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COOKING LOCAL: 4th of July Boston Baked Beans

July 01, 2011

    Welcome back to the kitchen. This week we are coming up on a big holiday weekend. The 4th of July is usually marked these days with the three b’s: beers, barbecues, and bombs (of the firework variety). And I’m a big fan of all three of these. But as I peruse most 4th of July recipe suggestions, I find myself a bit disheartened and disinterested.
    Macaroni salad? Jello molds and angel food cakes with red white and blue frosting? Burgers and brats? Friends, I think we can do better.
    Remember, this holiday marks a REVOLUTION! Our founding fathers set to free us from the bondage of our colonial oppressors. This was a relatively new land, at least to Europeans, and America had some wonderful new foodstuffs to offer.
    So instead of suggesting yet another take on barbecue and side dishes, I want to take us back in time to the colonial era right around the revolutionary war of 1775. What is it that might have sustained our founding fathers as they met and plotted against the British crown? What might have sustained our soldiers as they fought the redcoats?
    In searching for answers, I found several interesting sources. Some of the foods from the birth of our nation sound quite delicious and familiar, like roasts and stews, cakes and pies. Other staples sound downright bland or unpalatable. Let me take a moment to point out that out country has experienced a culinary revolution in the past few decades, and in many ways we probably eat a more exciting diet now than ever before.
    Nevertheless, when we look back to colonial cooking, we see hearty, relatively simple fare that uses local ingredients to the fullest. And of course, this cuisine is free from preservatives and artificial additives. Perhaps that is the revolutionary charge we should be leading today in our own kitchens.
    In any case, the Americas introduced white men and women to corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, chocolate and vanilla, among other staples. Can you imagine a world without these ingredients? It must have been pretty bland to eat dinner during the dark ages.
    Of course, colonial American cooks wouldn’t have made use of all these ingredients, but potatoes, corn, and peanuts were certainly enjoyed frequently in the 1700s. Christine Lorraine, in her article “Food of the Revolutionary War time period” shines more light on the subject:
Food and drink during the Revolutionary War period were primitive, but possessed enough basic nutritional elements to keep American troops moving forward. In the field, a soldier's daily menu featured bread, meat, and a "gill" of dry beans as the primary main courses. They also received rations of rum. […] Pieces of pork or beef were soaked in salt water, which acted as a preservative. Most soldiers prepared their own meals, so they boiled the meat with the dried beans for quite a lengthy period of time. The mixture was cooked until some of the salt was boiled out of the meat, and the beans softened.

 

For dessert, earthy recipes such as "A Nice Indian Pudding" were all the rage. This recipe is from "American Cookery" by Amelia Simmons, the first cookbook written and published in America in 1796:
* "3 pints scalded milk,
* 7 spoons fine Indian meal (AKA cornemeal)
* stir together while hot, let stand till cooled;
* add 7 eggs,
* half pound of raisins,
* 4 ounces butter,
* spice and sugar,
* bake one and a half hour."

 

Other foods that early Americans relied upon heavily include corn, mutton, bacon and corn meal. Meats were frequently smoked or salted and made into jerky. Vegetables and fruits were canned to help settlers and soldiers survive rough winter months. Fish and small game were caught and immediately cooked to ease consumption of stored food”
In a related article, Denise Calaman expands on the colonial diet: “Vegetables such as corn, peas, and squash were grown by farmers throughout the colonies. Root vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and beets were also grown and were able to be stored for long periods of time.
Early colonists were gatherers and harvested everything eatable that was available to them. During the Revolutionary time period, there were numerous native nut trees growing wild within the colonies. Nuts were harvested and baked into pies, breads and cookies. Native blueberries, cranberries and Concord grapes were harvested in the northern colonies while other wild berries such as mulberries and elderberries being harvested elsewhere. The primary fruit grown and picked for consumption was the apple. The apple was a sweet addition to a lot of colonial dishes such as onion pie and apples were the primary ingredient in cider. Because of its long shelf life, cider was popular among the colonists along with beer.”
Calaman goes on to say that, “Perhaps the most important animal to the colonists was the domestic pig. Pork played a big part in the colonist's diet. It was able to be salted and stored for long periods of time. Colonists enjoyed bacon and ham. Along waterways eating and salting fish was as popular as raising pigs. Fish was caught and cleaned to be eaten with dinner or dried and salted or pickled to be used over the winter. Dried fish was often used as trade goods as well.”
    So that gives us at least a rudimentary understanding of what ingredients the colonists and revolutionary war soldiers had to work with. Corn, bacon, and beans are particularly drawing my attention from the list. So this 4th of July weekend, to form a link with our forefathers, I want to make some delicious Boston baked beans, and serve them with maybe some bacon-laced cornbread and a fresh fingerling potato salad.
These are all recipes that remain popular today, and you could hop into a time machine and serve to an 18th century American with ease. But we’ll make use of some modern conveniences instead of cooking over a wood fire all day.
    Boston baked beans apparently get their name from the molasses that is added to them. Boston was the center of the rum trade, and molasses is a key ingredient in the distillation process. Some colonists would have sweetened their beans with maple syrup instead, which would also be delicious. Usually the beans would be baked in an earthenware crock or dutch oven, slow cooked for a long period of time (sometimes even overnight). We’ll make use of an electric crock pot for convenience sake. And it is important to note that baked beans and cornbread are recipes the colonists would have learned from native Americans, and adapted to their own tastes.

 

So for our revolutionary war slow-cooked Boston Baked Beans we’ll need:
•    1 pound (2 to 2 1/4 cups) dry white beans such as Navy beans or Great Northern beans (can also use kidney beans)
•    1/3 cup molasses
•    1/3 cup brown sugar
•    3-4 Tbsp Dijon mustard
•    1/8 teaspoon ground cloves and/or
•    A small pinch of nutmeg
•    a big grinding of black pepper
•    3 cups hot water
•    ½ cup dark rum
•    1/2 pound salt pork (can sub bacon), cut into 1/2-inch to 1-inch pieces
•    1 medium onion, (1 1/2 cups) chopped
•    Most traditional recipes don’t call for it, but I’m also going to chop up a few fresh carrots and a stalk of celery, because I like to add in some more vegetables
•    And again, it’s not traditional, but I like to add in just a pinch of red pepper flakes to add some heat. This is of course optional

 

1 Place beans in a large pot and cover with 2 inches of water. Soak overnight and drain. Alternatively, if you are in a hurry, bring a pot with the beans covered with 2 inches of water to a boil, remove from heat and let soak for a hour, then drain.

2 Mix the molasses, brown sugar, mustard, ground cloves and/or nutmeg, and black pepper with 3 cups of hot water.
3 Line the bottom of a crock pot slow-cooker (or a Dutch oven if you are cooking in the oven) with half of the salt pork (pick the fattiest pieces). Layer over with half of the drained beans. Add all of the onions, carrots, and celery in a layer, then top with another layer of beans and the remaining salt pork. Pour the molasses water mixture over the beans to just cover the beans.

4 Cover and cook in a slow-cooker on the low setting for 8 hours (or in a 250°F oven), until the beans are tender. After about 2-4 hours, add the ½ cup dark rum (I included this as an homage to the triangle trade, the alcohol will cook off).Check the water level a few hours in, and if the beans need more water, add some. Add additional salt to taste if needed. Note that fresher beans will cook faster than older beans. Your beans may be ready in less than 8 hours, or they may take longer. Like most slow cooked dishes, these “baked” beans are best eaten the next day.

    Yum! This is a much tastier version of what soldiers in the war for independence must have eaten regularly.
    To go along with the beans, crisp up some bacon crumbles and mix those into a favorite cornbread recipe or boxed mix. Also steam some tender new potatoes to toss with a light, tangy dressing, and you’ve got some great dishes for Independence Day. And of course, if like most Americans you find yourself near a hot grill, throw some meat or veggies on the barbecue as well!
    I hope you’ve gained somewhat of a culinary connection to the foods eaten during the revolutionary war. We can continue in that spirit by eating fresh, local, seasonal, and whole foods direct from the garden or farmer, freeing ourselves from the tyranny of unhealthy corporate processed food-like substances.
    Keep on cooking, and enjoy your holiday weekend. Send me any questions, comments, or suggestions to Isaac@kohoradio.com. Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.

 

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