March is a heartbreaker. In January, we look forward to it as the beginning of spring, but when it’s here, it often brings some of the nastiest winter weather of the year. I always associate the winter’s most satisfying and heartwarming comfort food with March, because it’s a month when we need to fortify ourselves to get through the last winter storms and over the hump into spring. For that reason, I often make my enormous cassoulet in March and invite friends to share the head-to-toe warmth that lots of beans, duck, and fat can provide. Another favorite March meal is baked beans.
The recipe I use for my baked beans is one that I pieced together from a superb short story written by iconic Canadian author Pierre Berton. According to Berton, baked beans were what fortified the Klondike gold rushers on their long and arduous trek across the Arctic to the gold fields. They would make a huge batch of beans and then let it freeze, gnawing off chunks of the bean-sickle as they struggled across the rugged trail.
Berton’s short story included his version of the Klondike beans recipe, but, in keeping with the rough and ready methods of the gold rushers, he was extremely vague about amounts and measures. His instructions included things like “a handful” of this or “a nice amount” of that or “enough” of something else, and, memorably, “pork cut into cubes the size of marshmallows.” It took me a long time and many experiments to develop a recipe from his tale, and I have added a few touches of my own that don’t appear in his short story. The result is a concoction that I have been using for late winter meals for many years. It freezes well (naturally) and should be served with lots of fresh bread to mop up the juice.
Pierre Berton’s Klondike Baked Beans
1. Soak 1 litre of dried white navy or Great Northern beans overnight
2. Drain and rinse the beans, then put them in a large pot, adding fresh water to cover by 3cm. Add 2 bay leaves, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 – 2 Tbsp each of oregano, thyme, chili powder, parsley, and 1 tsp of ground cloves.
Simmer at low heat for 2 hours.
3. Drain the beans and reserve the liquid. Put the beans in a large casserole or baking crock and add ½ kilo of bacon chunks* cut into cubes (marshmallow size)
4. Put the liquid into the pot and add 3 tomatoes, ½ Cup of chili sauce, 1 can of tomato paste, 4 onions (2 chopped fine and 2 chopped coarse), 1 Tbsp of dried mustard, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 Tbsp of celery seed, 1 Tbsp of Tabasco sauce, 1 Cup of dark molasses, and ½ Cup of maple syrup
Simmer at low heat for about an hour, then pour the reserved liquid over the beans
5. Cover and bake at 325 for about 4 hours
6. One hour before serving, add 1 Cup of sherry or dry red wine and lay 6 bacon strips on top. Half and hour before serving, remove the cover to crisp the bacon (use the broiler at the end if the bacon isn’t crisp enough).
*You can ask the butcher for the end pieces of slab bacon, which are smokier than the middle portions. Alternatively, use smoked turkey leg instead of the bacon. Klager’s in Fonthill is very accommodating at supplying either.