just boiling and pour enough over beans to keep them covered.  Repeat as necessary.

When the beans are cooked, remove the onion and bacon to a plate and serve separately.  Serve the beans in the bean pot with a long handled spoon.  Sit back and enjoy the compliments.