Cowboy beans, Will

A true story follows. Shortly before “The Lockdown” was imposed, I came into possession of two newborn baby girls. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, but the timing was in some regards unfortunate. This is not a story of what they eat, that being a somewhat one dimensional business at the moment. It is, however, a story of what happened in one merciful hiatus in the interminable feeding and changing schedule. It happened only the other day and what follows is only moderately edited from the WhatsApp conversation.

A brief background. My dear friend J, most adventurous of souls, dedicated guardian of the food preservation and enhancement customs of at least three countries, polyglot and all-round good egg, messaged asking after the recipe for a dish I had mentioned in passing, loosely described as Cowboy Beans. Well, Cowboy Beans are more about the feeling than the ingredients. When they lean away from the open range and more towards the urban, they become Boston Baked Beans. But J had on hand a quantity of fresh borlotti – toothsome enough to stand up to the smoke from a buffalo chip fire – and so I adopted an Eastwoodian squint, adjusted my poncho and wrote back…

Like the Man with No Name, this is a recipe without prescriptive ingredients. There are, however, three key elements: sweet, sour, smoke. The Good the Bad and the Ugly, if you will. (I’ll leave Clint alone now). One way to achieve this:

If you can, start with smoked pork fat of some kind (bacon grease? Actual bacon rendered in the pan?). J didn’t have this, but did have goose fat (French preserving!). A generous quantity of simple vegetable oil can be made to work also. Warm the fat in advance and add a diced onion (red, for preference) and three cloves of rough crushed garlic. Melt these slowly to translucency to develop sweetness…

Here, J interjects “no red onion but some nice shallots – probably ok?” By all means and any, I reply (wishing once again that I had access to J’s grocer). 
Returning to the business at hand: whilst the onion and garlic melt, gather as many of the following as you can: bay leaves (2), black pepper (coarsely ground), a chicken or vegetable stock cube OR a teaspoon or so of salt, a shot of bourbon, dark rum or cognac OR half a glass of wine, some tomato paste, some treacle (“mo-lass-es”) or dark brown sugar, about a wineglass of water and some vinegar (dark malt is best, but anything (other than balsamic or infused vinegars) should work). You need also, of course, beans. The quantities given assume one normal tin of cooked beans in water, or the equivalent amount of freshly podded beans (as with J’s borlotti), or the equivalent amount of dried beans that have already been soaked and cooked to tenderness. Cannelini, borlotti, kidney, black, butter beans all work. Something with a little bite but ultimately tender. Flageolet are too soft in my opinion. 

The end result should be a thick dark sauce from which the occasional disintegrating bean protrudes in the manner of dorsal ridges on an alligator in a mudhole.  Eat on their own, on toast, with an alligator (or pork) steak, with the lonesome prairie to your back etc. 

The attached photos are from J’s live progress updates as she followed along. Her notes: “small variations from your instructions, but really not much at all and purely due to what I had “sous la main”, as it were…- Shallots- Brandy (in case that might make it sweeter, I added a drop more pepper and vinegar)- Black treacle (not sure that’s the treacle you meant but I thought better than sugar)…as we say in Spanish – esta para chuparse los dedos”
Well, I’ll take the compliment and – I think – appoint J as language tutor to the girls in due course…”

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