Rabbi and food historian Gil Marks has traced some unlikely American staples to Jewish origins. Among them: Pasta, yogurt with fruit, and sitcoms. So it should not come as much of a surprise to learn that baked beans, too, came from members of the Tribe. Marks writes in The World of Jewish Cooking and Encyclopedia of Jewish Food that the sweet, tender beans were first cooked by Sephardic Jews, and the Pilgrims picked up the recipe in Holland en route to the New World.Marks’ research shows that the dish began as a cholent recipe called shkanah in Arabic. The Jews living in the Netherlands adapted their Middle Eastern stew to use local ingredients like fava beans, honey or molasses, and goose fat. The Shabbat meal that could cook in residual heat from a hearth or oven appealed to the Pilgrims, who as Puritans also refrained from lighting fires on the Sabbath.
Soon after they arrived at Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims adjusted the recipe once again. The dish soon included such New Englander ingredients as white beans and pork. In the Boston area, molasses flowed because of the rum industry. This may explain how the dark sugar cane product became the main sweetener on the standard ingredient list.
Here is a version of baked beans that evolves the dish a bit further, using all ingredients and bringing back honey. Instead of animal fat, the richness comes from olive oil. This is probably what the Sephardic Jews used in the dish’s very first incarnation.
Try this at your next barbecue or picnic, or as a side dish for lunch.
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
3 Tablespoons black strap molasses
1/4 cup honey
4 cups white beans, such as Great Northern or navy beans 3 15-ounce cans or about 2 cups dried)
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
1 large onion, chopped
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/4 of one canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced (Remove seeds for a milder taste.)
1 teaspoon adobo sauce
1/4 cup water
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Heat the oil in a skillet and add the onion. Sautee for 5-10 minutes, or until browned and becoming translucent. In an oven-safe crock pot or casserole dish, combine the onions, beans (if using dried beans they need to be soaked overnight and then cooked on the stovetop), and other ingredients. Mix gently with a spoon until well combined. Cover the pot or casserole dish and bake for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, or until sauce has thickened. If too much liquid remains, bake uncovered for 15-30 minutes until the beans have reached your desired consistency. For best flavor, eat the next day.
You can also try cooking this overnight by keeping the oven at 200 F, or placing the mixture in a slow cooker set to low heat.
Pronounced: PAHRV or pah-REV, Origin: Hebrew, an adjective to describe a food or dish that is neither meat nor dairy. (Kosher laws prohibit serving meat and dairy together.)
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.