When I was growing up, baked beans were the standard Saturday night fare. My father told of how as a boy in a mostly French mill town in Connecticut it was his job on Saturday morning to take the bean pot his mother had prepared to the neighborhood bakery where they would cook all day. And leftover baked beans are still a Sunday breakfast staple in New England.
Perhaps because of that baked beans are often associated with Boston. However, their origin is most likely French, deriving from the cassoulet popular in the south of that country. In French Canada they are cooked with a good amount of pork and are known as fèves au lard. While in English lard refers to rendered pork fat, most often belly fat, in French it refers to any subcutaneous pork meat and contains a lot of lean. Since French-style lard is generally unavailable in the US I make my own substitute by salt-curing pork shoulder according to a recipe from Bruce Aidells’ Complete Sausage Book, (Berkley, California: 10 Speed Press, 2000) 48. You could use store-bought salt pork but use less because it is so fatty. In northern New England and Québec these beans are often made with maple syrup rather than molasses.
A note on soaking: although many cookbooks advise soaking dried beans overnight, authorities differ about whether it is really necessary. Mexicans and other meso-Americans, who were eating phaseolus beans long before the Spanish introduced them to Europe, do not soak them. The theory that soaking reduces any “side effects” of eating beans is thoroughly discredited. So, I never soak dried beans.
- 1 pound dried white navy beans (use great northern beans if you can’t find navy beans)
- ½ cup molasses
- ¼ cup dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon dried mustard
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 pound pickled pork shoulder
- Generous grind of black pepper
Rinse beans and pick through for any stones or defective beans. Put them into a large pot or pressure cooker and cover with cold water by at least two inches (about 8 to 12 cups). Bring to a boil, reduced heat to low, and simmer, covered, for about an hour or cook at high pressure in the pressure cooker for 15 minutes. Wait a few minutes before releasing the pressure according to manufacturer’s instruction.
Preheat oven to 250°F. Drain the beans reserving the cooking liquid, and place them in a bean pot or casserole with a cover (I use a 3-quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven). Cut the pork into 1” cubes (if using store-bought salt pork, leave it whole then slice it when done) and add to the beans along with the onions, molasses, brown sugar, mustard, and pepper. Pour in enough of the reserved cooking liquid, and cold water if needed, to cover the beans then fold everything together. Save any remaining cooking liquid in case the beans start to dry and need more liquid.
Cover the pot and bake for 6 to 8 hours. Check occasionally to ensure the beans are not drying out and add reserved liquid as needed. Uncover for the last hour of cooking.