If beans aren't the world's most ubiquitous vegetable, they should be. From Shanghai to Pippa Passes, Kentucky (deep in the mountains), beans have been a staple of survival for centuries (millennia in China). Alas, too many of us who slogged through school lunch programs in the postwar era remember watery "soup beans" with a shudder of nausea. And what a pity! For up the hollow or over the next ridge, mountain mothers were making magnificent pots of stewed and baked beans. This version, adapted from my own childhood with a touch of French-Canadian influence (the whole hidden onions at the center), is hardy enough to make a meal in itself. The cider sweetens the beans and adds bloom to their own natural fragrance.
- 3 cups dried pinto beans
- 1 bottle (750 ml) semisweet hard cider, or 3 cups fresh cider
- 1/2 pound salt pork, thinly sliced
- 2 small yellow onions
- 6 tablespoons sorghum, or 1/2 cup molasses
- 1 tablespoon dry mustard
- 2 teaspoons salt
1. Pick over the beans and discard any stones or misshapen beans. Rinse well and place in a large bowl. Add cold water to cover by 3 inches, cover, and let soak for 12 hours.
2. Drain the beans and transfer to a heavy saucepan. Add the cider and bring slowly to a boil over medium heat. Boil gently, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain the beans, reserving the cider.
3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
4. Layer half of the salt pork slices on the bottom of a 2-quart ceramic bean pot or other deep baking dish. Spoon the beans into the bean pot, then bury the onions in the beans. In a small saucepan, combine the sorghum, mustard, and salt and place over medium heat to dissolve the mustard and salt. Pour the hot mixture evenly over the beans, and top with the remaining salt pork slices. Pour in the reserved cider and add hot water as needed to cover the beans. Cover the bean pot.
5. Bake for about 4 hours, then uncover the pot and add more water if the beans seem too dry. Re-cover and continue to bake until the beans are tender, 1 to 2 hours longer. The timing will depend upon the age of the beans. Serve hot directly from the pot.