Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bang-up 4th of July Baked Beans

My 4th of July Baked Beans   © 2014 Lynn Schweikart
Back in the 60s and 70s, my mother was famous for her baked beans. No cookout or family picnic was complete without them. Her secret? Take a big can of Campbell's baked beans and "doctor" it. Bacon, onion flakes, ketchup, molasses, brown sugar, and mustard added an unexpected level of flavor. So did baking them in the oven instead of heating them on the stove. Using her beans as inspiration, I created my own version for our 4th of July cookout.

Dried Marfax beans
However, I didn't start with Campbell's. Baer's Best Beans, a local Maine farmer, grows a fantastic selection of heirloom beans, which are dried and sold at area farmers' markets and some grocers. (You can also order them online.) We had a couple of packages in the pantry, including some Marfax beans, a medium-small bean with an appealing caramel color and a cute little speckle on one side.

According to a post on one of the Chef's Collaborative blogs, Marfax beans "were a favorite among logging camp cooks in Maine, who floated their bean rafts (think food truck on a raft) down Maine's rivers, feeding loggers their four times-daily meals of beans."

The bean of Maine logging camp cooks sounded like just what I was looking for. So I put a package of them into soak overnight. (I was only going to use about 3 cups of the beans for my dish, but it never hurts to have some pre-soaked, pre-cooked beans in hand in the freezer.)

The recipe I planned to use is what I can only describe as James Beard meets Mary Jane, (my mom). In the James Beard recipe I found online, the lightly cooked beans are layered on top of an onion
and some pork ribs, then baked in a sauce made from molasses or brown sugar, and dried mustard. (I had two smoked pork chops, so I used those.)
Like my Mom, I used both brown sugar and molasses, and added her usual ketchup. Then for good measure, I added a touch of Worcestershire sauce and apple cider vinegar. (I thought about adding bread crumbs, but that was vetoed by my sister and brother-in-law as too much like cassoulet.)

And you know, it didn't need that. It was perfect just the way it was!

Portsmouth Baked Beans (adapted from ''The James Beard Cookbook,'' by James Beard) 
3 cups of Marfax beans (or navy beans)
1 1/2 scant teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 large onion, peeled, cut in half and studded with a whole clove
6 pork spareribs, 8 baby-back ribs, or two smoked pork chops
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1/3 cup ketchup
3 teaspoons dry mustard
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1. In a large bowl, soak the beans for at least 6 hours or overnight. Drain the beans and put them in a large pot. Add the salt and water to cover 2 inches above the beans. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the beans are just barely tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain well, reserving the cooking liquid.
2. Put the cooking liquid into another pot, adding an equal amount of water. (If the beans liquid is very salty, add more water.) Bring the pot of water to a boil.
3. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Place the onion halves and meat in a large casserole with a tight-fitting lid. Spread the beans on top. In a small bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients and add this to the beans and pork. Pour in just enough boiling water to cover the beans, put the lid on and bake, 4 to 5 hours, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Check the pot every hour or so, and add additional boiling water, if necessary. 
4. Remove the casserole from the oven. Check the seasonings and add salt, if necessary. Pull the meat from the ribs, and mash the onion. Stir the meat back into the beans. 
5. Return the casserole to the oven. Cook, uncovered,  until the sauce has thickened and is nicely caramelized on top, about 40 minutes more. 
Serves 6. 

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