Crescent Dragonwagon finds baked beans comforting, relaxing, and fragrant. “It’s very much a Yankee preparation,” she says, “because they cook really slowly, so you get the residual heat, and you get the aroma of the beans cooking that whole time.” For beginning cooks, especially, they’re ideal. They’re straightforward, Dragonwagon notes, “and don’t need fussing. Beans are very forgiving.”
Simmer your beans in water for an hour; then drain them and layer them on top of a chopped onion. Next, Dragonwagon says, cover your beans with “some form of fat, sweet, and savory.” (For the traditionalist route, she recommends a melted mixture of brown sugar and molasses with pork or bacon tossed in.) Next, let the dish bake six to seven hours, “long enough for everything to permeate each other,” she says. Dragonwagon takes the lid off for the last hour of baking, “for crustiness on top.”
Buying Your Beans
Standard baking beans are Maine yellow eye or navy beans. Dragonwagon stresses the importance of finding recent-crop beans, because old beans won’t get tender or creamy. She frequents farmers’ markets, where the growers know how old their crops are. If you’re shopping at the grocery store, check the bag for a harvest date.
The Bean Pot
“There’s no logical reason why beans in a bean pot should be any better,” Dragonwagon says. But bean-pot loyalists believe they are, and you can usually find one at a good secondhand store; any pot with a tight lid, though, will work. Dragonwagon recommends ceramic, because it heats slowly. She also has no qualms about using a slow cooker.
Soaking the Beans
Soaking your beans in water is like “putting on your underwear before you get dressed,” Dragonwagon says. It’s the important first step. Why? Because soaking lets the beans absorb moisture slowly during baking so that they cook evenly. Dragonwagon soaks her beans overnight or does what’s called a “quick soak,” in which she brings the water to a hard boil. Here’s an added benefit: Soaking reduces cooking time, and as Dragonwagon points out, that’s crucial for the economical Yankee.
Pork or Veggies?
Traditional baked beans use salt pork, but for vegetarians (including Dragonwagon), that’s not an option. When replacing any ingredient, Dragonwagon asks, “What role does that ingredient play?” Salt pork lends smokiness and saltiness and is a source of fat. For vegetarians, a good alternative is butter or vegetable oil. To get that smoky flavor, Dragonwagon adds chipotle pepper or smoked paprika.
The Complete Meal
Dragonwagon serves baked beans with cabbage salad or slaw. Instead of carrots and mayo, she suggests diced apples and a slightly sweet vinaigrette with a touch of honey or maple syrup. The full traditionalist route, of course, calls for steamed Boston brown bread, which is surprisingly easy to make. (Find it at: YankeeMagazine.com/ recipe/boston-brown-bread-steamed) Together, the beans and bread can be made in advance, for “the perfect cold-weather dish.”