October 17, 2021

A la Carte: Cowboy Beans … a Sure-Fire Favorite

Lee White

I have had the requisite failures in the kitchen, and they may have been legion, but the one I remember happened decades ago and it had to do with baked beans.

We lived in our first old house in Leicester, Mass. It had massive stone kitchen fireplaces, this one with a beehive oven. That failure was on a day we invited friends for dinner.

It was a cold winter, and we had taken a few classes on hearth cooking. I decided the dessert would be a bread pudding, but I would make it in the regular oven. I knew if a meal was mediocre, dessert should be a sure-fire home run, and a dessert made with buttered bread, lots of eggs and cream, a few shots of bourbon and a caramel sauce would be one.

Good thing that dessert was terrific for I made baked beans from scratch.

I’d read lots of recipes, some from a beehive oven, others bubbling on a cast-iron pot hanging from the side of the hot over, a third right on the coals and the lid topped with more hot coals. I let the beans soak overnight in water. I used all the right ingredients with the beans: pieces of fat, brown sugar, ketchup, onions, some mustard. I let it hold on the coals for hours. We had hot dogs with the beans.

The kitchen was redolent with all the right smells.

How were the beans? Like eating buckshot, but much bigger pieces of buckshot. As friends worried about the fillings in their teeth, they smiled, kindly, but after a few bites, they ate the hot dogs.

The bread pudding was wonderful.

There had been plenty of beer and wine. 

I no longer make from-scratch baked beans. Today I just doctor canned beans. Sometimes I just doctor Bush Beans Original beans. They rarely need much doctoring. But here is a recipe that would work every time … and no need to worry about your fillings!

Cowboy Beans

From Savory magazine by Stop & Shop, June, 2021 (free from the supermarket)
Yield: serves 8

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped (I always use a sweet onion)
2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound 90 percent lean ground beef (85 percent is fine, too)
2 15.5 ounce cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 15.5 ounce can reduced-sodium beans, drained and rinsed
¼ cup smoky barbecue sauce
½ cup strongly ground coffee
2 tablespoon spicy brown mustard

In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil on medium-high. Add onion and jalapenos and cook 5 to 6 minutes, until tender, stirring often.

Add garlic; cook 2 minutes, stirring.

Add ground beef and season with salt and pepper. Cook until browned, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring and breaking up beef with oven.

To Dutch oven, add beans, barbecue sauce and coffee. Stir to combine.

Heat to a boil on high and then reduce to a simmer. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, until thickened and beef is cooked through, stirring occasionally.

Stir in mustard. Season with salt and pepper.