’Tis summer and time for boating, fishing, beaching, barbecuing, picnicking and savoring all those great comfort food that makes the season so special.
No self-respecting fish fry, barbecue or picnic is complete without those all-American baked beans. They are inexpensive, delicious and so easy to serve. This is one food product that has been successfully canned without losing its flavor, leaving the creative cook to enhance them.
Little wonder that Boston is known as “Bean Town” although the Saturday night tradition of consuming the legumes has long given way to sirloin steaks, veal piccata and more prestigious viands.
Yet there are those fervent New Englanders who have not given up on their traditional Saturday night special. Even Paul Revere would be horrified that peace in Boston has been threatened, not by the Red Coats, but a food war that spread throughout Massachusetts and all the way to Tennessee.
This conflict got under way at the statehouse in Boston, when a delegation of elementary school children from Dover, Mass., stormed the capital. They demanded that baked beans be named the official state dish. Not satisfied to allow the baked beans to reign supreme over the state’s culinary offerings, members of the legislature suggested that Massachusetts scrap a health regulation strictly defining what constitutes a pot of authentic baked beans: no tomatoes.
Enter a Tennessee baked bean company who jumped into the fray by calling the rule discriminatory and prompting the governor to propose that the definition of a baked bean allow tomato sauce. I leave it to you to decide whether your baked beans are tomato-less or spiced up with those juicy cylinders of flavor.
So far, none of the traditional Bostonians have been heard from concerning which recipe for the dish is authentic. Perhaps that’s because there are hundreds of recipes and the fact that baked beans are way down the list of favorites, even in Boston. Recently Chef Jack Chiaro put his two-cents worth into the controversy by commenting on baked beans from his office as chef-instructor at Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts in Providence.
“The ingredients are somewhat similar in all regions of New England,” Chef Jack says. “It is individual families that alter the recipes either because of taste preferences or ethnic backgrounds.”
He went on to say that old recipes for baked beans call for dry mustard, while newer recipes call for the prepared variety. Out in the Berkshires, instead of the molasses used in Boston they use brown sugar. In Vermont and New Hampshire, it is maple syrup that makes baked beans special.
There are several theories regarding the origin of baked beans. In his “Dictionary of American Food and Drink,” John Mariani writes that Native Americans introduced the dish to the colonists.
The novelist Kenneth Roberts wrote an essay for a book called “Foods of Old New England” in which he states that baked beans had long been a traditional Sabbath dish among the North African and Spanish Jews, who called it “skanah.”
Yet another culinary historian, James Riley, supposes that New England sea captains carried the idea home with them from Africa. Wherever the truth may lie, it is for sure that Puritan women baked their beans on Saturday and served them that evening. On Sunday they served the leftovers with cod cakes and Boston brown bread for breakfast. In those days cooking was forbidden on Sunday, so the now-tired beans were often served at lunch as well.
In 1927, baked beans took a leap into the 20th century when Burnham and Morrill (B&M) began canning New England-style baked beans for the American public. Much to their credit, the bean entrepreneurs baked the beans the old-fashioned way and this method continues in their kitchens in Portland, Maine. After two washings of the pea beans, which come mostly from Michigan, the beans are dumped into huge pots along with molasses, mustard, salt, and salt pork, and baked in brick ovens set at 500 to 600 degrees. They are then placed in jars and cans — about a million of them every week.
If you want to produce your own, Marion Cunningham was selected by Knopf to update the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Here is its official recipe for:
Boston baked beans
2 cups navy beans, small white beans or Great Northern beans
Water for soaking
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
¼ pound salt pork
2 teaspoons dry mustard
5 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons molasses
■ Wash the beans and soak overnight. Add salt, stir and drain, reserving the liquid.
■ Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Cut off a third of the salt pork and place in the bottom of a bean pot. Add the beans to the pot.
■ Blend the mustard, brown sugar and molasses with the reserved bean liquid and pour over the beans. Cut several gashes in the remaining piece of salt pork and place on top of the beans.
■ Cover and bake for about 6 hours, adding water as needed. Uncover for the final hour of cooking so the pork will become brown and crisp. Taste and correct seasoning. Serves 8.
Doctored baked beans
16-ounce can B&M Baked Beans
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
2 tablespoons chili sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 slices bacon, cooked and cut into ¼-inch pieces
■ Combine canned baked beans with mustard, chili sauce and brown sugar in a saucepan. Stir bacon into bean mixture.
■ Simmer slowly for 30 minutes, stirring often. Beans may also be baked in an open pot for 1 hour in a 350-degree oven. Serves 4.
Q: I am a relatively new cook and am ready to have my friends over for dinner. I would like to fix a shrimp dish and hope you have a recipe that is easy but delicious.
— Margo Leavitt, Marco Island
A: The preparation of this dish allows the cook to fix everything ahead of time and is almost a one-dish meal. Serve with a salad, plenty of French bread, a good bottle of white wine or beer and a simple dessert. Good luck!
1½ pounds raw shrimp, unpeeled
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup uncooked rice
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium green bell pepper, minced
½ cup minced onion
1 can (10¾ ounces) condensed cream of tomato soup, undiluted
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup slivered almonds, divided
Salt and black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon ground mace
Cayenne pepper and paprika, to taste
■ Early in the day or the day before: Shell and devein shrimp, then cook them in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Drain.
■ Place shrimp in a 2-quart baking dish and sprinkle lemon juice and oil over shrimp. Refrigerate the shrimp mixture.
■ Cook rice according to package direction and after allowing the rice to cool, refrigerate.
■ About 1 hour before serving time: Melt butter in a large skillet. Add bell pepper and onion; sauté. Add onion mixture, chilled cooked rice, tomato soup, cream, ½ cup of the almonds, salt, pepper, mace and cayenne to chilled shrimp mixture in making dish and mix well.
■ Top with remaining ½ cup almonds and paprika. Bake, uncovered in a preheated 350-degree oven for 55 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 6 to 8.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet Was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, ‘“ Walk Down Memory Lane” with Doris Reynolds. For comments and information regarding today’s column, contact Doris Reynolds at email@example.com