Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fallen leaves and baking beans


Will o' wisps rising over the meadow
Toward the end of October, a hush falls across the land. The wind has stilled and the leaves left on the popples along the land road hang limpid against a thin gray sky. The songbirds have long left and the small animals have begun to hibernate, seeking a warm, snug place to sleep out the long cold winter. Even the raucous jays are silent as they zip, a fleeting flash of deep blue, from the beeches and firs to the compost bin.  A few juncos have arrived, but they are silent birds, slatey blue against the fading green of the lawn, their heads bobbing as they peck at seeds and the bugs that remain.  Toward evening, chevrons of geese wing overhead, clamorous as they soar above the house and disappear south beyond the thinning tree line.  The ravens, a half dozen juveniles busy with feeding and courtship, appear only at dawn and dusk, croaking and clacking at each other as they head off to some mysterious business that occupies them all day.  Even the rumble of trucks climbing the hill on High Meadow Road is stilled as the harvest winds down, the fields stripped bare and plowed in ragged furrows.  It is as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting for the first onslaught of bitter cold and icy snow, and we quicken our pace, preparing for our own hibernation.
We spend the daytime hours stacking firewood in the bin.  The fragrance of beech and birch and maple is a lovely perfume as we bend and stack, bend and stack, and we think ahead to the first evening fires that will warm us as the weather turns.  Our first fall fires are usually built of popples as the softwood burns hot and fast, quickly taking the chill off the house, tempting the dogs to sprawl beside the fireplace, basking in the heat.  We have talked often about putting in a wood stove – more efficient, steadier heat – but there is something about an open fire that draws us.
Building a good fire takes time and attention.  It is not enough to crumple a few pieces of paper, throw on a handful of kindling and light the blaze.  While it might catch right away, it has no staying power.  Building a good fire, especially in a fireplace, takes skill and practice.  We build our fires, even the early autumn ones, carefully: two medium sized logs laid parallel on the grate, a few crumpled sheets of paid bills or discards from my writing, and then a crisscross of kindling atop it all.  Such a fire catches easily and burns well creating the bed of coals necessary to sustain it as the original logs burn down and we add more.  Nothing is quite as pleasant as warming one’s fingers and toes before the dancing flames.
Now the freezers are full. Bags of beans and peas, corn and carrots, chard and beet greens, leeks and peppers are stacked carefully on the shelves.  The pantry is stocked with pickles and relish, jams and jellies, canned tomatoes and sauce, and soon will come the lamb and pork, turkey and chicken from neighboring farmers, all ready for six months of winter meals.  We find ourselves longing for heartier fare: soups and chowders, meatloaf and pot roast, lasagna and spaghetti rather than the grilled vegetables we enjoyed during the long days of summer.  Just this week, I contemplated corn chowder after sharing the old family recipe with a friend, but one of our greatest joys is the first pot of homemade baked beans.

Beany ingredients
Baked beans for Saturday night supper is an old New England tradition that was a part of both my and Bruce’s childhoods. It is a carryover from colonial days when beans were easy to grow and provided a stick-to-the-bones meal and plenty of leftovers, and why people have abandoned it, I am not sure.   My earliest childhood memories are of my mother and great grandmother bustling round the kitchen turning out a week’s worth of breads, pies, cookies, and cakes from a mammoth gas stove that sat in its own nook in the large, linoleumed kitchen.  This was no small feat as there were growing children to feed and uncles routinely stopped in for a midday feed on their breaks from the shoe shops and machine shops and service stations throughout the week.  With so much baking, there was little time to put together a proper supper, but a pot of beans could bake all day in the already heated oven.  There were always hot dogs, and sometimes Nana, as we called my great grandmother, would put together brown bread, redolent with molasses, a pinch of cloves and sweet raisins, and steam it in molds in a covered tin made especially for that purpose. Even the thought of that toothsome delight makes my mouth water, and no store-bought cans of so-called Boston brown bread can come close.
When we were first married, baked beans didn’t feature prominently in our meal plans. Changing palates and more availability of produce – tomatoes from Florida and grapes from Chile – during winter meant that our children lost the traditions we knew. When we did have beans and hot dogs for Saturday night supper, it was often B& M in a can, hastily picked up at the market, and heated in a saucepan on the stove top.  But every so often on a rainy November or snowy January Saturday, I would put together a pot and revel in the aroma as it filled the house, the fragrance a pleasant counterpoint to the bread or pie baking alongside it in the oven. When we moved here, we felt a longing for baked beans. Not every week, but at least once a month, and not the kind that came in a can. 
After a few years of buying dried kidney or pea beans in the market, we decided to grow our own, and discovered Saturday Night Specials, a seed stock reportedly developed for B& M more than a century ago, and somehow saved from extinction and available for sale. With the first harvest, baked beans became an integral part of our winter menus.  While everyone has their own secret recipe for homemade baked beans, the core ingredients are essentially the same: beans (kidney, pea or navy), an onion, salt pork, dry mustard, molasses and water.  My beans are based on my Nana’s recipe, as are many of my old-time staple dishes, but over the years I have modified them to our own tastes.
The ingredients are:
2 cups dried Saturday Night Specials, picked over         1 medium onion, quartered
¼ pound lean salt pork                                                            1 Tbsp. dry mustard
2 cups tomato sauce or puree                                      ¼ - ½ cup dark molasses
A pinch of baking soda                                                            ¼ cup maple syrup
The night before baking, pick the beans over, removing any that are brown or shriveled, and discard.  Place the beans in a two-quart bowl and cover with water to soak overnight. Make sure to check to see the beans are covered in water before you head to bed!  In the morning, drain the beans and place them in a large saucepan and again cover with water. Preheat oven to 325-350 degrees.  Over medium heat, bring beans to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until skins begin to burst. Drain, reserving cooking liquid, and place the beans in a two-quart casserole or bean pot.  We bought our bean pot almost forty years ago on our honeymoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Toss in the onion and salt pork, add a pinch of baking soda (it cuts the gassiness of beans), the dry mustard, and pour the tomato sauce and then the molasses over all. Now add the reserved liquid until it covers all the beans by about a half inch add extra hot water if needed), and gently stir all together.  Cover and place in the oven.  Go about your business.

Saturday night specials baking
You will need to check to make sure the water doesn’t boil away and the beans don’t get too mushy, and I occasionally adjust the flavor by adding a dibble of molasses if the sauce is too tomatoey or a bit of mustard if it is too sweet.  The beans should be done just about five p.m. and is terrific with a good all beef hot dog – boiled or steamed – fried ham, salt cod or clam cakes, or just about anything else you choose.  I also usually make a bowl of coleslaw and either corn bread or yeast rolls to go with it.  Someday, I promise myself, I will learn to make brown bread. 
There are those who question why we choose to live here so far from the conveniences of civilization. But those who come to visit, to share this beautiful country, the bounty of our labors, the night sky so black and silent that one can almost hear the stars sing, go back home to lights and restaurants, theater and traffic, and often find themselves longing for the simple pleasures we enjoy every day.   Across the back fields, the shadows lengthen, the temperature dips, and the wind howls in the chimney.  The dogs snore in their chairs, and the sweet aromas of molasses and bread linger in the house.  The fire snaps and spits, and all is well with our world. 

Harvest moon setting

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