AS I begin to write this piece, the weatherman is saying we’re in for an unseasonably warm period for September.

By the time you read this, we’ll know if he was right, and more importantly, if my choice of dish for this week has been wildly misjudged!

I have to plan these dishes a few days, sometimes weeks in advance, to make sure I have the ingredients, and I’m happy with the recipe. And as I started the groundwork for this particular recipe, I’d just lit the first log fire of the season, and it was definitely nippy outside.

Great, I thought, just the time for a big steaming bowl of Boston-style baked beans and a crunchy cornbread muffin.

You may wish, therefore, to pop this page in your diary for use later on in the year, and carry on with the salad you’re preparing.

This bean dish is an absolute beauty, full of big, hearty flavours and deeply comforting. It’s the perfect dish to come home to after a blustery dog walk or a freezing few hours of entertainment down at the Galpharm. Although it takes a couple of days to make, it’s incredibly simple, and pretty much takes care of itself. It can be eaten as it is, or dolloped over a jacket spud, or enjoyed the traditional American way, with a hunk of deep yellow cornbread, perfect for mopping up the unmissable juices from every corner of the bowl. The cornbread element of the dish is Native American in origin. Corn is actually a devilishly hard crop to cultivate – in the wild the kernels look more like wispy little barley stalks than the great cobs we see on the shelves of the supermarket. At some point, and it’s still not clearly known how, the Indian tribes managed to perfect the art, and corn became a staple ingredient. Cornbread is a delicious, dense, sweet and salty concoction, more like cake in texture, and its crunchy exterior conceals a soft, crumbly heart. It’s perfect for dunking and mopping, and is even more amazing when slathered with salted butter and topped with a spoonful of the delicious baked beans.

Boston baked beans became popular due to a by-product of the distilling industry. The rum trade, of which Boston was a key export hub, provided the city with gallon upon gallon of thick, sweet molasses, which eventually found its way into the local baked beans, already a popular dish along the east coast.

From that point onward, the dish became a celebrated speciality, with restaurants such as Durgin Park becoming famous across the country for their specially-made crockpots of steaming beans and baskets of warm cornbread.

A few finessing touches have been made over the years, and of course, as ever with my recipes, you should feel free to go off-piste yourselves. Perhaps add some herbs – I imagine rosemary would work well here – or a splash of vinegar.

The tomato passata is definitely non-canon, but I feel it adds a roundness to the finished dish. Whatever you do with your beans, you must make sure that you only salt the dish right at the end, to avoid hardened beans, and that you allow the pan to bubble away in a low oven for as long as it takes. Three hours should do it, but that’s not set in stone. Aprons on!

For the beans:

1 kg white haricot beans, dried

1kg piece pork belly

100g unrefined dark muscovado sugar

100g treacle

4 tbsps English mustard powder

800ml tomato passata

4 large onions

A little butter


For the cornbread:

240g plain flour

240g fine cornmeal or polenta

2 tablespoons baking powder

2 teaspoons Maldon salt

4 medium eggs

570ml buttermilk (or 50/50 milk and natural yoghurt)

200ml milk

100g butter, melted and cooled

1 small chilli, finely chopped


Muffin tins or a suitable cake pan


First, let’s get the pork under way. If you have a friendly butcher, get him to remove the skin and most of the upper layer of fat and bag it separately. You’ll need it for the cooking process, where it adds its lovely juices to the beans, but it’s not eaten.

To begin with, soak the beans overnight in plenty of fresh cold water. The next day, drain the beans, and pop them in a suitable casserole pan. Fill the pan with enough fresh cold water to cover the beans by a couple of inches, and set them over the heat. Don’t add salt yet – this hardens the beans during cooking and they will never become fully soft and creamy.

Bring the pan to the boil and boil the beans hard for about 15 minutes, then turn the heat down and simmer for about an hour.

During this time, gently sweat the onions in a little butter for about 30 minutes, until they are soft and translucent. Heat the oven to 140°C / Gas 1.

Dice the belly pork into large chunks. Add the onions to the beans, along with the pork, and add the treacle, the sugar, mustard and passata. Season with plenty of black pepper, but don’t add salt just yet.

Add a little water if necessary to cover everything, pop the lid on and bake for two hours, stirring occasionally. As the beans are relaxing in the oven for hours, we have time to make the cornbread.

Lightly grease the muffin tins (or cake pan). Heat the oven to 200°C/Gas 6. Combine the flour, polenta, baking powder and the salt in a mixing bowl. In another bowl, beat the eggs into the buttermilk, and then add the milk and the melted butter, whisking until amalgamated.

Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to a smooth batter. Add the finely chopped chili. Pour into the tins and bake for 20-25 minutes until risen slightly and golden brown.

The cornbread should be just beginning to pull away from the sides of the tin. Allow the muffins to cool a little before turning out. They will freeze very well, and can be reheated by wrapping in foil in a medium oven for 20 minutes or so.

To finish the beans, remove the lid, stir well, and add a good few teaspoons of salt to correct the seasoning. Turn the oven up to 200°C/Gas 6, and drape the belly pork rinds over the top of the beans.

Bake for a further hour – this allows the delicious porky fat to sink into the sweet, tomato-iness of the stew.

When the time’s up, remove the pork skin and discard, give a final stir and season, and serve in great steaming bowfuls, with the cornbread muffins on the side.