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July 30, 2007

Cowboy Caviar: Roped from the Heft of Real Beans


There are two kinds of dip in the world – the kind with flat surfaces and the kind that comes in chunks. Some dips try to play the middle ground, hoping they will adopt fans of both kinds, but you can generally disregard these foods as the ultimate poseurs, more concerned with popularity than with making a statement.


Dips with flat surfaces . . . we know these foods. They wish to come across as laconic, even serene. They want to make a statement with their actions, and prefer a subdued appearance. Dips that come in chunks, however, want to project power. You brace yourself upon dipping a chip into it, for you know that you’re in for a ride.


None are better at this, perhaps, than the dip based on whole beans. Beans themselves are usually a humble, work-a-day kind of food that prefer to go about their business unmolested rather than draw attention to themselves. But, like the hero of any good Western film, once riled, these quiet giants turn dangerous. Perhaps there is no dish that better personifies this than cowboy caviar.


You start, naturally, with the bean. It is the base, and provides the heft. Any bean will do, but black beans or black-eyed peas are the best, especially when coming from the can, which brings a sense of briny substance to the mix.


Rinse two cans worth and dump them into a bowl. Take a look at them. If it were a person, it would be wearing a cowboy hat, and it would push it back on its collective head like it was about to light a cigarette and drink a cup of coffee at the end of a hard day of ropin’, ridin’ and yellin’ “Git along little doggie!”


Atop the beans, add a quarter cup of chopped red onion. Stir it in. The bean and the onion are long-time friends, and if you put your ear close to where the two are mixed, you might hear one say to the other, “Well, howdy, pardner. Been a long time.” To which the response would be, “Yup.”


Add to them two chopped jalapeno peppers, or perhaps even three, if your tastes run into the hot and spicy. Stir them together, and then add four cloves of minced garlic and also a chopped half red pepper.


There is now, in your bowl, a growing belief that you are about to send your little cowpokes out to Dodge City to wrangle themselves some new calves. To you and me, that is to say that your beans think they are about to be turned into some kind of chili. Look again at your ingredients – beans, onion, hot pepper, red pepper and garlic. Add tomatoes and ground chuck, and you’re well on your way to chili.


But, here is where we divert from the road to Dodge City and instead head to Abilene. Add four tablespoons each of extra virgin olive oil and red cider vinegar, and stir together. Give another listen, and you’re apt to hear, “Hey, what’s goin’ on here?” What’s goin’ on here, pardner, is your going into the frig until tomorrow.


This might prompt some yelling and fussing, but don’t bother listening to it. Salt your dip, and dust it heavily with fresh cracked pepper, give it all one last mix and stash it in the refrigerator overnight so the flavors have a chance to meld together.


The next morning, your dip will have forgotten the unfortunate surprise you sprung on it the night before. It genuinely wanted to hit Dodge City. Dip is highly forgiving that way.


You will want to stir everything together one more time, to get the oil and vinegar that has settled in the bottom overnight, and to spread out the associated flavors throughout. If you have used black beans for this, it will indeed look very much like the kind of caviar a cowboy might eat, not the little black balls of fish eggs, but big and meaty – the kind of thing that might follow a gully washer or come before a blazing Western sunset. If you have used black-eyed peas, it will look not like that, but the taste will be even earthier, a pickup in the unsettled territory of flavor where its looks have fallen short.


Serve, naturally, with tortilla chips, which are just about the only chips around capable of holding their own with this.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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