Fifteen years ago, I was on my way to the Austin airport to catch a flight to New York City when the friend I’d be staying with called and said that we’d be attending a dance performance that evening in the East Village. Admission was free, she said, but the organizers requested a donation of two canned goods for a food pantry. So before walking out the door, I grabbed a couple of Ranch Style Beans as my offering.
Ranch Style Beans are a Texan staple and they’ve been satisfying people since 1872 with their take on classic chuck-wagon fare. It’s a distinctive flavor—the beans aren’t fiery but they do have a depth and brightness that can be very addictive. When I lived in Texas, we ate them often—either topped with cheese and rice, as a base to bean salad, alongside enchiladas or even in my mom’s King Ranch casserole.
But beyond the deliciousness and versatility of Ranch Style Beans, there’s the appeal of that iconic black can with its distinctive Western-style font and illustration of a man with his tongue sticking out stating the beans are Appetite Pleasin’. (Of course, the latter is a recent development for if you’re as old as I am, you remember when the beans were Husband Pleasin’.) I love that can and I’ve read that if Andy Warhol had been a Texan he would have painted Ranch Style Beans cans instead of Campbell’s Soup cans. I believe it.
In the 15 years since I’ve moved to New York City, I’ve seen this city become more hospitable to fellow homesick Texans. We now have a Texan-style barbecue joint selling Kreuz sausages and excellent brisket; you can find Ro-Tel tomatoes at several grocery stores; dried and canned chiles are a common staple; and Austin-based Whole Foods is now here selling decent brands of tortillas, chips and salsas. But despite the advances this city’s made, there’s still one thing missing: my beloved Ranch Style Beans.
To help with the drought, every time I go home I load up on a few cans. And my mom has even been known to put them in my Christmas stocking, which is always a very welcome gift. But when I recently came to my last can with no trip home in my immediate future, I realized that I should just figure out how to make these beans on my own.
The recipe is a closely guarded secret, so I was flummoxed on what to do. And then I read one fan’s observation that Ranch Style Beans are simply pintos swimming in a chili gravy. At last, it all made sense! I decided I’d cook a pot of pintos in a chili gravy and see what happened. When making my chile gravy, I used the ingredient list on the back of my remaining can as my guide. Sure, there were some vague terms, such as “spices” and “natural flavor,” but the basic building blocks were in the open: tomatoes, chile peppers, paprika, vinager and beef fat. And of course, pinto beans.
Even though the can didn’t specify what type of chile, I went with anchos as they’re the base of your common chili powder. I rehydrated the anchos and then blended them with some tomatoes, vinegar, cumin and paprika. And instead of beef fat, I opted to use beef broth instead.
While the beans cooked, the house smelled gorgeous and the broth tasted right. But it wasn’t until after a few hours when I ladled out a bowl that I realized that this bowl of beans far exceeded my expectations. I threw in some sour cream, warmed up a flour tortilla and had a most satisfying meal. And even though it’s been 15 years since I gave away those beans, I’ve often wondered if the New Yorker who ended up with them enjoyed them. I hope that they did.
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Ranch style beans
- 1 pound dried pinto beans
- 6 ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes and their juices
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 6 cups beef broth
- Soak the beans covered in water—either overnight or the quick soak method in which you place the beans in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, cover and remove from heat and let sit for 1 hour.
- Drain the soaked beans.
In a cast-iron skillet heated up to medium high, cook the anchos on each side for a couple of minutes (or until they start to bubble and pop), turn off the heat and fill the skillet with warm water. Let them sit until soft and rehydrated, about half an hour.
In the pot you’ll be cooking your beans, heat up a teaspoon of canola oil and cook the onions for 5 minutes on medium. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Throw the cooked onions and garlic in a blender and add the tomatoes, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, paprika, cumin, oregano, water, hydrated ancho chiles, and salt. Puree until smooth. Set aside.
Add the pinto beans and beef broth to the pot. On high, bring the pot to a boil and then cover; turn the heat down to low and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
At this time, stir in the reserved chile puree and then continue to cook the beans uncovered for another hour or until tender and the sauce has reduced. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm.
If you can’t find dried ancho chiles, you can substitute either ancho chile powder or regular chili powder. I’d use 1/4 of a cup. These are not fiery beans, but if you want a bit more heat I’d throw in a bit of cayenne. And I always add a pinch of baking soda to my soaking beans to help with digestion issues. You may do the same.