When I think back upon the year, I can hardly believe that the pages of time — the days of the previous seasons — have turned so very quickly, and that we are now about to embark on that warm, breezy and bright time of year again. Sure, the “official” date that marks the beginning of the summer season is still a few days away, but I’ve already felt the vibrant and active energy of summer’s enthusiasm for quite some time. For weeks now, students have been anticipating the finish of another school year, counting down the days until they taste “freedom” once again. Some are finishing their high school or college career and are about to embark on a brand new chapter in life after graduation; and others, like my son, who still have a couple more years ahead of them, look forward to a break from the regimentation of classes and course work, of early rising and of necessary self-discipline, for at least a couple of months. A sigh of relief is expelled for so many as the beginning of summer marks the end of a period of time of rather grueling work, keeping schedules and being “holed up” during the previous cooler months; and for the rest of us whose life will continue pretty much in the same vein that it has been, we can’t help but feel ourselves become pulled into the joviality and lightness of summertime’s contagious buzz. Graduation parties, family get-togethers, BBQ’s and neighborhood block gatherings are the fun and freeing festivities that the summertime gives us permission to enjoy; and if good food, good company and a free spirit is a generous part of the equation, then enjoying this time of year is something that we most certainly will do with gusto.
In the summertime, food tastes better, somehow, when enjoyed in the backyard sitting on a big umbrella-protected patio, or on a sunny and warm wooden deck where fold-up chairs are scattered around a big table covered with a checkered vinyl tablecloth that holds delicious morsels. It tastes better in flip-flops as opposed to laced-up shoes; in T-shirts as opposed to office button-ups; and perhaps on paper plates with plastic cutlery as opposed to porcelain plates with metal forks and knives. Summertime provides a sense of “casualness” that other seasons just don’t. We relish the time we spend leisurely standing around a smoking grill, sharing and chatting about the latest happenings or changes in our lives, as we revel in catching up a bit with folks we haven’t seen a quite a while. We become mesmerized by the meats that sizzle and sputter as the grill smokes and hisses, and we gleefully spoon onto our plates healthy portions of warm-weather favorites such as sweet, smoky baked beans with bourbon and apple-smoked bacon, finished with a drizzle of maple and a twist of cracked pepper, and other BBQ-friendly sides that perfectly accompany the familiar flavor of the summer and that particular vibe that goes with it. Summer is a time of bliss and a time filled with simple, home-cooked food; it’s a season that reminds us that we can play a little again, and take the time to enjoy one another’s company and get lost in the taste of things and the warmth of a moment.
With the summer season ahead of us, chock-full of opportunities for merry connectivity and breezy casualness, I sense my appetite for the smoky-sweetness of it all open like a flower and increase. May the time we spend together chatting and laughing over good food set on long, fold-up tables in the backyard dressed with vinyl tablecloths and punctuated with paper cups be meaningful and memorable enough to keep us going through the rest of our year; and may we lose ourselves in the sunny breeze and in the smoky atmosphere, and enjoy each delicious bite that the summertime provides us with, in each warm, sweet gathering we that attend.
Taste what’s good and pass it on.
Sweet ‘n Smokey Bourbon “Baked” Beans with Thick-cut Apple Smoked Bacon, Maple & Cracked Black Pepper
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(Serves about 8)
1 lb dry great northern beans (or small white beans or navy beans) soaked overnight in water and drained of excess
5 cups chicken stock (*see note below)
1 small onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, pressed through garlic press
• Cracked black pepper
¾ cup ketchup
¾ cup BBQ sauce
1 ½ tablespoons tomato paste
• Pinch or two ground cumin
• Pinch or two smoked paprika
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon molasses
• Olive oil
12 oz apple smoked bacon, crisped and chopped
2-3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons bourbon
(*Start with the 5 cups of chicken stock; as the beans cook, you may need to add additional water in small increments if the beans are still a bit hard but are absorbing the liquid.)
-Add the soaked beans to a large pot; next, add in the chicken stock, the diced onion, the garlic, a few generous pinches of salt and of cracked black pepper, the ketchup, BBQ sauce, tomato paste, ground cumin and paprika, plus the brown sugar, molasses and a generous drizzle of olive oil, and stir the ingredients together; place the pot over high heat, uncovered, and once the contents begin to boil, reduce the heat to medium-low or low, partially cover with a lid, and simmer the beans for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally (you may need to add the additional water during the latter part of the cooking process once the beans begin to absorb the liquid), or until the beans are tender and the sauce is rich and thick.
-Once the beans are tender, turn off the heat; add in the crisped and chopped bacon, the maple syrup and the bourbon, and stir to incorporate; finally, check your seasoning to make sure that there is enough salty/sweet flavor, and adjust if necessary; serve the beans warm alongside your favorite grilled meats, hot dogs or other favorite BBQ items.