• Stir It Up: A hearty dish for a winter night
     | January 10,2014
    Photo by Marialisa Calta

    Beans baked with a malty ale make a hearty winter dinner.

    There’s no getting around it — it’s January. Weird weather. Not enough sunlight. Credit card bills. It’s time to hunker down.

    Take a hint from that song you hummed on New Year’s Eve and renew your “auld acquaintance” with some serious comfort food. We’re talking baked beans. They’re cheap, easy and filling. Bonus: They warm your kitchen and fill your home with delicious aromas while they cook. A perfect January dish if there ever was one.

    Think of baked beans as the early American Colonists did: as the main event, not as a side. Serve them with good bread. Brown bread steamed in a can is traditional; B&M brand is sold in many supermarkets and is quite tasty. Cornbread is good, too. Add a salad or cooked greens — collards, kale, chard, spinach — and you’ve nailed dinner.

    According to John Mariani’s “Dictionary of American Food and Drink,” the Puritans followed the biblical instruction to keep the Sabbath holy, refraining from any work from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday. They baked the beans all day Saturday, serving them for dinner and for Sunday breakfast and lunch, keeping them warm in a heavy-duty bean pot.

    Historians disagree on the origin of baked beans in the Colonies. Some say the Colonists learned to bake beans from Native Americans, who cooked them in a stone-lined pit (the “bean hole”) with bear fat and maple sugar. Mariani sides with novelist Kenneth Roberts, who says New England sea captains brought the dish back from North Africa and Spain, where Sephardic Jews baked beans for the same reason the Puritans did, to keep the Sabbath.

    Betty Fussell, in “I Hear America Cooking,” calls Roberts an “unregenerate fictioneer” and says the “boring truth” is that the “bean habit” started in England, where baked dried peas (called “pease pudding,”“pease pottage” or “pease porridge”) was the “national dish.” The Massachusetts settlers added “a Littell sugar” (maple) until shipments of molasses began arriving in Boston Harbor late in the 17th century.

    Here’s a recipe for baked beans, but, in truth, you can tinker with it any way you like. Try different sweeteners, such as maple syrup or honey. If you like spicy food, add chilies, Asian chili paste or hot sauce. If you are vegetarian, leave out the bacon. If you love meat, add more, or substitute a ham hock or pancetta (Italian bacon) or guanciale (hog jowl) or salt pork. Don’t want the beer? Try apple cider or apple juice, or chicken stock or some dry vermouth. As a dish, baked beans are about as forgiving as they come.

    Have some fun. Don’t let January get the better of you.

    Baked Beans With Beer

    Yield: 8 servings

    1 pound small dried white beans (such as navy beans, soldier beans or great northern beans)

    4 to 6 strips thick-cut bacon, diced

    1 yellow onion, peeled and diced

    ½ cup unsulfured molasses

    ¼ cup packed dark or light brown sugar

    2 tablespoons prepared Dijon mustard

    ¼ cup tomato paste

    1 cup red or amber ale (see note)

    Water, as needed

    Salt and ground black pepper to taste

    Pick over the beans and discard any discolored ones, or any tiny stones that might have gotten in with them. Rinse and drain.

    Place the beans in a large bowl and cover with cold water by 2 inches. Let sit overnight, or up to 12 hours. Drain. (If you’ve forgotten to do this, or don’t have time, see “quick-soak method” below.)

    Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

    In a Dutch oven, cook the bacon until fat is rendered and bacon is lightly browned but not crispy. Add onions and cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the beans to the pot and stir to combine with onions and bacon. Stir in the molasses, brown sugar, mustard and tomato paste. Add the beer and enough water to cover the beans by about ½ inch.

    Bake, covered, until beans are soft, about 4 hours, checking every hour or so to see if more liquid is needed (add more water if it is). Uncover, season with salt and pepper, and stir. If beans seem dry, add more water. Cook, uncovered, another 2 hours until most of the liquid has been absorbed.

    Quick-soak method: Cover the rinsed beans with water and bring to a boil. Boil for two minutes, shut off the heat and let the beans sit for 1 hour. Proceed with the recipe.

    Beernote: A malty red or amber ale adds some nutty sweetness. You can substitute other beers, but stay away from the very “hoppy” pale ales, and India pale ales, which impart a bitter taste.

    Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.

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