This is the post where I sound like a townie. I’m not, but I’ve been around a bunch of them as they mourn the loss of their blue-collar neighborhoods to yuppies, hipsters and the like. They lament that JJ Foley’s now serves salmon dishes and fancy salads, and that what they grew up calling Roxbury is now “The South End.” They miss the Olde Stag Tavern, but they’re beside themselves over the fact that it may become a tapas bar named Coco’s. That is if they even know what tapas are. For most of them, when you say tapas, they think you’re headed to The Glass Slipper.
Amid all of this, they’ve also lost their baked beans. Despite the city’s moniker as “bean town,” and the proliferation of comfort-food joints, gastro-pubs and heritage cooking, Boston-style baked beans have become woefully under-represented here. Durgin Park is recommended on a few sites, and Citizen Public House serves them with one entrée, but overall it seems local eateries are more keen on polenta and poutine than the humble bean. Why are local chefs ignoring one of the area’s greatest culinary traditions?
Partly, I think baked beans have gotten a bad rap. Both because of their, um, supposed side effects, and also because of the canned stuff. Watery. Bland. Not so great. Also, I’m not sure that people in general know and appreciate what a true Boston-style baked bean is: white beans baked in a sauce containing pork and molasses. Salty, tangy, and just slightly sweet, they are nothing like you get from a can. They are also super easy to make, either in the oven or in a crock pot.
A native Bostonian gave me his recipe for baked beans shortly after I moved back to the city. It sat forgotten in my email in-box for years, and when I found it recently I lamented that I’d missed the wintry window of opportunity in which beans are so perfect. Then this cold snap hit and wham, I made beans. Since they take about 24 hours to prepare, some planning is needed, but it’s 98 percent hands off. I’d recommend soaking the beans during the day while you’re at work and then in the evening transferring them into a crock pot, bean pot or dutch oven and cooking them slowly overnight. Add a couple hotdogs, sausages or fish cakes and you’ve got a majorly great meal. Don’t want to wait until dinner? Serve with eggs, toast and bacon for a Boston take on a full English breakfast.
A note about the beans: I’m usually not persnickety about canned vs. dry beans, but you want dry beans here so that they soak up all the flavor of the sauce. Also, the beans cook a long time and they’ll get mushy if you start with canned. Dry beans can be found in the ethnic/bean aisle of your local grocery store, and they are surprisingly affordable when bought in bulk at Whole Foods. Before soaking, sort through your beans, and remove any blemished ones or ones that look icky. If you’ve never done this before, here’s a guide:
You’ll also notice that these are “double pork” Boston baked beans. That’s because I had some smoked pork jowl in the freezer and decided to gild the lily and use that in addition to bacon. I am 100 percent sure that these beans will be delicious if you just use 8 ounces of bacon or salt pork (or half bacon and half salt pork). Because, really, what isn’t delicious when you add a half pound of pork to it and cook it for 8 to 10 hours?
Double pork Boston baked beans
1 lb white or navy beans
2 teaspoons mustard
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3 medium onions, chopped
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup Heinz ketchup
2 Tablespoons pickle juice or vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces smoked pork jowl, cut into 1-inch chunks
4 ounces bacon, sliced into lardons
Pick over beans, wash and cover with water. Let soak 8 to 12 hours. Then add water to cover, add all ingredients except pork and boil in a dutch oven for one hour. If using a bean pot or a slow cooker, boil in a separate pot first.
Heat oven to 225. Transfer beans to bean pot or crock pot, if using. Add pork and mix in. If using a bean pot or a dutch oven, bake 7 to 9 hours covered or until tender. If using a crock pot, cook on low for same amount of time. If possible, check on beans after 4 hours and add just enough water to cover (I didn’t do this and mine were fine). Uncover for the last 30 minutes of cooking.