The bean Pot

Some people treasure a piece of furniture passed down to them by their mothers or grandmothers, a cradle or a rocking chair perhaps that they remember being lulled to sleep in when they were little. Others display a painting or a photograph of grandparents or great grandparents on their wedding day. I look at them and wonder how the solemn husband and wife ended up with so many children, and I wish that I could have known them when they were young and in love. There were a pair of these photos in our family with curved glass in oval walnut frames that one of my sisters guards today.

But my treasures are more modest. While others inherited jewelry or great estates, I inherited a bean pot. As I was growing up it appeared regularly on our supper table from October to May. In summer, Mom baked beans only for special occasions like church picnics or family reunions.

Someday my bean pot may become a valuable family heirloom, first since it belonged to my mother and second because it was not made in China. If you hold it right, you can see U.S.A. stamped under the brown glaze on the bottom.

And though it is old it works just fine. Fill it with beans and sauce, slip it into the oven and it does its job just as reliably today as it did when I was too young to chop the onion. And that’s a long time ago. I never asked my mother for her baked bean recipe. If I had she would probably have said that she did not have one, but she followed the same steps every time I watched.

Before she went to bed she rinsed and picked over about a pound of beans and left them to soak overnight. After breakfast the next morning she would boil them for an hour or so then mix them with a sauce she made in the frying pan on the stove and put them in the oven to bake slowly. When the beans were done she would raise the temperature in the oven to bake bread and rolls. Ah, heaven.

The recipe below comes close to producing baked beans like my mother used to make. My wife has a crock pot bean recipe that she thinks is better, and they are pretty good. But if I’m cooking and friends come to dinner when we’re having baked beans, I serve them from my mother’s bean pot.

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups navy beans (1 lb.)
1/3 pound bacon (3 or 4 thick slices)
1 medium onion (2 1/2 inch)
5 tablespoons molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 T brown sugar
2 T maple syrup

PROCEDURE:

Rinse the beans and pick out any pebbles or other debris. I like to wash the beans in a large mixing bowl and drain them in a colander a couple of times. Then soak them overnight in cold water. Drain and rinse the beans in the morning and and cover with fresh water in a large pot. Do not add salt for soaking or boiling. Simmer the beans until they are tender, approximately 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Drain the boiled beans and reserve the liquid. Put the beans back into the large mixing bowl.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. While the oven is heating, make the sauce. Chop the onion fine and cut the bacon slices into 1/2 inch pieces. In a skillet or saucepan over medium heat sauté the bacon until some of the grease has cooked out. The bacon should not be crisp. Drain all but about 2 tablespoons of the grease from the pan and add the chopped onion. Sauté until the onion is limp but not brown. Add 1 cup of the bean water, the molasses, salt, pepper, dry mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar and maple syrup. Bring the mixture to a boil and pour it over the beans. Mix well and spoon the beans into the bean pot. Pour in just enough of the reserved bean water to cover the beans. Put the lid on the pot and put the pot into the preheated oven.

Bake for 3 to 4 hours until the beans are tender. About halfway through cooking,, stir the beans, and add more liquid if necessary to prevent them from getting too dry. Half an hour before the beans are done, you can remove the lid to allow the sauce to thicken slightly

Taste and add more maple syrup if you would like the beans a little sweeter.

From Ireland: Myrtle Allen’s Brown Bread

St. Patrick’s Day is almost here, and one old man’s fancy turns to thoughts of bread. Not Irish soda bread but a wonderful moist yeast bread from Ireland that you don’t knead. The recipe below is a variation of the one in Beard on Bread, one of my favorite cookbooks. In it James Beard describes how he found the recipe at Myrtle Allen’s inn, Ballymaloe House, in Ireland. If you like a firm bread that is wonderful with butter and cheese, give this one a try.

INGREDIENTS:

3 3/4 cups whole-wheat flour
1/4 tsp. white sugar
2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
2 cups warm water (100 to 115º)
2 T dark molasses, dark corn syrup, sorghum or honey
2 tsp. salt

PROCEDURE:

Put the flour and salt in an oven proof mixing bowl and place in a warm oven with the oven thermostat at its lowest setting. Leave it in the oven about 10 minutes. The flour and bowl should be warm when you mix the dough.

Take one-half cup warm water, add one-fourth teaspoon sugar and stir in the yeast. Allow to proof. Dissolve the molasses (or honey or syrup) in the remaining one and a half cups water. When the flour feels warm to your fingers, remove the bowl from the oven. Stir the yeast mixture into the molasses water and pour the liquid into the flour.

Stir with a wooden spoon until you have a sticky dough, almost like a very stiff batter. At times of low humidity you may need a little more liquid. If so, add water. If the dough seems too thin, add a tablespoon or two of flour and stir in well. Since you do not knead this dough, I have found that stirring it well for a minute or so gives a better texture.

Put the dough into a buttered nine by five by three-inch bread pan. Tap the pan on the counter to remove any air bubbles and smooth the top. As soon as you have put the dough into the pan, preheat your oven to 425º. Allow the dough to rise uncovered in a warm draft free place until it is even with the top of the pan.

Bake the bread for thirty-five to forty-five minutes or until the crust is nicely browned and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Remove the bread from the pan and leave it in the turned-off oven for a few minutes to make the crust crisp. Put the bread on a rack to cool. Brush the top and sides with a little butter while the loaf is still hot.

NOTES: Substituting honey, sorghum or corn syrup for the molasses changes the flavor of the bread so much that you might call it a new recipe. All four work well. I have used ordinary clover honey and a dark prairie honey, which has a lot of flavor, and both make excellent bread.

A friend introduced me to sorghum, and I very much like the flavor of the bread made with this syrup. Today sorghum is produced in relatively small quantities by farmers in Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina and other states in the southern part of the U.S. You can find it in many larger supermarkets and organic food stores.

Once you put the batter in the pan, the dough will rise quickly, so watch it carefully. If it rises over the top of the pan, the loaf will fall during baking but it will taste fine.