When it comes to beans we all know black, pinto, and navy, but what about Red Nightfall, Jackson Wonder, Black Valentine or Butterscotch Calypso? These are the kinds of beans you want to write love songs for. And these are the kinds of beans I want to eat. Yes I’m a pushover for evocative names, and yes these varieties are easy on the eye. But more importantly they are heirloom beans that not only boast a boost of flavor, but play an important role in plant diversity and agricultural heritage.
An heirloom plant is generally considered to be one that has been in existence for at least 50 years. Why are these old varieties important? In just the past 15 years, more than half of the varieties once available have disappeared from seed catalogs. The genetic diversity of the world’s food crops is diminishing at an alarming rate, and experts fear that this lack of biodiversity could wreak agricultural disaster.
The vegetables and fruits that are becoming extinct are the result of thousands of years of adaptation and selection in diverse ecological niches around the world. Modern crops have become homogenous and are increasingly crossbred for characteristics such as pest resistance and shipping durability. (Think of one of those grainy, hard, pink supermarket tomatoes and you might get the picture.)
Monsanto and nine other seed corporations control more that half of the world’s commercial seed supply—and quite frankly, corporate consolidation of the food chain scares the daylights out of me.
But this is a story about poetic beans, not fiendish corporate shenanigans and our primal rights. The truth is, beans seem especially worthy of preservation. They are one of the oldest cultivated crops and have played a crucial nutritional role throughout history. They are an excellent source of vegetable protein, dietary fiber, and complex carbohydrates. They are also delicious—a culinary and nutritional treasure.
Dried beans are different from fresh beans, they are shell beans that have been allowed to mature, then dried and taken out of the pod. There are about two dozen varieties that are commonly sold in the United States, while there are hundreds of varieties in existence. Many heirloom varieties are regional, so ask around at your greenmarket or local gourmet or health food stores to see what might be growing in your area.
Beside the exotic markings and colors of some of these beans, the big difference is in the flavor and texture. Consider those supermarket tomatoes again and imagine them in comparison to a juicy, deep red tomato that leaves the smell of tomato vines on your hands. Heirloom beans are lovely little gems that we should work to keep around for a few more millennia—and if that means eating beautifully named, vibrantly hued and incredibly delicious beans, then sign me up.
Tips for cooking beans
Discard stones and debris, as well as shriveled or broken beans, then rinse in cold water.
There are two methods to soak dried beans, which they require before cooking. For both methods begin by adding 4 cups of water for every cup of beans, or add enough to cover beans with an extra 2 inches of water on top. (In a very hot kitchen, refrigerate them to discourage fermentation!)
For the quick soak method bring the beans and water to a boil and boil briskly for 2 to 3 minutes, then cover and set aside for 4 hours. For the long soak method, leave the beans out at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight.
Quick soaking can remove much of the indigestible sugars that cause flatulence. The long soak method isn’t as effective for that, but the beans retain their shape better. Always discard the soaking water and use fresh water to cook in.
Be prepared for a lot of beans—most varieties expand 2 to 2½ times their size during cooking.
Simmer beans gently to keep the skins from splitting, and simmer until the beans are tender. Stir occasionally and add more water if necessary.
The beans are done when they can be easily mashed with a fork or easily pierced. Times vary depending on variety, age, size and density. Most beans fall in the 1½- to 2-hour range, although some can take as long as 4 hours.
Add seasonings in the beginning, but only add salt after the beans are tender.
Acidic ingredients should also only be added after the beans are tender, as they can lengthen cooking time and hinder tenderness.
Add olive oil to the cooking water to reduce foaming and boiling over.
Remove beans from heat and let cool in the cooking water to prevent them from drying out.
When beans and grains are combined, complete proteins are formed with all of the essential amino acids.
Slow cookers do not simmer high enough to effectively cook beans, although it would seem like such a good idea! In truth, it would take 16 hours or more—but please comment if you have found a method for slow-cooking beans. We want to know!
Read more about heirloom vegetables and seed saving.