Let’s be frank. If you are of a certain age in this country, and you don’t live on a ranch where there are, say, actual cowboys, if I mention the words “cowboy beans” to you, what comes to mind?
Uh huh. You too? Yep, can’t escape it. The cowboy bean scene in Blazing Saddles.
I only watched that movie once and even I remember that scene. (Of course at the time I would never admit to my scatologically obsessed brothers that I found it remotely funny, lest it encouraged them to be even more obnoxious.)
Humorous cultural references aside, cowboy beans are actually good, and an excellent accompaniment to summer barbecues.
There are probably as many versions of cowboy beans as there are barbecue cooks. What defines this version, besides the beans, is a sweet barbecue sauce, smoked meat, and coffee.
It is the secret ingredient in many a chili recipe. Legend has it that back in the day, cowboys added leftover coffee to their pot of beans because fresh water was not so easy to come by – a cowboy version of waste not, want not.
Coffee adds a depth of flavor and a slight bitterness that keeps the sweet-spicy of the barbecue sauce in line.
For the smoked meat, bacon works, in this version we use a smoked ham hock. Traditionally, you’d use the odd, slightly burnt ends of Texas barbecue brisket or tri-tip.
The key is to add a smoky flavor from a meat that can handle being cooked for a long time.
As for the beans, we used pinto beans, but you could easily use red kidney beans, or even black beans. Want to make your beans from scratch? Here’s how to make them on the stovetop or in a pressure cooker.
- 2 cups dried pinto beans
- 1 Tbsp bacon fat (optional)
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil (if not using the bacon fat, use 2 Tbsp vegetable oil)
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 5 minced garlic cloves
- 1 smoked ham hock or ham shank
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups black coffee
- 1 1/2 cups tomato-based barbecue sauce
- 1/4 cup chopped pickled jalapeños (optional)
- Grated Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese for garnish (optional)
- 1/4 cup chopped red onion for garnish (optional)
- Salt to taste