Yesterday was the first day of fall, a welcome change despite an unusually beautiful summer. Warm sunny days followed one another in a nearly unbroken succession. It was almost unsettling for at least some New Englanders like me, who, despite loving the sunshine and warm temperatures, began to feel after several weeks of ideal weather that all was not quite right. Humid rainy days that spoil picnics and ruin plans for the beach or, even worse, long, gloomy wet spells that turn the gardens to mush and spawn mosquitos and ticks, are what we have come to expect and have learned to cope with. Another consequence was the drought, which has reached dangerous levels in the region where I live. Perhaps a cooler autumn will bring beneficial rainfall to perk up the plants and help the struggling local farmers.
For me this past summer was difficult and almost unbearably sad for reasons that had nothing to do with the high number of unusually hot days or the media’s relentless warnings about the effects of the prolonged dry spell. During one sultry week in August, I lost both my darling companion after forty-eight years of marriage and the brother with whom I had grown up and shared a past that no one else can know as intimately as we did.
In my grieving, I found it nearly impossible to do the things that usually bring me solace. Reading, gardening, writing, and even seeing loved ones and old friends were at times too hard to even attempt. One familiar activity that proved to be a therapeutic constant, however, was cooking. Not wanting to waste the overripe pears or the drying sausages and cheeses leftover from the food gifts brought by thoughtful neighbors and sent by loving friends, I baked tea bread, poached fruit, and fashioned savory appetizers from an eclectic array of ingredients. I prepared dinners for no one but myself and ate the remains for two or three days running. On those solitary days working in the kitchen with my familiar utensils and trusted cookbooks, I had a purpose that satisfied my returning appetite, filled the freezer, and brought unexpected comfort.
I have no recipes in my file from my husband, who never cooked, or from my brother, who did, but more from improvisation than from printed pages. I do, on the other hand, have recipes that they both heartily enjoyed when I served them at family gatherings. The one that follows comes from a special cousin and is perfect for tailgate parties and other fall get-togethers. You could call the barbecued beans comfort food, because they are rich, mouth-watering, calorie-laden, and could never be confused with health food. The comfort for me comes from thinking of the lovely person who passed the recipe on to me and remembering the smiles of my late husband and brother and of my children whenever they spied the bean casserole on the buffet table.
Lightly brown one pound of lean ground beef and a large chopped onion in a skillet, breaking the meat up into small clumps as the mixture cooks. Drain and place in a large oven-proof casserole. Add the following:
1 can of baked pea beans, 1 can of red kidney beans, 1 can of butter or cannellini beans, 1/3 cup of brown sugar, 1/4 cup of white sugar, 1 tablespoon of spicy brown mustard, 3 tablespoons of molasses, and 1/4 cup of ketchup.
Cover and bake in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for another 15 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before serving right from the casserole dish.
Note: This dish can be made ahead of time and reheated. You may reduce the sugars if you wish, and drain the kidney and butter beans if you prefer a drier casserole.