Sunday, March 10, 2013

New England Baked Beans: A Sacred Ritual

There is a knowing when you finally reach a level of understanding regarding beans.  In New England, the proper making of a Saturday night bean supper is steeped in tradition and one must never under estimate the importance of having achieved enlightenment on the subject of beans.  In all my 58 growing on 59 years, I never understood that until recently.  It suddenly occurred to me that I, Lili, daughter of Lurlene, grand daughter of Mayfair, gr. granddaughter of Ida  had finally attained my very own version of bean wisdom.

It is not so much the bean recipe that you use.  It is more of a mindset.  The proper planning, the proper fussing, the proper acquiring, sorting, assembly, oven logistics, to name a few.  There is so much to know.  And then, you have to temper all this with the proper fretting about the beans.  Not just sometimes, but all times.  Because you must never stir the beans while they are baking. The proper tip and swirl of the pot must be learned.  And you have to be extremely careful about how much liquid you add to them while they are cooking.  And not just how much liquid, these things cannot be measured.  It actually involves relying heavily on "bean knowledge."  Once you know, you know.  These things cannot be taught in a recipe or even a day or a month of making beans.  It takes the proper coming of age to know about beans.  Although my bean recipe has evolved into a vegetarian version, my fore mothers' always used salt pork.  But again, it is not the recipe that is important.  Well really in a way it is, but I will not be talking about that in this post.

About 13 years ago, I actually thought I could make beans.  Little did I know, my internship was just beginning. I still remember it well.  I was "up ta camp" as they say around here, and eager to have my mother and step father over for a typical Saturday night bean supper.  Looking back, I realize I missed nearly all of the finer intricacies of this sacred ritual.  I would have been better off going to the local general store to purchase a container of these properly baked and fretted over staples of Maine life, and then stuffing them into my newly purchased Reny's-bought bean pot.  But what I learned from my fervent attempt to make my Mama proud was golden.

On this particular Saturday evening "up ta camp," it happened about 40 minutes after the beans were officially done.  The problem being, this occurred when the beans were still in the oven.  And no amount of advice, wisdom or fretting could have saved them.   I am talking about witnessing an intervention by the 'bean doctors.'   It was unnerving to realize what was happening.  With my oven rack partially pulled out, I reached in with my oven mitt to remove the cover of my beautiful bean pot to proudly display the contents, hoping to find them at the peak of perfection.  Cover removed, I took a step back as my mother and step father made their way toward the oven, both tentatively hunched over my bean pot peering into its depth in silence.  "What? . . .what?" I nervously uttered.    Even they were at a loss.  I could tell in the knowing glance they gave each other.  No words.  Just a polite smile and a knowing glance.

We ate the beans anyway.  They ate the beans too.  Bean wisdom is not about feeling smug, or being unkind to a novice bean baker.  Part of this sacred ritual is to subject yourself to the fervent efforts of others that have yet to attain bean enlightenment, and to repeatedly endure whatever is offered up in the hopes that one day it will all be worth it.

Of course it is not so much about the day that this happens.  As it has been  happening for me for some time now.  It is more the moment that you realize it HAS happened and you cannot even remember when your first pot of perfect beans was finally achieved.

So for posterity, I submit to you a humble image of my own pot of New England baked beans.

Here is the recipe for my version.   But only the recipe.  The proper making of them is something you may enjoy attaining on your own too.   {wink}

 New England Baked Beans
(For use with navy beans, pea beans, great Northern beans or any dry bean that is your favorite.)  

Night Before Baking:  Sort and soak 2 cups of beans in a 4-6 quart pan.  Water should cover the beans by about 2 inches.

Early Next Morning:

Turn your oven to 350 degrees and take out all racks except for one, which should be in the middle position.

Drain and rinse soaked beans.  Parboil beans in covered pan starting with fresh cold water.  When the beans get to boiling, lift off cover and skim and discard all that foam.  Only parboil for about 10 minutes, then drain water.

Now, take your bean pot and in the bottom put 1 large peeled and sliced-in-half onion.  Add 2 T. unsalted butter, cut in slices.  Then, add some freshly grated pepper.  Now, is the time to add your drained beans over the top of  that.  

In a 2 cup measure, mix:  1/4 cup oil, 1/3 cup molasses (preferably Crosby's), 1 tsp. ground mustard, and a heaping tsp.of sea salt.  Fill to the top with hot water and stir. And then pour the contents over the top of the beans.  Make sure it just covers the beans.  If it does not, add just the slightest bit of hot water until it does.

Cover your bean pot and sit it on the rack in the middle of your oven, then TURN YOUR OVEN DOWN TO 275 DEGREES to cook for several hours.  The first time you will probably need to check your beans is about 2 hours or so into baking.  At that time, lift the lid and check to make sure your beans are not drying out.  You will probably need to add water at this point.  But do it sparingly.  You do not want to dilute that good bean juice.  Keep doing this about every couple hours.  Mine usually are done by hour 5, or when I have fretted over them long enough, whichever comes first.


NOTE:  I cannot stress enough that this is my own personal version of baked beans.  After all, we all must find our own way in the pursuit of baked bean nirvana.