The View from Mary's Farm Winter 2006
January 1, 1970Bean Time
I have come to love being snowed in, no way out until the storm ends. Deep in snow, the big greystone trees that surround my fields stand watch and I sink down into the release of a day all my own. Sometimes, especially on these days, I get a hankering for baked beans. Last year we had a lot of snow days so I made a lot of beans.
Over the years, I have collected bean pots and bean recipes. I’ve found people are passionate about beans and you can spark quite a discussion about what kind of beans to use when making baked beans. Pea beans. Kidney beans. Yellow eyes and black eyes, black turtle beans, lima beans and, good heavens, even soybeans.
I’m a fan and defender of navy beans, also known as Great Northern or pea beans. I still use the first bean pot I ever had, which belonged to my grandmother. I’ve tried all 37 of the pots that I own and this one makes the best baked beans of any of them. It is unglazed on the outside, giving the feel, if not the exact color, of a flowerpot but the inside is glazed, a glossy deep cinnamon color. The lid (the Achilles heal of bean pots – at least half the bean pots I see are missing their lids, the casualty of time and the mobility of the human race) is all glazed, with a small hole for escaping steam,
When a good storm heads this way, I put a quart of navy beans into the bean pot, cover them with water and leave them to soak in the pot overnight. All night, while the storm pounds the house, the beans plump up. In the morning, the road not yet plowed, I parboil the beans, a gentle process to soften the beans. I’m still in my nightgown and the snow outside is still falling. After a while, I spoon up a few beans, blow on them and if the skins crack open, I turn off the heat and get ready for the bake. The oven in the wood cookstove is already at a good low heat – never above 250*. I drain and rinse the beans. Into the bottom of the pot, I put a small onion, cut in half. The onion adds the same kind of sweetness as the salt pork, without the fat. On top of the onion, I pour the drained beans.
Every recipe I have calls for molasses and I used to use it, all the time. But years ago I worked with a woman in Vermont who gave me her bean recipe. No surprise, hers called for maple syrup instead of molasses or brown sugar. This is the recipe I’ve used ever since. By January, my year’s supply of maple syrup is ready to be emptied into the bean pot. So, with pleasure, I measure 1½ cups of maple syrup into a pint of boiling water and then I add ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar, 2 teaspoons of dry mustard, a teaspoon of ginger, a teaspoon of salt and some fresh ground pepper. I pour this over the beans, which usually covers them. If not, I add some more. I set the lid on. And into the warm oven they go.
I have a pile of books I save for stormy days. I choose one and settle next to the stove. The kitchen fills with the sweet scent of the oven beans. The day goes by this way, the luxury of time like the pleasure of a good dessert. Occasionally, I lift the lid to make sure the beans are not getting dry. If they are, I add hot water and tuck them back in for a while. After about six hours, the beans have turned a golden brown. I ladle a few out of the pot and let them cool before I taste. Sweet surrender. I want to eat the whole pot. Usually by then the snow has stopped and the road is plowed, leaving silence and the brilliance of the new snow. And a pot of beans for the rest of the busy week.