Cooked low and slow, cowboy beans are a perfect picnic partner

Baked beans, usually served alongside our hamburgers and hot dogs on the backyard grill, are usually an unforgettable experience. At their best, the beans are tender and deeply aromatic, with a noticeable smokiness and hint of brown sugar. At their worst, they’re mushy and so incredibly sweet that no other flavors can shine.

In my experience, baked beans often fall into the latter category, usually because it starts with canned beans, which are usually already quite bland and contain an impressive amount of sugar. Then they’re often topped with more sugar, along with ketchup and/or barbecue sauce, and baked until the beans lose all their texture and become almost indistinguishable from the sauce.

However, when you start with dry beans and add ingredients that bring more to the party than a heavy hit of fructose, the dish can be a delicious revelation, with beans that hold their shape and have a delicious bite and just the right amount of sweetness and spiciness.

Most of us associate baked beans with New England, but the Southwest has its own history with the dish in the form of cowboy beans.

Like the classic New England variety, there are a million versions of cowboy baked beans. Some are more like a main dish topped with grilled or minced meat. Others include fresh or dried chilies. More often than not, a splash of barbecue sauce is added, along with a surprise ingredient – coffee.

The coffee has a slightly bitter note that offsets the sweetness and offers the necessary depth of flavor.

In this week’s recipe, Slow Roasted Cowboy Beans, I also include a kick of smokiness in the form of bacon, chipotle chiles, and smoked paprika, which for me connects the dish to its campfire origins and brings another layer of complexity.

All of these ingredients are brought together in a dutch oven and slowly baked, giving everything the time and heat it needs to turn into an unforgettably delicious side dish for any summer occasion.

Slow Roasted Cowboy Beans

Serves 8 to 10.

Perfect for a backyard barbecue, picnic, or weekend at the cabin, these smoky, slightly sweet beans get their kick from a combination of chili peppers, spices, barbecue sauce, and a shot of strong coffee. This recipe must be prepared in advance. By Meredith Deeds.

• 1 lb dried pinto or navy beans, washed and cleaned of any debris

• 4 slices of bacon, finely chopped

• 1 medium onion, minced

• 3 medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped

• 1 tbsp. Chili powder

• 1 tsp. smoked red pepper

• 5 c. water

• 1 1/2 c. strong black coffee

• 1 chipotle chili in adobo sauce, finely chopped

• 1/3 c. packed brown sugar

• 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard

• 1/3 tsp. barbecue sauce

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Place the beans in a large bowl and pour in enough water to cover the beans by 2 inches. Leave to soak overnight. Alternatively, place beans and 8 cups of water in a large pot. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let beans sit for 1 hour. Drain the beans.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring often, until it begins to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the onion and continue to cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, about 6 to 8 minutes more. Add garlic, chili powder, and smoked paprika and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute (be careful not to burn the spices). Add the drained beans, water and coffee. Bring to a boil. Add brown sugar, mustard, barbecue sauce and 2 teaspoons salt. Return to the boil, cover the pot and transfer to the oven.

Cook, covered, until beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid thickens to desired consistency, 1 to 1 1/2 hours more. Remove from the oven and season to taste with salt and pepper. (The beans can be made and refrigerated up to 4 days in advance.)

Meredith Deeds is a cookbook and food writer from Edina. Contact her at meredithdeeds@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.