One For The Table: Cowboy Beans
Cowboy Beans

This recipe for cowboy beans is based on Rick Bayless' cowboy beans. The 'wow' factor here comes in the form of bacon and sambal.

Growing up in Texas in a Mexican-American family, I could count on rice and beans with every meal. I'm not even being satirical -- there were rice and beans with literally every meal. This worked great if enchiladas were on the menu, but not so swell when we ventured into other cuisines. Hamburgers and Rice and Beans didn't make me very happy, neither did Salmon Patties and Rice and Beans, Spaghetti with Rice and Beans or Pot Roast with Rice And Beans. It took me many years to understand that rice and beans were an inexpensive way to extend a meal and that it was an extremely nutritious way to feed a group of people. It also took me many years to get past my disdain of mixing Mexican with something-not-quite-matching.

My, how things change. These days I'm happy making a meal out of a big bowl of beans, some pico de gallo and a good corn tortilla (make that about five). There is satisfaction in its simplicity, a concept all but lost on my ever-loving husband. You see, he needs a slightly higher "wow" factor than a standard bowl of rice and beans could ever deliver. When he's gone working out of town, I'm happy with the basics; when he's home, he's on bean duty. And that's just fine with me.

His preferred recipe for beans is based on Rick Bayless' cowboy beans. The "wow" factor here comes in the form of bacon and sambal, a chili-based condiment popular in Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. As I type those two words again -- bacon and sambal -- I can almost see the clouds part and little finches land on my shoulder while fawns sit at my feet. I can suddenly see why elevating this dish makes it special, cholesterol be damned.

At some point, I decided to toss a handful of fresh spinach into my bowl, letting the heat of the beans wilt the leaves as a sort of offering to the raw gods. It also took a slight Southern slant this way and, considering I grew up on the gulf coast of Texas, it seemed wholly appropriate.

This Cowboy Beans recipe is done in two parts.

First you cook the beans. When they're done you add the good stuff: bacon, onions, tomatoes, sambal and then all the garnish. You could easily omit the bacon for a big, happy pot of vegetarian beans.

Cowboy Beans Recipe

    Prep Time: 30 minutes

    Cook time: 2 Hours 30 minutes

    Yield: Serves 4

Cowboy Beans Recipe Ingredients


    1 pound dry pinto beans

    12 cups of water

    1/2 onion, chopped

    1/2 teaspoon cumin

    1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

    Salt and freshly cracked pepper

    The "good stuff":

    4 slices of bacon

    1/2 onion, minced

    1 tablespoon canola oil

    1 tablespoon sambal (see note)

    2 cloves garlic, chopped

    1/2 teaspoon cumin

    1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

    2 (15-ounce) cans of fire-roasted tomatoes, chopped with juice


    A handful of baby spinach (bagged or bunched)

    Queso fresco (see note)

    Chopped cilantro

    Sour cream

Cowboy Beans Recipe Instructions

    Sort the beans and then wash.

    Put all the ingredients into the pot and bring to a boil over high heat.

    Once it begins to boil reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 to 2 1/2 hours at a low, gentile boil.

    Check for the doneness of the beans at about 2 hours.

    Chop bacon into small pieces and cook in a 4- to 6-quart pot until crisp and brown.

    Once brown, remove the bacon from the pot and fry the minced onion in the bacon renderings.

    Add a little canola oil if needed.

    Once the onions start to brown around the edges, 3 minutes or so, add sambal, garlic and spices, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

    Return the bacon to the pan along with both cans of tomatoes and cook over medium high heat for 5 to 10 minutes to reduce slightly. Add the pinto beans and broth, taste for seasoning and add salt if needed.

    This Cowboy Beans Recipe is meant to be more of a soupy bean dish, so add water if necessary.

    To serve: place a few spinach leaves in the bottom of a bowl and ladle beans and broth on top. Garnish the Cowboy Beans with chopped cilantro, a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle of queso fresco.

You can find sambal in Asian markets, queso fresco in Latin markets, and both of them at a lot of well-stocked supermarkets.

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Rick Bayless' Classic Cowboy Beans Recipe

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