"Cowboy beans" in vintage cookbooks are often made with baked beans, which are a bit too sweet for me. As a food historian, I'm always fascinated by what people actually ate, and thought this might be a good approximation of what cowboys may have actually eaten. This scratch dish can be a bit soupy, which just means it's perfect for serving over rice or cornbread. To make it even more convenient, you can cook the beans in a crock pot or slow cooker (soak overnight, then drain, add water, spices, salt, and tomato paste) and just add the onion and sausage at the end. —Sewassbe
Rinse and sort through the beans, removing any broken, shriveled, or discolored ones. Cover with water an inch over the beans and soak 6-8 hours or overnight.
In a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot, saute chopped onion in a little bacon fat, and add spices. I usually use at least a teaspoon of smoked Spanish paprika, and just a sprinkling of cayenne OR chili powder (because I'm a wimp when it comes to spicy things), but feel free to add more if you like.
Drain beans and add to the pot. Cover with water by 1 inch. Add tomato paste and stir well to blend. Add 1 teaspoon of salt to flavor the beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook beans until tender (usually at least 1 hour).
Once the beans are tender, add kielbasa and cook until everything is heated through. Taste for salt and add more if necessary.
Serve hot over rice or with cornbread. Top with chopped white onion, a little lemon or lime juice, cider vinegar, sour cream, shredded cheddar, or nothing.