Heirloom Beans: More Than A Hill of Beans

A hill of Rancho Gordo beans.

Until recently, if you’d asked me if I’d be willing to pay $7 or $8 a pound for a bag of dried beans, I’d have said, “Are you kidding? Why pay that much for something you can pick up at the supermarket for less than a dollar? Beans are beans.”

But—as I’ve learned–beans are not just beans.  If you go to the grocery store, you can usually find about a half-dozen kinds of beans for sale.  If you go to a natural food store, maybe you’ll find a dozen.  But there’s a planet full – literally – of different kinds of beans.  According to Wikipedia, over 4000 varieties of beans have been cultivated in the US alone.

Heirloom beans are pure, distinct varieties that have been cultivated for generations and can be regrown from seeds every year.  Like heirloom tomatoes, each heirloom bean has a distinct flavor profile and is suitable for specific recipes.

This fall, I attended a panel on Heirloom Beans at the Chefs Collaborative Summit, where my bean knowledge grew faster than Jack’s beanstalk. (Chef’s Collaborative also has a nice little publication called Cooking with Heirloom Beans that you can download for free from their website.)

Panelist Mike Holleman, director of culinary development at Indian Harvest in Bemidji, Minnesota, passed around a basket of 20-year-old beans for us to look at.  He told us that, technically, the beans were still edible, but since the older a bean is, the longer it takes to cook, you wouldn’t want to use them.

Although maybe some of the chefs in the audience could tell, to be honest, I’d never have known that these beans were practically as old as some of the emails in my Inbox. My advice: Know Your Farmer.  Since you can’t tell how old your beans are just by looking at them, you need to find a reliable supplier whom you can ask.

Since beans are seldom served without lots of other ingredients, I don’t know what most of them taste like. Like coffee and vodka, the best way to learn about beans is to taste them straight up.

I went on an heirloom bean hunt.  While they haven’t made it to most supermarkets, you can find some varieties at natural foods stores and gourmet stores. In addition, you can order them online from companies like Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food in Napa, California.  (If you need instructions, Rancho Gordo has a very funny little video on how to cook beans on their website.)

Christmas Lima Beans that have been soaked overnight.

For my first experiment, I decided to buy a bag of Rancho Gordo’s Christmas Lima Beans at South End Formaggio in Boston. I wanted to try them first, because I like Lima beans and these ones supposedly taste like chestnuts.

Like other kinds of Lima beans, Christmas Lima Beans are flat and oval-shaped.  The beans are ivory-colored, with mottled reddish markings.  Although they did turn chestnut-brown when cooked, their rich, earthy flavor reminded me more of mushrooms than chestnuts.  With the addition of sautéed onions, carrot, fennel, mizuna, and a few herbs, the beans made a delicious stew that even my dinner guests who were not bean-lovers  enjoyed.

Although $6.99 still sounds like a lot for a bag of beans, when you think about it, it’s a lot cheaper than most other forms of protein.  I fed four people and had leftovers for several more meals.  I’d say that amounts to a lot more than a hill of beans.

So, one bean-tasting down, 3,999 varieties to go.

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Can Institutional Food Be Tasty and Healthy?

Meal preparation assembly line

City Fresh Foods staffers assemble Caribbean meals for clients.

Given the low rates that public institutions–such as schools, elder care facilities, and child care centers–are able to pay, is it possible to produce institutional meals that taste good and are good for you? City Fresh Foods founder Glynn Lloyd boldly states that “Bottom line – it doesn’t have to be crap.”

The market for government-subsidized prepared meals tends to be dominated by the big companies like Sodexo and Aramark that produce most of the institutional food served at universities, hospitals, military bases, and the like.  While the big guys are changing some of their practices to use local suppliers and provide healthier foods, these corporations are not going to make fundamental changes to our current food system.

City Fresh logo

City Fresh logo

The Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston recently sponsored a tour of the City Fresh building, which is tucked away in an industrial corner of Roxbury in the former Dancing Deer Bakery factory.  The company prepares 8,000 meals a day, primarily for the “public market”–-publicly-subsidized meals at schools, child care centers, elder care facilities, and other institutions. It’s a highly capitalized, labor-intensive, low-margin business– a far cry from the tiny inner-city catering business that Glynn Lloyd started in 1994.  Today, City Fresh employs 75 people, and 95 percent of them are from the neighborhood.

Glynn and Sheldon Lloyd

City Fresh founder, Glynn Lloyd (l) and his brother, Sheldon Lloyd (r)

“We have to provide a good service,” Glynn Lloyd says, “because our staffers have kids in schools who get our meals. Even my grandmother was getting City Fresh meals.”

While Lloyd confesses that their meals are still far from where they want them to be, City Fresh is trying to make the food as healthy as possible. Diabetes and obesity are rampant in communities of color. “Our kids are dying,” Glynn Lloyd says.  “We need to push the envelope.”

While many of the challenges are financial—how do you deliver a prepared, hot meal for well under $2.00 a person?—there are also more practical issues, like chicken bones, to chew over.  City Fresh tried to serve children fresh chicken, instead of the high-fat, processed chicken nuggets served at most schools, but the children only get 15 minutes to eat.  “Our kids can’t cut the chicken,” the school administrators said, so City Fresh had to resort to the dreaded chicken nuggets.  The City Fresh version is made from whole breast chicken meat, but they are still battered and flash fried.

Machine for bagging bread

City Fresh staffer operates a bread-bagging machine.

City Fresh buys from as many local vendors as possible, which helps keep money circulating in the community.  They get their bread from a local bakery and grass-fed beef from a farmer within 100 miles of their facility every two weeks.  They also buy local produce from their sister company, City Growers, which is trying to turn vacant urban land into sustainable farms.

While I was impressed by City Fresh’s efforts to create tasty, healthy meals on the shoestring budget that our society has allocated for publicly supported institutional meals, what I took away from the tour was that this is a social problem that no one company can solve.  Maybe, just maybe, if we tried subsidizing local food systems instead of industrial agriculture, we could all eat better food.

A “Poached” Pair of Poached Pear Recipes

A pair of pears

This week, I had the opportunity to “poach” a pair of poached pear recipes from two distinguished sources, chef Didi Emmons and Cook’s Illustrated.

Michelle and I made the first poached pear recipe at a cooking class at Haley House, sponsored by the Boston Vegetarian Society and taught by Didi Emmons.  Emmons is the author of two cookbooks, including Vegetarian Planet.  For $39 each, Michelle and I watched a cooking demo and then helped cook a four-course dinner, which our class then sat down to eat.

Poached Pears

Poached Pears in Red Wine with Lemon Grass wait to be chilled

Didi Emmons’ poached pear recipe takes a fairly standard approach.  The pears are halved and cored, and then cooked in a red wine syrup (red wine and sugar) until tender.  Her recipe used lemon grass, which added a lovely tartness to balance the heavy richness of the wine syrup.  She served the pears with soy vanilla ice cream because it was a vegan meal.  The cranberry-red poached pears looked beautiful next to the pale ice cream.

A few days after our cooking class, I decided to make a recipe that I’d saved from a free Cook’s Illustrated email a few weeks ago.  Sadly, the “Caramelized Pears with Blue Cheese and Black Pepper-Caramel Sauce” recipe no longer seems to be available for free on the site, although it only costs $34.95 a year for an online subscription.

Like Emmons’ recipe, the Cook’s Illustrated approach only calls for a handful of ingredients, but it requires much more attention.  The pears are poached and then caramelized in a simple syrup (water and sugar).  You have to watch the pears and the sauce carefully so they don’t burn.

I was attracted to the recipe because it called for salt and roughly crushed black pepper in the caramel sauce. Having recently blogged about salted caramel ice cream from batch ice cream and salted caramel on chocolate cup cakes from The Cupcakory, I was curious to see what black-pepper caramel sauce would taste like.

The final product

Caramelized Pears with Blue Cheese and Black Pepper-Caramel Sauce

Plating the finished dish was like creating a sculpture.  You stand the two halves of each pear up against each other, with a wedge of blue cheese stuffed in between, and then you drizzle the black pepper caramel sauce over it.

The result was a wonderful mixture of sweet, spicy and salty flavors. While Michelle and I enjoyed Didi Emmons’ recipe, we both preferred the caramelized pears with the blue cheese.   But if you can find them, either recipe is well worth “poaching” for a fine ending to a fall or winter meal.

How to (Not) Cook Kale

The kale that I actually enjoyed eating.

I finally get it.  The secret to cooking kale is not to cook it.

I enjoy eating most types of greens, and I cook most of them the same way. I rinse them really well because they can often be gritty, tear off any nasty looking bits, remove any big, tough stems, cut or tear the greens into smallish pieces, and steam them in a small amount of water until they are beginning to soften but are still crunchy.  I drain the greens in a colander.  Then I spray some olive oil cooking spray into a non-stick pan, heat the pan, and sauté the greens for a few minutes.  I season them with salt and pepper, garlic, and something spicy, like chipotle.  It’s a tasty and healthy way to eat greens.

Kale, however, is one of the few greens that I don’t like, and Michelle likes it  even less than I do.  As far as I’m concerned, kale tastes like curly green cardboard, however you cook it.  It’s tough, and it doesn’t have much flavor.

As I reported in my post, Improving Black Women (and everyone else)’s Diets By Any Greens Necessary, author and nutritionist Tracye Lynn McQuirter is full of excitement about eating raw kale.  She swears that her kale salad recipe is the most popular one in her book, By Any Greens Necessary.

When I confessed to having a bad attitude about kale in last week’s post, I got a couple of comments from kale defenders about how great it is.  So I decided it was time to try McQuirter’s recipe.

The recipe is simple, but it calls for a couple of ingredients that you may not have hanging around the house, unless you are already a health nut, in which case you probably don’t need to read this blog.

The vegan equivalent of fish sauce

Unusual ingredient number one is Bragg Liquid Aminos, which is sort of the vegan version of fish sauce.  It smells like dirty underwear and tastes pretty salty. I know I just made it sound terrible, but it actually tastes like the vegan equivalent of fish sauce and it’s really good for you, so I think you should give it a try.

Unusual ingredient number two is nutritional yeast, which I haven’t eaten since the 1980s.  My housemates at the time used to sprinkle it on everything they cooked and I got sick of it. Now that I recall, nutritional yeast is actually very good sprinkled on popcorn, but I digress.

Other than kale and the two previously mentioned items, the only other ingredients in the salad are olive oil, chopped red onion, chopped garlic, and cayenne pepper.  After you mix everything up in a bowl, McQuirter recommends you marinate it at room temperature for about a half hour before serving.

Michelle and I ate the salad with our dinner last night, and, to my amazement, we enjoyed it!  Michelle even went back for a second helping. Raw kale actually has more flavor than cooked kale, and, although quite chewy, it didn’t make me think I was eating cardboard.  While the recipe called for more raw onion and garlic than I care for, the combination of the onion, garlic and cayenne gave it some bite, and the two mystery ingredients gave it a salty, almost—dare I say it—meaty flavor.

While I don’t think kale will ever become one of my top ten favorite greens, now that I’ve learned how to (not) cook it, I won’t be upset if it shows up in my CSA box again.  So thank you, Tracye Lynn McQuirter!