Before moving to Boston, I never really gave much thought to baked beans.  It was easy enough to open an occasional can, and they weren’t bad eaten off a paper plate alongside a hot dog and a heap of coleslaw.  I didn’t love them, but they served their purpose as a cheap and decent, if uninspired, source of protein.  But if there’s a lesson in my relocation, it’s that one cook’s careless side dish may well be another’s best-kept secret.

I’d lived most of my life in New York, but leaving for New England was like coming home.  I feel warmest when it’s cold (fleece trumps fashion in the frosty north) and love the peaceful quiet of a heavy snowfall.  My urbane, walkable suburb is 20 minutes from downtown Boston and 5 minutes from two working farms.  I find New Englanders  forthright yet open-minded, austere yet warm and generous, and while there will always be aspects of the culture here I can’t embrace (Calling a water fountain a “bubbler.”  Giving one’s heart to the Red Sox.), the rest of it I have fallen for hook, line, and sinker (just don’t ask me to pronounce scallop “skawlup”).

Boston baked beans are the edible essence of New England, the perfect example of northern simplicity, economy, and tenacity.  Hand a yankee a pound of humble navys (or, rather, put them in her bean pot) and 8 hours later you’ll have a rich, earthy, sweet, and sultry bowl of creamy beans to warm you to your toes.  This simple recipe is my mother-in-law’s, and I followed it to the letter.  Leave the franks for summer — these wintery beans are best with peppery, spicy, braised greens and cornbread or slices of apple and extra sharp cheddar cheese.

Boston baked beans

If you don’t have a bean pot — or a mother-in-law to lend you hers — cook the beans in a 2 1/2 quart, covered casserole dish.

Yield:  About 2 quarts, serving at least 8

1 lb. dried navy beans, soaked overnight in cold water (cover by at least 2 inches)

1 medium onion, vertically sliced

1/2 c. molasses

4 tsp. ground mustard

1 tbsp. brown sugar

1/2 lb. salt pork

Salt, to taste

Drain beans, then transfer to a large saucepan and add enough cold water to cover beans by about 2 inches.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Let beans cook at a rolling boil for a few minutes, then lower heat and skim froth from surface of water.  Simmer for 40 minutes then drain, reserving cooking water.

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.  Place onions in bottom of bean pot and add beans.  In a mixing bowl, whisk together molasses, brown sugar, mustard, and 1 1/2 cups of bean cooking liquid.  Pour over beans, adding more cooking water if needed to cover beans.  Tuck salt pork into beans.  Cover and bake 7 to 8 hours, checking occasionally to make sure beans are submerged in liquid and adding more bean cooking liquid if necessary.

When beans are tender, transfer to a 2-quart container.  Remove any large pieces of unrendered fat from the salt pork and discard.  (I refrigerate the beans overnight before serving — that way I can spoon off any additional, excess fat that has risen to the surface and solidified).  Serve warm or at room temperature.

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