Nothing like a big ol' pot of great beans, doctored, that is. This is hearty bean dish, meaty enough for supper, but more often served as a side at potlucks. In my history, these beans are called "Calico Beans" or some times, "Cowboy Beans". Just this week I learned that they are also called "Roosevelt Beans" and are so famous at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming (which I visited for the very first time yesterday!) that the park kitchens print out the recipe as a souvenir for park visitors!
But now I've given them another name, Alanna's Famous Cowboy Beans. That’s because this is one of my most-requested and most-anticipated recipes! I send it along to elk camp, to deer camp and serve from extra-large cast iron Dutch ovens for outdoor parties. Men especially love the beans and no kidding, beg me to send the recipe to their wives.
"... they were very good." ~ Gary
During my vegetarian years, many Midwestern dishes confounded me. Why was meat present when none was needed? At Thanksgiving one year, save dessert, every single dish, even the broccoli salad, had bits of meat.
It’s taken 11 years of eating meat again, one book and one elk to finally, I think, answer the question.
THE BOOK Food for a Younger Land is portrait of American food culture during the American Depression from WPA writers. It’s a state-by-state uneven although occasionally fascinating book, better to get from the library, say, than to purchase. The Kansas essay described how beef was ever-present.
Aha Moment! Of course: if we live near the sea, we set traps for lobster and crab; if we live on lakes and streams, we throw in a line for walleye and trout; if we live in a place where plants grow into jungles, we learn to worship lettuce and citrus; if we live in the plains where cattle graze, we cook beef.
Or at least we used to eat like this, when a 100-Mile Diet was inconceivable because a 100-Yard Diet was the norm.
THE ELK Last fall, I was shocked at how few coolers it took to carry home a whole Missouri farm-raised elk. Steaks and roasts? A few, but plenty. Elk tenderloin? Exactly two. Stew meat? Sure. Mostly? Pound after pound after pound of ground elk meat.
Aha Moment! Of course: if we have an abundance of ground meat, we tuck it into every dish we can. It’s the thrifty, resourceful and frugal way to feed a family.
Calico Beans? Who gives recipes their names and why do they stick? Tis a puzzle. What’s not a puzzle is that these doctored baked beans are a breeze to throw together and a sure-fire hit at your next barbecue, neighborhood potluck or church supper.
This recipe has been a favorite for so long, taken from a dog-eared Iowa church cookbook with a dozen similar variations, many with more bacon and ground meat, also more sugar. Over the years, I’ve dropped most of the sugar and on occasion, even throw in another can or two of beans, different kinds to live up to the ‘calico’ name.
CALICO BEANS RECIPE
Time to table: 90 minutes
Makes 6 cups
- 1/2 pound bacon, cut into small pieces
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 pound ground meat (beef, elk or turkey)
- 1/4 cup (70g) ketchup
- 1/4 cup (65g) barbecue sauce or steak sauce
- 1/4 cup (50g) brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons mustard (any old ballpark mustard will do)
- 2 tablespoons molasses (mild or blackstrap, either one)
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 16 ounces canned pork & beans
- 16 ounces canned kidney beans
- 16 ounces canned butter beans
Heat oven to 350F/175C.
COOK THE BACON In a large skillet or Dutch oven, cook the bacon pieces until crisp. Lift out the bacon onto paper towels to drain. Pour off all but a tablespoon of the bacon fat.
COOK THE ONIONS Add the onions, stirring to coat with fat. Deglaze the pan with water, then let the onions cook until golden. Lift the onions out to a bowl large enough to mix everything together.
COOK THE MEAT Add the ground meat and cook on medium high, breaking the meat into chunks at first, then letting it cook without stirring for several minutes, enough so that it chars slightly, creating a crust. When the meat is nearly cooked, if needed, drain off any excess fat.
COMBINE Meanwhile, assemble the remaining ingredients in the bowl with the onions. Stir in the cooked bacon and ground meat. Transfer to a casserole dish. If making ahead, cover and refrigerate until ready to bake. Let warm to room temperature before baking.
BAKE Bake for 1 hour either covered (will stay quite wet and soupy) or uncovered (will form a nice crust on top).
Good served hot or at room temperature.
COOKING for a CROWD This is a real crowd favorite! To cook ahead, cook and freeze the meat mixture. For four batches, I cook two batches each in side-by-side Dutch ovens, cooking the bacon, meat and onions separately. Collect these in a bowl, stir in everything else except the beans. Just before serving, combine the meat mixture and beans and bake over an open fire in a huge cast iron Dutch oven if need be, preferably next to a mountain stream, with a cool breeze whistling through the fir trees. Feed to hungry hunters with hot cornbread!
USING A SLOW COOKER It’s important to actually “cook” this dish, not just mix it and rewarm. So if you use a slow cooker, let it cook for several hours, not just rewarm.
TO DRAIN OR NOT TO DRAIN The last time I made this, I wondered about draining the beans. I take great care with detail when writing recipes, I’m just sure I’d have mentioned draining the beans if I’d done this before. So no, don’t drain the beans! But if you like, do drain the beans, I've now done it that way too.
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