Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bawstin Baked Beans

I don't think it would be a stretch to say that every person out there holds the belief that their own corner of the world is in some way unique.  I even talked a little on the post about Morioka jajamen about how each town in Japan has something it considers itself famous for.

New England is unique, I think, in that it's an entire region that bands around a single city.  It's not to say that there aren't other cities in that corner of the States.  It's just that we all think of Boston as The City.  Our City.  Even if you're closer to some other metro area, or if you differ politically or culturally from its harsh, young, aloof, diverse, gruff, open-hearted way of life, Boston's the rally point.  Boston sports are New England sports.  Boston tragedies are New England tragedies.  So whether or not we personally knew anyone running in or helping at the marathon, we all felt that Our City had been hurt when the bombings happened.  And why, a year later, so many of my New Englander friends each took a moment to reflect in our own way.

Me, I laced up and went for a run in the morning, then came home and fired up the stove.

It may not surprise you that I have a strong connection with food.  It's my main conduit for both self-comfort and celebration -- whether I'm exuberant or grieving, food is how I express and share my feelings.  Like any number of other fat chicks out there, I eat my emotions.

So it's probably not a shock that on a sad day, the first anniversary of the Boston marathon bombings, I was feeling a little homestate pride (for our resilience) but also a great deal of grief (specifically for the victims and more broadly that there are people in the world who feel that violence is a potential avenue of expression for their anger or their beliefs).

At any rate, Boston + comfort food means one of three things:  chowdah, beans, or donuts.  Doc wasn't in a seafood mood and donuts are not very nutritious, so I put my energies into making baked beans.

The nice thing about baked beans is that they're actually super easy to make.  These work 100% as well in a slow-cooker, too, so that's an option for sure.

A more detailed description follows the recipe below.  Enjoy!

Bawstin Baked Beans

Total time:  Overnight soaking for the beans, 10-15 minutes to assemble, 4-6 hours of cooking.
Credits:  The bulk of the credit goes to A Family Feast, whose recipe for the sauce is spectacular.  Other recipes that contributed ideas are The Pioneer Woman (if it goes in cast iron, I look her up first as a rule), and of course the Boston Globe.
Note:  This recipe as-is makes a monstrous batch, enough to fill my 5-quart dutch oven.   Happily, it can very, very easily be halved or even quartered.  What I'd recommend in that case is keeping the sauce proportions the same while adjusting the amount of beans, onions, bacon, and cooking liquid.

  • 2 lbs. (4 cups) dried navy beans
    • can sub: other white beans, but definitely don't stray into kidney bean, pinto bean, or black bean territory.  You want a small, white bean for this.
  • Water for soaking, enough to cover the beans + another 3-4 inches
    • note:  be sure to reserve some of the liquid after soaking!
  • 3 onions, cut into thick rings or semi-circles
  • 1 pound thick-cut bacon, the thicker the better
    • can sub: salt pork, if desired, or if avoiding pork then possibly a smoked turkey wing or a very small amount of liquid smoke (or leave it out altogether).
  • For the sauce:
    • 1 bottle (12 oz.) Sam Adams Boston Lager
    • 2 cups vegetable stock
    • 0.5 cup molasses
    • 2 TBS real maple syrup
    • 3 TBS dijon mustard
    • 0.5 cup ketchup
    • 2 TBS Worcestershire sauce
    • 1 tsp mustard powder
    • 0.5 cup brown sugar
    • 0.25 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
    • 1 TBS garlic paste 
      • can sub: 4-5 whole/minced cloves of garlic or 1 tsp dried garlic powder
  1. Soak beans overnight in enough water to cover them plus 3-4 inches of water on top.
  2. In the morning drain the beans and reserve the soaking liquid in a separate bowl.
  3. Layer bacon, onions, and beans in a dutch oven or slow cooker, making 2-3 total layers.
  4. Whisk together all the sauce ingredients and pour over the beans/bacon/onion mixture.
  5. If the beans aren't completely covered by the sauce, add enough of the reserved soaking liquid (from step 2) so that the beans are completely covered.
  6. If using a dutch oven:  place the lid on the pot and put it the oven at 325 degrees (F).  Bake 4-6 hours, checking every hour for doneness and to make sure that the beans are completely covered with liquid.  In the last hour of baking, remove the cover, stir, and turn the heat down to 300 so that the sauce can thicken up.
  7. If using a slow cooker:  set heat to high and cook for 4-6 hours or until done.  Leave the lid on until the final hour, then remove lid, stir, and leave lid off so that some of the liquid can evaporate off to thicken up the sauce.
  8. Beans are done when they are easily chewed but not mushy.  Cooking time will depend on the age/dryness of the beans.
Goes well with:  brown bread, coleslaw, and Sam Adams Boston Lager


The thing about Bawstin, you guys, is that people theah sound a little different.  So you'll hafta fahgive my spellin' heah, is my point.  If ya havin' trouble, ask a local oah consult a guide.

Fihst things fihst: ya gawtta soak ya beans ovahnight.  That way the'ah easiah ta cook -- you ain't gawt awl day fah this nawnsense, ya know?  Plus it helps relieve somma the gases in the beans.  Bettah out than in, in this case.

Er... that's exhausting to read, isn't it?  I know it's exhausting to write.  Let's move on.  I'm not from Boston itself anyway so I'm not fooling anyone anyhow.

It's important when you drain the beans to save the liquid they were soaking in.  Set it aside because you'll be using this a little later on.

When you're ready to get started with the cooking phase, you've got two options: dutch oven or slow cooker.  These amount to exactly the same thing, since either way you're using a large dish heated to around 300 degrees for several hours.  Totally up to you.  More liquid will cook off in the oven, making for a thicker sauce, but it does heat up the house and -- if you're like me -- a slow cooker is something I'm willing have running while I'm out of the house whereas I don't like to leave the oven on unless I'm around.  It's really up to you and your needs.  I used a dutch oven here, but the exact same process applies for the slow cooker.  What we're going to do is make layers: bacon, onions, beans, repeat.


Onions, followed by beans (a complete layer, not just a handful as shown in the picture):

And repeat:

And, if space and supplies allow, repeat again:

You're free to use whatever you've got handy, but if I can make a suggestion I'd recommend thick-cut bacon.  Some recipes even call for salt pork.

The onions also should be fairly thick.  They'll caramelize in the sauce so it's nice to be able to get a taste of them.  Too small and they won't stand out.  Either whole or half-rings should do it.

Once your layers are all set, whisk up all the sauce ingredients in a separate bowl.

You can leave out the beer if you don't like it.  I used it to replace the vinegar in A Family Feast's recipe, since Samuel Adams Boston Lager is almost as symbolic of Boston as the Gahden or tea pahties.  It's so near and dear to locals' hearts that it's not unusual to hear sentences such as, "hey, Sean, bang a uey heah, I gawta runda tha packie for Sam."

Once everything's whisked together it doesn't look all that wonderful.  And it's strangely reflective.

I assure you it's very tasty, though.

Pour the sauce over the beans.

It's unlikely that the sauce will be enough to cover your beans completely.  Here's where the bean-soaking liquid you reserved earlier comes into play.  Use that to top off the pot so that the beans are completely covered with liquid:

And then you're ready to cook.  If you're using a dutch oven, cover it and pop it in your oven at 325F.  If you're using a slow-cooker, switch it on to high.

Depending on how old/dry/cantankerous your beans are, cooking them could take anywhere from 4-6 hours (or more).  It's not a bad idea to plan on a minimum of six.  Check the pot every hour to make sure there's enough liquid to cover the beans.  Add in reserved bean liquid as needed.

This is at the 2-hour mark.  You can see where I put a cookie sheet underneath to catch drips since I'd filled my dutch oven pretty full.

You'll know the beans are nearly done when they're al dente -- when you can bite into them easily but they've got a little resistance still.  At that point you've got about an hour left, meaning it's time to take the lid off, stir, and leave the lid off so that the sauce can thicken up.  This applies both to slow cooker and oven methods.  If using the oven, turn the heat down to 300.

After about five hours my beans were ready to stir and put them back in for the final hour at lower heat.

I forgot to get an "after" shot once I'd taken the beans out of the oven.  Apologies.  It looked a lot like the above, but thicker and a little darker.  One thing to remember is that if you want a super thick sauce you'll have to let it sit overnight in the fridge:  it's the cooling process that makes for a really thick sauce (thanks to the oil from the bacon congealing).

(Yeah, I'm grossed out, too.)

Some people thicken their sauce with cornstarch.  It works, but I find then all I can taste is cornstarch.

Anyway, that's it!  Soak, layer, bake, stir, serve.

I find it goes really well with brown bread, coleslaw, and some Sam.

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