I always know it's time to make a huge pot of Boston baked beans when the cat glues herself to the chair by the fire. It's a sign that winter has us in its grip and the only solution is to grab a book, move the cat (onto one's lap) and do some comfort cooking.
Baked beans, slow cooked, are the perfect solution. Forget about the tins with their watery, insipid offerings. These beans are exceptional and have a full, smoky flavour and a surprising hint of liquorice. A pot of these made the old-fashioned way can warm up the coldest day.
They are especially good if the extended family drops by or you have to feed a gang of passing cowboys. They are cheap, and my word, there's plenty of them.
The thing to keep in mind is they do take time. I've just bought myself one of those new-fangled slow cooker things, and I see no reason why they wouldn't cook up a treat in it, so will experiment. But what I usually do is throw them in a pot onto my wood-burning stove, where they sit and bubble away gently.
Baked beans have long been associated with Boston, mostly because that fine city also had a thriving run industry, which consumed vast quantities of molasses. Any leftover molasses was also handy as a primary ingredient in the locally baked bean recipe.
I first tasted proper baked beans in the famous Durgin Park restaurant, in Boston. They've been serving up clam chowders, Indian puddings, broiled lobsters, and baked beans for more than a century now – and still seem to use the same waiting staff.
The décor dates from the 19th century too. It was fabulous sitting in a booth and just watching the place, which was started by two Yankees, Durgin, and Park, 130 years ago. They take their beans very seriously. Made in ancient stone crocks, they have an official Chief Bean Man, who prepares the beans to a strict ritual. And they are just brilliant.
The original recipe called for molasses; I could only find treacle, so used that instead. I later discovered that this is what Americans call molasses – our molasses is stronger, darker, and more bitter.
It's necessary to keep the beans moist once they're baking, but not to add too much water at a time. I check on them on the hour and add a small amount of water as needed.
The biggest trick is not to stir the beans at all, ever. This will make them go mushy and annoy the Chief Bean Eater. Just check on the water and the clock.
Serve with well-mashed spud and forget about the greens.
BOSTON BAKED BEANS
- 1 kg dry haricot beans
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 500g bacon bones
- 1 onion, peeled (not chopped)
- 8 tbsp sugar
- 2/3 cup treacle
- 2 tsp mustard
- 4 tsp salt
- Grind of black pepper
Soak beans overnight in a large bowl – use plenty of water because they expand.
The next day, preheat the oven to 150°C. Pour off water and fill a pot with fresh, hot water. Add the baking soda and boil for 10 minutes. Watch like a hawk – they will froth up and boil over if allowed.
Rinse well with cold water.
Cut up the bacon bones and layer half of them in the bottom of a large, ovenproof pot. Add the whole onion. Cover with beans. Place the remaining bacon bones on top.
Mix together all other ingredients with enough hot water to just cover the beans. Cook in the oven for six hours. Do not stir.
Before serving, pull the meat off the bones and return meat to the pot. Serves up to 10 portions.