Sturdy beans for a leaner budget

Long the staple of frugal Yankees, Boston baked beans enjoy a revival.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Tasty: Boston baked beans are inexpensive and easy to prepare and can be served as a side dish or an entree.
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A big bowl of home-baked beans has more bounce than Beyoncé.

At my house, a steaming pot of beans has been a staple at parties for decades. They're always right there alongside the hot dogs and coleslaw on the Fourth of July, beside the turkey on Thanksgiving, and even keeping company with the pickled herring on the smorgasbord table each Christmas Eve.

At my annual Twelfth Night fete this past January, I pulled out all the culinary stops: honey-glazed ham; a small mountain of oysters; a pear, Gorgonzola, and walnut salad; raw salmon marinated with dill and sugar; pumpkin cheesecake; and the obligatory pot of Boston baked beans. It was the beans that got a standing ovation.

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It's no surprise, especially in this part of the country.

Baked beans have been around since before Plymouth Rock. Early settlers were treated to them by the native Americans. They've been a staple around here ever since. The Indians' way of preparing beans was to cook them in underground pits lined with hot stones, stuffed in deer hides, sweetened with maple syrup, and flavored with a good hunk of fresh bear fat, a method ignored by cooks today.

That eventually evolved to cooking them overnight in pots with molasses and salt pork. This worked especially well for the Puritans, who believed in minimal work on the Sabbath. Later, Yankees changed the tradition by starting to cook them on Friday nights and serving them for Saturday night supper with hot dogs and Boston brown bread.

Humble, dried beans are enjoying something of a renaissance. They are inexpensive, versatile, easy to prepare, and a great source of protein. There are dozens of varieties that can be cooked in countless ways: in soups, stews, salads, or puréed.

Black or turtle beans are popular in Mexican and South American cuisine. In India, lentils are popular, and Italians are particularly fond of cannellini and fava beans. In southwest France, the complex and delicious cassoulet is a classic dish.

Carefully wash and pick though dried beans before cooking or soaking. To clean, pour beans in a large pot with copious amounts of water. Swish beans around, let them settle, then lift them into another container with your fingers. Any small stones or sediment will be left at the bottom of the pot.

When soaking beans, cover them with at least three inches of water. The beans will absorb much of the water overnight.

BOSTON BAKED BEANS, MY WAY

1 pound dried navy or Great Northern beans
1/2 pound of salt pork, halved, or 6 ounces bacon, fried
1 large onion, peeled and halved
6 whole cloves
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup molasses (may substitute maple syrup, brown sugar, or honey for half the molasses)
1/2 cup ketchup
1 teaspoon ground ginger or 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, crushed
About 2-1/2 cups beef or chicken stock
Rinse beans and soak in 2 quarts of water overnight, or use the shortcut method in the note below.
Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
Drain and rinse beans in a colander. Place half the salt pork or bacon in the bottom of a heavy 2-1/2- or 3-quart cast-iron Dutch oven or bean pot. Stud each onion half with three cloves. Place 1 onion half in the bottom of pot. Stir beans with mustard, molasses, ketchup, and ginger; pour into pot. Top with remaining salt pork or bacon and an onion half. Pour in enough stock to cover beans.
Cover and bake for about 9 hours, or until beans are tender. Add more stock (or water) as necessary. Uncover pot for last hour so pork will become brown and crisp. Remove cloves from onion before serving.
Good pairings: Boston Brown Bread, sausage or hot dogs, and a simple salad. Serves about 6 as an entree.
Leftover beans will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. Ever had a baked bean and bacon sandwich?
Note: For a quicker way to prep the beans, rather than soaking them overnight, boil beans in 4 cups of water for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand 1 hour before proceeding with recipe.

BLACK BEAN SOUP

For a complete meal, serve this soup with a bowl of tortilla chips or crusty French bread. For a vegetarian version, substitute vegetable stock for beef or chicken stock.
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 (3-inch) serrano pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder or seeds
1/2 cup chopped, canned tomatoes
1 cup dried black beans, rinsed and soaked in water overnight
4 cups chicken, beef, or vegetable stock
Juice of half a lemon
1 cup sour cream
Chopped cilantro or parsley for garnish
Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot until hot. Add onion, bell pepper, garlic, celery, carrot, serrano pepper, and cumin. Sauté over medium/low heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomatoes, beans, stock, and lemon juice. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer. Partially cover and continue simmering until beans are soft, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Add additional stock if necessary. Serve with a generous dollop of sour cream and top with chopped cilantro or parsley, if desired. Serves 4.

J.E.Y.

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