Every winter the urge for Boston baked beans comes upon me, and with the holiday weekend I decided it was time to make them again. Not able to find my own recipe–a meatless version I cobbled together during my six-month vegetarian phase in 1987–I turned to dear, reliable James Beard.
But I was dismayed to discover that my beloved Beard did not like Boston baked beans: “The worship of Boston baked beans,” he writes, “is a mystery to me, since my palate cannot reconcile the sweetness of syrup or molasses and the simple hardy flavor of pork and beans.”
My palate has no problem with this, and it should be no mystery why a nation that adores honey roasted peanuts and chocolate covered pretzels would love the salty-sweet combination offered in this dish. The traditional version calls for salt pork, which adds a rich, flavorful smokiness. Not having any salt pork on hand, I considered using the applewood smoked bacon in our freezer. Bacon that costs $8.00 a pound, however, deserves a more prominent place in a recipe. And with no extra cash in our budget this month, I couldn’t spring for even a few ounces of salt pork. So it was back to the vegetarian version.
Beard’s recipe called for maple syrup, which I knew was not part of the recipe I’d lost. So I left him to huff over America’s proletarian taste buds and turned instead to Fannie Farmer (13th edition), where I found what looked like the right proportion of sweetener (in this case, molasses) and dry mustard. I also liked her addition of brown sugar, since the organic molasses on my shelf–bought in desperation one day at Whole Foods–has a bitter taste. The addition of onions, garlic, and extra kosher salt adds enough flavor to make up for the lack of salt pork. Almost.
But perhaps the best part of making Boston baked beans is that I get to use my grandmother’s bean pot–a simple brown clay vessel that she never used much but which looks great on the shelf, like you really know what you’re doing in your kitchen.
Vegetarian Boston Baked Beans
3 tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 cups white beans (navy or Great Northern)
2 tbsp. dry mustard
5 tbsp. dark brown sugar
4 tsp. molasses
Soak beans in water overnight or use short method. For short method, place beans in a covered pot with water twice the depth of the beans. Bring to a boil. Cover and let sit for one hour, then follow directions below.
Preheat oven to 300. Drain beans, reserving liquid. Put beans in bean pot or tall casserole dish. Saute onion in oil on medium high heat. Add garlic and stir. Remove from heat. Add to bean liquid along with remaining ingredients and stir until mixed. Pour over beans.
Bake 6 hours, checking every hour or so to make sure there is enough liquid in the pot. I like my beans to be coated with a gooey, sugary paste, so I typically don’t add water. If they begin to reach this state before the last 30 – 60 minutes of cooking, however, more water should be added to keep them from drying out.