Saturday, March 8, 2008

Butterscotch Beans: Saturday Night Special

Butterscotch beans copyTo an outsider, New England has some odd gustatory habits. Sweet doughnuts served with sour pickles during sugaring-off season (hard upon us: coming up in a future post). “New York System” wieners that put minced hamburger meat on top of hot dogs—appropriately called “gaggers” here in Rhode Island, and not to be found anywhere in New York. Coffee milk, of course. And sweet baked beans as a main course, accompanied by rich, slightly sharp brown bread. Strange to you, perhaps; perfect sense to us.
The baked beans and brown bread are, in fact, a tradition for supper on Saturday in New England. It is, granted, an old-fashioned one, but one that has by no means disappeared, especially in the Northern states where, let’s face it, rib-sticking, intensely flavored food is what we crave on a blustery night (I live in “southerly” Rhode Island, but as soon as the temperature drops below 60, I start craving this kind of food). Baked beans are underrated, I think; they are one of those things, like good homemade potato salad, or rice pudding, that you just have to keep taking one more spoonful of. I’ll wager you haven’t made, perhaps not even served, baked beans in years (ever?). Try some; you’ll like them. You needn’t necessarily (although I recommend it, at least once) limit yourself to beans and brown bread: beans with baked, glazed ham and scalloped potatoes and green salad, a favorite menu of mine, will do. But do try them.
I use Butterscotch beans, a calypso bean also known as Steuben Yellow Eye, although you can use the more readily available Great Northern white beans. Butterscotch beans are a true heirloom, 17th-century bean generally believed to be the original—and still the best—bean for Boston Baked Beans. Like many dried beans, they are really pretty: you want to make something with them (I mean like a bracelet, not just something to eat). They nearly triple in size when cooked, having wonderful absorptive capacity, to borrow a term from the strategy field. Baked beans are infused with the flavors in which they are cooked. These are, in my house, maple, mustard (which supposedly aids their digestion, but just tastes good), and roasted salt pork. Sometimes I add some good chili powder for a little kick.
Rhode Island Baked Beans
This is based on the recipe of my old boss, Gary, but altered to substitute maple syrup for most of the molasses and with the addition of a huge hunk of roasted salt pork. You can, of course, skip the roasting step and simply cut up and add the salt pork. But you’d be sorry you did if you knew what you’d be missing. Historically, this dish would have included much more salt pork--the meat of the meal. Serves 12 or more; may be halved except for the pork, which can be cut by ¼.
2 lb butterscotch beans
1 lb salt pork, with as much lean as possible
1 large onion, finely chopped
½ cup dark molasses
1 cup maple syrup
3 fat cloves garlic, finely chopped (Gary said, “infinitesimally”)
6 T dry mustard
Put beans in a large bowl, add water to cover by at least 2 inches, and let soak overnight. The next morning, put the beans and water in a Dutch oven, adding more water if necessary so that they are completely covered; bring to a boil; and then reduce to a simmer and cook, skimming the major foam, for up to an hour—likely less. To test, lift out a spoonful of beans and blow on them gently: they are done if the skins split. Drain, reserving the liquid.
While the beans are simmering, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and cut the pork in half horizontally. Score the rind of the top half (you may need to make Roasted pork 2 copyindividual cuts in it with a sharp knife, as the skin is tough) and place it in the oven in a shallow baking dish; roast for 45 minutes, or until golden brown and the skin blisters. When done, lower the oven to 300 F. Chop the remaining half of the salt pork into ¼” cubes.
In a bean pot or other deep heavy dish (my ancient bean pot fractured from fatigue years ago, and I have since used a hefty soufflé dish), place the roasted salt pork. Pour the beans over/around the pork, leaving some of it exposed, and then distribute the chopped pork among them.
In a small bowl, mix the molasses, maple syrup, mustard, garlic, onion, and 2 cups of the reserved bean liquid. Pour over the beans, and combine gently so as not to bruise or break them; your hands are best for this. The liquid should be just at the level of the beans—not above, or they will stew; if not, add a bit more of the reserved bean stock. Put the lid on the pot (or cover with foil) and bake for five hours, checking the level of liquid hourly and adding a bit more to keep them just covered and to prevent them from drying out. Remove the lid and cook one hour more. The beans should be glazed and dark caramel in color. Serve with Boston brown bread and butter for supper, digging under the pork rind to pull out some long meaty shreds of pork for each serving.
If you are a true New Englander, you will make a bean sandwich with the leftovers next day, mashing them between two slices of sturdy homemade white bread spread with a little mayonnaise and mustard. A little sliced, grilled Portuguese-style chorizo would not be amiss.
Baked beans1 copy Beans and bread3 copy

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