Slow Cooker Vegetarian Baked Beans | A New England Classic Made Meatless
Confession…there are some things I almost exclusively eat from a can or a jar.
I cringe a little bit admitting that, but I also know I’m not entirely sorry. There are select foods that I gratefully accept in their sealed form…things I eat seasonally or sparingly like pumpkin, caramel sauce, and coconut milk. I don’t need to crack open a coconut for myself anytime soon.
There are other preserved foods, however, that I adore and eat constantly, and those are the ones I want to learn to make for myself at least once. Things like salsa, jam, tomato sauce, and today’s feature: old-fashioned baked beans.
A cornerstone of the traditional New England diet, baked beans first and foremost serve as an example of early colonial survival spirit. The limited provisions they had brought with them from England, coupled with the harsh New England winters, meant that the settlers had to turn to nearby Native Americans for new sources of food if they were to survive.
These included what is charmingly referred to as the “Three Sisters” combination of corn, squash, and beans. My favorite of these three is the latter, especially in the form of slow-cooked baked beans. New England’s baked beans are known for the inclusion of molasses, an ingredient abundant in Boston kitchens when the city was a major player in the rum trade. Sugar cane from the West Indies was shipped to Boston to be made into rum, leaving behind sweet molasses as a by-product. Resourceful New Englanders began adding it to everything, including another New England classic, Anadama Bread.
I knew I wanted to make my own old-fashioned baked beans, but right away I encountered a modern challenge in the form of salt pork – one of the recipe’s mainstays. My goal is always to celebrate tradition, but I am also a decade-long vegetarian. I thought about making them authentically and having others taste them, but then I realized that to make them my own way would be perfectly in line with the “can do” colonial spirit, so I carried on.
And since I was already going rogue by making old-fashioned baked beans without salt pork, I figured I might as well keep going by cooking them in a slow cooker instead of a bean pot.
I hope you can embrace my adapted colonial spirit that saw the advantage in making homemade baked beans that would be ready exactly as I got home from work. On their own, as part of a barbeque spread, or on top of a slice of Boston Brown Bread…baked beans fit the bill.
During my six-month stint living in Scotland back in 2004 I discovered how delicious baked beans also were for breakfast. Baked beans in the UK always come in a tomato-based sauce rather than our preferred brown sugar and molasses combination, but they are still worth trying. Don’t forget the eggs.
I did a lot of research for this dish and learned that when it comes to baked beans, once you stray from the simple colonial version, the sky is pretty much the limit. I kept track of things as I added them on an erasable marker board.
My baked bean recipe will, no doubt, undergo countless tweaks over the coming years, but for a first-timer, I think they came out pretty darn good.
I’d love to hear about your family baked bean recipe, so please feel free to share special techniques or ingredients in the comments section. I will be making these again and would love to try some of your tips!
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