Heirloom Beans

An exciting development in California has been the growth of the “heirloom bean” industry. Look beyond the standard grocery store, and you will find you are no longer limited to pinto beans, kidney beans, white navy beans, lentils and split peas. Farmers markets, specialty food stores and online retailers now offer dozens of varieties of beans, with unique tastes and flavor characteristics that bring real excitement to cooking with this humble food. Even Thomas Keller of the world-famous French Laundry restaurant has a special variety of bean he purchases from Rancho Gordo.

While the price of many “heirloom” foods is dear (5 dollar tomatoes, 100 dollar Thanksgiving Turkeys etc.) heirloom beans are an affordable luxury. At 5 dollars or so per pound, they are more expensive than your standard kidney beans, but in terms of overall value for the food dollar they are a bargain. A 5 dollar bag of beans can make a hearty main dish for at least 4 people, with as much protein as 3 ounces of meat for each person. And the protein from beans has a much lower carbon footprint than animal protein as well.

In terms of the labor involved in growing these beans, I can assure you, they are an amazing bargain at this price.  I tried growing some heirloom beans this summer, and after 5 months of tending the trailing vines I ended up with a small handful of beans. They were hard to shell too. Here is what I ended up with:

I am thankful to the passionate farmers who are keeping these rare varieties of beans alive so that we can enjoy them. I am afraid that my bean growing skills might lead these rare varieties to become extinct!

Once you see the beautiful array of colors, and taste the unique flavors, you realize these new heirloom beans are “not your grandmother’s beans”.  The first time I had my current favorite, The Good Mother Stallard Beans, which are available to order online from Ranch Gordo or The Chili Smith,  I was taken aback by the rich meaty flavor and I just had to have more. I wanted to learn more about heirloom beans so I decided to make a trip to the Rancho Gordo store in Napa to see for myself what they had to offer. I had a great little visit, poking around the store, asking the friendly employees lots of questions, looking at the cool bean cooking pots they had, trying to set a limit on how much I should take home. The beans were all so pretty and all so different it was hard to say no to any of them.

I left the store with the following bounty in my bag:

I plan to cook all these beans in a simple manner so that I can truly appreciate the complexities of flavor associated with these different varieties.  Most heirloom beans are so fresh, you do not need to soak them before cooking.  I have also found that because they are so fresh, they tend to have less of the gassy producing indigestible carbohydrates in them. I really have had no problems with bloating and gas with the heirloom bean varieties I have tried. I usually limit the amount of garlic and onions I prepare with the beans and I think that helps as well.

As you can imagine, I was biting at the bit to dig into those Good Mother Stallard beans.

This is what those beauties looked like when I took them out of the bag:

This is my general bean cooking recipe that I plan to use for all of these heirloom bean varieties. Always wash the beans and remove all stones or other grit before using them.

For a small batch for 2 put 1/2 pound of the beans in a pot and cover them well with water. The water should be about 2 inches above the beans. Add 1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 bay leaf, a pinch of sage, 1 clove of garlic thinly sliced and 1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Bring the beans to a boil, then cover them and simmer on the lowest possible heat. Check them every 15 minutes or so, and add more water if necessary. The beans should always be well covered with water. After about an hour or so, begin checking the beans by tasting one to see if the texture is soft. Once they are cooked all the way through, turn off the heat and they are ready to serve.

You can do a quick soak method as an alternative, and this may remove even more of the gas-producing compounds in the beans. Bring them to a boil, then turn off the heat and let them sit for an hour. Pour off that water, add fresh water and the other seasonings and cook them as noted above.

Behold, the unadorned Good Mother Stallard bean in all her glory. A simple food, and simply delicious.

Nutrition tips: Legumes, which include dried beans and peas, are an important component of the traditional healthy Mediterranean diet. A variety of legumes are served simply as a side dish or used  to make spreads such as hummus or white bean puree, added to soups and stews, or served cold in salads. The California Mediterranean diet includes the traditional Mediterranean varieties and uses of legumes, but also includes the varieties of beans and flavors of the New World, including Latin and South America. In these agrarian cultures beans and legumes have served as an inexpensive source of protein, iron, calcium and other vitamins and minerals. Legumes are also an excellent source of soluble fiber, which can lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels, and it is likely this has contributed to the health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet.