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. Yes, 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.
- 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
1 Put the beans into a large pot and add enough water to cover by an inch. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes while you prepare the onions, then drain.
2 Heat the bacon fat and the vegetable oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed lidded pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for 3 minutes, stirring often, until translucent and just beginning to brown. Add the garlic and sauté another 1-2 minutes.
3 Add the drained beans into the pot with the onions. Add the ham hock, the water, a little salt, and the coffee. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cook this way for 40-50 minutes or longer. (Some beans may take longer to cook, especially if they are older.) The beans should be edible, but still just a little firm (not mushy soft).
4 Add the barbecue sauce and stir to combine. Cover and simmer on low heat until the meat from the ham hock begins to separate from the bone, up to 2 hours. Check on everything from time to time. If the beans begin to break down, pull the ham hock and strip the meat from the bone. The acid from the barbecue sauce should help the beans hold their shape. Add salt to taste. Add pickled jalapeños or some Tabasco to taste for some heat.
Serve with a little grated cheese and chopped red onion on top.