Every winter a moment comes when I crave baked beans. Yesterday was cold, gray and it snowed lightly pretty much non-stop so the bean beast awoke and I felt called to make some. Since I find that these taste better if allowed to "cure" overnight in the fridge before reheating and eating, and since today was also grey and cold and snowy, I broke down and also made the Boston brown bread with which we Yankees typically eat these beans.
I was late to the baked bean fan club. Though I love beans in general, baked beans (the canned variety, my aunt's homemade version and even those eaten at the legendary Durgin Park, which shut its doors for good in 2019) were always much too sweet. It wasn't until I made my own and through trial and error finally hit on something that -- to me -- tastes absolutely delicious. Tangy rather than sweet, mustardy, smoky...I made this week's version with meat because I had slab bacon, but a vegetarian version is equally delicious with the omission of the bacon and the addition of a teaspoon of smoked paprika. You can also go for a full-on meat version and add chunks of pork shoulder to this along with the slab bacon for a more stick to your ribs version.
This will make six portions of baked beans rather than my usual recipe for one - dinner and freezer fodder for quick dinners of baked beans on toast on evenings where making dinner seems like a chore rather than a pleasure -- happens to us all!
8 oz navy or cranberry beans
1 1/2 cups slab bacon, diced (you can also use store bought lardons)
1 white onion, peeled and cut into half moons
1 cup stock, bean water or plain water (I used 1/2 bean stock and 1/2 duck stock)
Sauce (also makes an excellent sauce for BBQ ribs):
1/2 cup tomato purée
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp Bourbon (optional but adds additional smoky notes)
2 Tbsps molasses
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup very strong coffee
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp ground fennel seed
1 tsp mustard powder
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp smoked paprika (more if not using bacon)
The night before you plan on making this, wash the beans and place in a bowl with just enough water to cover and half a teaspoon of salt. Stir to combine and set aside until needed. If you are like me and decide you want baked beans sooner rather than later, place the beans in a bowl, add the salt and just enough boiling water to cover. Set aside until the bean water has cooled to room temperature at which point you can use them.
Measure all of the sauce ingredients into a large saucepan. Stir to combine and cook over medium-low heat for about twenty minutes, stirring often, until the ingredients coalesce into a glossy, thick sauce. Taste the sauce and adjust to your palate -- you may want it sweeter than I like it.
Preheat the oven to 300.
Drain the beans, reserving the bean water, and place them in your bean pot or favorite lidded oven-safe pot.
Stir in the onion and the bacon, pour over the bean water (or stock) and the sauce. Stir to combine well.
Cover and bake for three hours, stirring every hour or so.
At the end of three hours, turn off the heat and let the beans cool in the oven so that they can absorb any remaining liquid and the flavors really have the time to marry.
You can reheat these on the stovetop rather than the oven and, as mentioned above, these taste even better the next day so I really would recommend making them a day in advance and "curing" them in the refrigerator overnight before eating. Don't forget to remove the bay leaf before serving.