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It’s time to rustle up some Cowboy Caviar

Bean salad easy, versatile, perfect for summer

By KATIE WORKMAN, Associated Press
Published: July 10, 2024, 6:02am
3 Photos
This bean salad, known as Cowboy Caviar, is a protein-packed addition to any summer cookout. (Cheyenne M.
This bean salad, known as Cowboy Caviar, is a protein-packed addition to any summer cookout. (Cheyenne M. Cohen) Photo Gallery

If you’re looking for a bean salad with substance that can serve as a dip, a condiment, a side dish or even a vegetarian entrée, then you must make Cowboy Caviar a part of your summer cookout repertoire. Also called Texas Caviar, this protein-packed salad is amazing, and so very versatile.

It has its origin in Texas, hence the alternate name. This salad was invented in 1940 by Chef Helen Corbitt, who was later to head up the culinary world at Neiman Marcus in Dallas. The tongue-in-cheek name Texas Caviar stuck, obviously a nod to the amusing disconnect of a bean salad being compared to fancy, pricey fish roe. Since then, it’s become more commonly known as Cowboy Caviar and very popular throughout the Southwest and all of the country.

This bean, corn and vegetable salad is made with a simple vinaigrette-type dressing usually spiked with lime juice and some sort of hot chili pepper. It’s got those great Southwestern/Tex-Mex flavors, so it goes well with any kind of meal in that arena, not to mention pretty much any grilling or barbecue menu. You can enjoy it as a salad, as a salsa, or — as its most popularly served — as a dip for crunchy tortilla chips.

Some cooks make their cowboy or Texas caviar with black beans, some with black-eyed peas, some with a combo. After that, the most common ingredients are tomatoes, jalapeno or other chile peppers, onions, bell peppers and corn. I also like to add diced avocado, but that’s best folded in right before serving so it doesn’t turn brown and get too mushy. Minced garlic and cilantro leaves are other popular add-ins.

Sylvia Casares (aka The Enchilada Queen), chef and owner of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen in Houston, grew up on the border of Texas and Mexico and says of the salad, “it’s been around forever.” She calls it Texas Caviar (which makes sense), but says that she hears it called Cowboy Caviar just as often. She explains that in Texas it is most often served as a salad or a “party snack,” which I think is the perfect way to describe this vegetable medley.

Casares loves it for its decisively healthy profile, its visual appeal and its simplicity: “Canned this and canned that, chop up a little of this, a little of that, add dressing — that’s it!” She uses a combo of black-eyed peas and black beans, makes sure to dice the vegetables consistently, and rinses her diced tomatoes before adding them as she doesn’t want any juice or seeds mucking up her presentation. She does keep the seeds in the jalapeno pepper she includes, because she likes the kick, but mentions that the jalapeno should be very finely minced so you don’t get any surprisingly big chunks of hot pepper. Casares also adds avocado to hers, (which I found validating), and sometimes she adds mango as well: “I love the little bit of sweetness it brings to the salad.”

Dean Fearing, chef/owner of Fearing’s Restaurant in Dallas, says that he rotates this classic recipe onto the menu. “I might serve it with mesquite grilled seabass with some Navajo fry bread,” Fearing says. He says he thinks of it especially in the summertime, as it’s a dish served at room temperature.

Fearing makes his Texas Caviar “East Texas Style,” with only black-eyed peas. He says the salad is best made ahead of time, so that it can marinate in the vinaigrette. He likes using a combo of vinegar and citrus juice, as do I. “The acidity in the dressing starts to break it all down, and allows it to come together” with the vegetables soaking up the flavors, Fearing explains. He suggests tossing it a few times before serving to let the flavors to really meld. His surprise ingredient: green olives, though he really liked Casares’ mango option.

Cowboy Caviar has so much going for it. It’s fast, simple to throw together, cheap, crowd-pleasing, protein- and fiber-packed, colorful, buffet stable, easily multipliable and usually gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian. These are pretty great characteristics!

Try serving this with grilled steaks, such as ribeyes or New York strip steaks — New York meets Texas! It’s also terrific with everything from a simple grilled chicken breast or piece of grilled swordfish, and leftovers piled onto a bowl of quinoa to make a protein-packed vegetarian grain meal. Also try it with tacos, anything from shredded chicken tacos to skirt steak tacos.

Cowboy Caviar

This is very easy to make ahead, though you should make sure you add the avocado just before serving. You can refrigerate it without the avocado for up to two days.

Make sure to chop all of the ingredients into very small pieces; you want to be able to get a little of everything on one tortilla chip or forkful.

2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste)

2 jalapenos, finely minced (seeded or not)

1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans (drained and rinsed)

1 (15.5-ounce) can black-eyed peas (drained and rinsed)

2 cups canned or cooked corn kernels

1 cup diced red or yellow onions

1 large tomato, seeded and diced

3 bell peppers, cored, seeded and diced (use red, yellow, orange, or a combination)

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

2 Haas avocados (diced)

Make the dressing: In a small container, combine the lemon or lime juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper and jalapeno.

Make the salad: In a large bowl, combine the beans, corn, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapenos and cilantro. Shake up the dressing, pour it over the salad and toss to combine.

If you want to serve it right away, gently mix in the avocado. If you have time, this salad is better if you make it a day ahead, refrigerate it, toss it a few times over the marinating time, and then just add the avocado right before serving.

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