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Sturdy beans for a leaner budget

Long the staple of frugal Yankees, Boston baked beans enjoy a revival.

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Tasty: Boston baked beans are inexpensive and easy to prepare and can be served as a side dish or an entree.

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A big bowl of home-baked beans has more bounce than Beyoncé.

At my house, a steaming pot of beans has been a staple at parties for decades. They're always right there alongside the hot dogs and coleslaw on the Fourth of July, beside the turkey on Thanksgiving, and even keeping company with the pickled herring on the smorgasbord table each Christmas Eve.

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At my annual Twelfth Night fete this past January, I pulled out all the culinary stops: honey-glazed ham; a small mountain of oysters; a pear, Gorgonzola, and walnut salad; raw salmon marinated with dill and sugar; pumpkin cheesecake; and the obligatory pot of Boston baked beans. It was the beans that got a standing ovation.

It's no surprise, especially in this part of the country.

Baked beans have been around since before Plymouth Rock. Early settlers were treated to them by the native Americans. They've been a staple around here ever since. The Indians' way of preparing beans was to cook them in underground pits lined with hot stones, stuffed in deer hides, sweetened with maple syrup, and flavored with a good hunk of fresh bear fat, a method ignored by cooks today.

That eventually evolved to cooking them overnight in pots with molasses and salt pork. This worked especially well for the Puritans, who believed in minimal work on the Sabbath. Later, Yankees changed the tradition by starting to cook them on Friday nights and serving them for Saturday night supper with hot dogs and Boston brown bread.

Humble, dried beans are enjoying something of a renaissance. They are inexpensive, versatile, easy to prepare, and a great source of protein. There are dozens of varieties that can be cooked in countless ways: in soups, stews, salads, or puréed.

Black or turtle beans are popular in Mexican and South American cuisine. In India, lentils are popular, and Italians are particularly fond of cannellini and fava beans. In southwest France, the complex and delicious cassoulet is a classic dish.

Carefully wash and pick though dried beans before cooking or soaking. To clean, pour beans in a large pot with copious amounts of water. Swish beans around, let them settle, then lift them into another container with your fingers. Any small stones or sediment will be left at the bottom of the pot.

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When soaking beans, cover them with at least three inches of water. The beans will absorb much of the water overnight.