Mertie’s Mondays: Memory and Boston Baked Beans

They take two days to cook, but almost no effort. Boston Baked Beans from a real New Englander. Yum.

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[Note from Serene: This is another wonderful memory from Chris; isn’t he a treasure? I am going to make these beans this weekend; they’re a perfect cold-weather food and I’ve never been successful before in making them. In my experience, the dry beans in the US do indeed have a stone or two per bag, so I’d recommend sorting your beans, or at least looking them over well, unless you know from experience that your beans tend to be stone-free, as Chris’s are.]

Clove-studded onion

I wonder how many people’s earliest memories involve food. I know that mine do. It was the mid-1950s, and my dad was sent out to the bakery by my mom. At that time, the bakery was in a small shop downtown and one of the items they sold was Boston baked beans, in the little cardboard quart containers that nowadays contain Chinese takeout food. Dad took me along for some reason, and we entered the bakery and picked up the beans for Saturday lunch. At that time many people did not have proper ovens, or if they did, they were expensive to run all night to bake beans. Thus, the local bakery would use their ovens (which were on all night) to bake beans to sell on Saturdays.

Dry beans are easy to keep in the cupboard, relatively easy to cook, and full of protein. You and your family will love them even more than they like the canned variety, I guarantee it.

In later days my mother began to bake them herself, probably when she got a better, gas-fired oven. The process started on Thursday night, washing and picking over the beans, then soaking them overnight. The beans would be started on Friday afternoon, and would bake in the beanpot all night, ready for Saturday lunch.

In later years, such effort became a very occasional activity, and opening a can of B&M Baked Beans or (not very often), Campbell’s Pork ‘n’ Beans became the Saturday morning convenience food. However, sometimes the old ways are the best, and for many years I wanted to bake beans but thought that because I had no beanpot I couldn’t do it.

Now only was I wrong, but I’ll bet that many of our readers will be able to bake them too. The answer is: the slow cooker.

Consider: the beanpot is a jug-shaped pottery container with a lid, into which the ingredients are poured and which is then heated in an oven for hours. The slow cooker is a pottery container with a lid into which the ingredients are poured and which is then heated for hours. Once I realised that the beanpot and the slow cooker were essentially the same, I decided to bake some Boston baked beans. The odour of beans cooking overnight reminds me of autumn and winter weekends, Saturday mornings spent in front of the cartoons and Saturday lunches of beans and franks. They may not remind you of those things (especially if you are not from New England) but perhaps you and your family can plant a new memory to be savoured in the years to come.

Note: All ingredients in this recipe are in bold in the text. As a recipe is a story, I wanted to introduce the characters in the text, and I thought I’d try bolding them in this recipe. I hope it works for you.

To start off with, you need 1 lb. of dry beans. The traditional bean to use is the red kidney bean. However, Navy beans or haricot beans can also be used. When I was a kid, the beans were poured into a bowl and picked over by us kids. There were apt to be stones and dirt in the beans, and our job was to pick out the whole beans and then discard partial beans as well as the stones and dirt. These days rinsing is sufficient; I’ve not found stones in dry beans for a very great while. You’d then rinse the beans in a colander, put them in a pot, fill the pot with water, and leave the pot on the stove overnight for the beans to soak and absorb as much liquid as they could. Do not put them over heat, and most crucially, do not put any salt or spice in them.

Next day, you will find that the beans have swollen in size but are still relatively hard. Now bring the beans to the boil in the remainder of the liquid in which they have soaked, and keep them boiling for 10 minutes. Watch them, as the pot is apt to foam up and boil over. You may skim the scum off the top of the pot if you like but as you will be discarding the liquid afterwards, it’s only for cosmetic purposes. After 10 minutes, turn off the fire, drain the beans and set aside for a moment. [Note from Serene: DO NOT skip this step if you’re using kidney beans. Raw or undercooked kidney beans are toxic, and slow-cookers don’t usually get food up to a boil, the way you need to to kill the toxins.]

Salt pork in package
Salt pork in package

Next, take a square of salt pork and cut it almost through in a checkerboard pattern.

Pork ready for the pot
Pork ready for the pot

In New England, salt pork is relatively easy to find, as it’s one of the major constituents of chowders. Here in the UK, it’s much harder to find. When I did manage to find it, there was a lot more “lean” in it than a New Englander would tolerate. That is probably much healthier than the salt pork we used. Place the pork in the bottom of the slow cooker.

Pork in the slow cooker
Pork in the slow cooker

If you are vegetarian, I would expect that leaving the salt pork out and replacing it with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil would probably work. I have never tried it but I would expect that it would not affect the taste or texture of the final product.

Clove-studded onion
Clove-studded onion

Now take a peeled whole onion and stud it with whole cloves. Place the onion in the bottom of the slow cooker. Cover the pork and the onion with the beans. Onto the beans place:

Tomato ketchup or tomato paste or both
A few tablespoons of molasses
A tablespoon of dry mustard

All these are to taste, of course. There should be relatively more tomato ketchup/paste than molasses.

Other ingredients
Other ingredients

Now pour boiling water into the slow cooker until the ketchup, molasses, and mustard are dissolved and the beans are just covered. Replace the lid and turn the slow cooker on high. Cook overnight. Next morning turn the slow cooker to low and leave until the beans are wanted. Don’t take the cover off during cooking if you can help it. Don’t stir the beans if you can help it.

Ready for the boiling water
Ready for the boiling water
Beans ready to cook
Beans ready to cook

Next day take off the lid and you’ll find that the pork and the onion have surfaced, the beans are tender without being mushy, and the sauce has reduced to a lovely tomato-ey syrup. Remove the onion with a slotted spoon and discard. The real reason for the onion is not to add to the taste of the beans; it’s to contain the cloves so that they can be easily removed from the beans. There is nothing more annoying than biting into a spoonful of beans and chomping down on a clove.

Chow down!
Chow down!

There are two schools of thought on the salt pork. You will find that it is soft and jelly-ish, and any lean that is attached to it is cooked. However, if you aren’t fond of eating nearly pure fat you might want to remove and discard it. If that doesn’t bother you, divide it up between the platefuls of beans.

The proper (read: New England) accompaniments to Boston baked beans are these:

First, franks. I had Polish franks with mine today, and they were just elegant (as my great aunt would have said).

Second: Ketchup and relish on top.

Third, New England brown bread. I may try to bake this myself at some point, but I haven’t looked for a recipe. In Massachusetts it comes in cans which you open at both ends and push the bread out onto a saucer. I believe that my mom steamed it in the can (after opening it), but I would guess that a minute or so in the microwave (after removing it from the can) would have the exact same effect. Slice it up and eat it with the beans. Of course, this is unobtainable here (and if you aren’t in New England, probably where you are as well).

We used to have beans for Sunday breakfast occasionally as well: sometimes cold, sometimes hot. I probably wouldn’t have them for breakfast these days, but that’s because I’m too wedded to my toast and coffee.

You’ll all have noted that this dish takes around two days from first preparation to table. Many people these days are used to fast food: open a can or a tin, slit open a packet of something, put it in the microwave, and two or three minutes later lunch is served. Boston baked beans, besides being a good source of protein, are good reminders of what preparing food was once like, and what it could be yet again. Homemade beans tell me that food is not always instant, and good food often takes time, effort, and skill to bring to the table. Not all good dishes take two days to cook, but when you taste these homemade baked beans, and compare them to the canned variety, you’ll be glad that you went to all that trouble.

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Author: Chris Hansen

Expat American living in London, now a British citizen as well. I was originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and that's where my mom raised me, so my momfood comes from New England.

4 thoughts on “Mertie’s Mondays: Memory and Boston Baked Beans”

  1. I’m grateful to Serene for noting the toxicity of unboiled kidney beans. While I always boiled them because I figured that they would never soften enough without boiling, I now know that they’re toxic if unboiled. Wikipedia’s article on Phytohaemagglutinin only reassures me a bit, as it doesn’t seem that unboiled beans will kill you, but will make you very ill. Also, for some reason, the incidence of kidney bean poisoning is higher in the UK than in the US. They do not know why but speculate that it might have something to do with more physicians knowing about the poison here than in the US.

    1. Interesting! Well, I bought the kidney beans, cloves (I usually avoid those), etc., to make the beans this weekend, but I may just start them today, since I only have one more workday before my one-week stay-at-home vacation. :-)

  2. I just hopped over from Blog Frog and am really enjoying your recipes. You’re right, many of my early memories involve my dad (yes, Dad – not Mom) in the kitchen whipping up something tasty. Sadly, she was not at all interested in cooking but she made up for it elsewhere in the house. Keep up the great recipes and I really appreciate the photos!

    http://tayloredfor4.blogspot.com/

    1. Thanks so much. Yes, Dad Food is just as good as Mom Food. In my family, it happened to be Mom who cooked, but I’ve met people for whom it was anyone from Grandma to an Aunt, to a teacher who took the child under his wing.

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