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Heirloom beans

(post, Emily Horton)

I once knew a cook who called herself “The Bean Queen.” I admired her diligence: Every week, she cooked up a batch of dried beans and built her meals around them. But I could never find the inspiration to cook beans myself on a regular basis. 

A few years ago, however, I discovered heirloom beans — and any ambivalence I had about legume cookery vanished.

Heirloom beans — distinctive varieties that have been saved and cultivated for generations — are easily interchangeable with conventional varieties. Baked into a simple bean gratin or worked into a bowl of pasta e fagioli, their taste and texture can be a revelation in comparison with ordinary dried beans. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A variety of dried beans."]

Other heirloom varieties seem destined for particular uses. The ivory, pebble-sized Hutterite soup beans, for instance, purée into a beautifully creamy, nutty soup. Scarlet-hued Hidatsa reds just scream for festivity; they’re wonderful scooped into tacos or paired with rice and chunky guacamole.

Good Mother Stallards, mottled with fuchsia, are positively meaty, with a wonderful, rich flavor that makes an equally good pot liquor. I love to use them in a simple bean salad, brightened with a superior olive oil and flecked with bits of herbs and midsummer tomato. 

If the beans themselves don’t inspire dinner, recipes like Drunken Beans or Madeira Beans with Garam Masala can send me running into the kitchen to fetch a bean pot.

Though heirloom beans are increasingly available in higher-end grocery stores, I prefer to order them from specialty retailers. Rancho Gordo and Seed Savers Exchange in particular stock wide selections of dried beans with a high rate of turnover, so you’re guaranteed fresh beans that cook up beautifully. (Kelly Myers also has tips for bean cookery in her article "I agree with McGee.") They’re a little pricier than standard varieties, but I tend to think their nuanced taste and unique genetic heritage are reward enough.

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