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.)
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.