Corn, beans, sweet potatoes…it's hard to say which crop sets contributor Anthony Boutard's heart aflutter more. Here he offers a basic guide to the beans he and Carol grow at Ayers Creek Farm and how to cook them to best enjoy their flavor.
Dried legumes have a relatively short life. Typically, after two years, chickpeas and garden beans become stale and eventually they may not even soften up no matter how much they are cooked. They are in their prime for six months after harvest, and good for a year.
Anthony and the Roto-Fingers Pea-Bean Sheller.
The bean is a seed and the two halves within the seed coat are storage leaves bridged by a stalk supporting the root and a shoot which will grow into the plant. The cotyledons store a mixture of carbohydrates (long chains of sugar molecules) and proteins (long chains of amino acids) that were originally formed in special seed tissue called the endosperm. In grains, the endosperm is retained, but in legumes and many other plants, it is entirely absorbed into the cotyledons. This repackaging of these long molecules apparently makes them vulnerable to tangling, sort of like the way that elastic bands, string and paper clips left in a drawer will eventually form a knotted mass. As the carbohydrates and proteins get tangled up they become harder and then impossible to separate into digestible units by heat or enzymatic action. This repackaging problem is probably why beans have a shorter shelf life than grains.
Soaking the beans.
We always soak our legumes overnight or a bit longer. As the seed draws in water, enzymes are released which start to chop apart its proteins and carbohydrates into smaller units. In our experience, allowing the seed's natural enzymes to start the process yields a sweeter and smoother cooked bean. The next day, we drain off the soaking water. Seeds must germinate in a relatively hostile environment. To fend off hungry invertebrates, fungi and bacteria, they release nasty compounds that make life unpleasant for these creatures and us. There is a myth that the soaking water contains valuable nutrients; taste it and decide for yourselves. We dump the water, rinse the beans and start cooking them in fresh water.
Harvesting the beans.
Beans cook best in a nearly neutral pH, which makes water the best cooking medium. In some areas, it is customary to add a pinch of "soda" to raise the pH of the water. Acidic ingredients such as tomatoes should be added after the beans are cooked. Some people believe salt impedes the cooking of beans. Whether or not this is true, we always salt our beans after cooking. Judy Rodgers' advice in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is to salt the cooking liquid to taste after the beans are done and let them rest. This works well for us.
Finally, the cooking liquid of all of our beans is really delicious and, if the recipe calls for draining the cooked beans, retain the liquid for some other recipe or enjoy it as you would a cup of stock.
The Bean Roster
We sell both pole and bush beans. The pole beans (Borlotto, Tarbais, Black Basque) cost more to grow because they must be trellised, so we package them in 3/4 pound packages. Bush types come in 1-pound packages. Over the last decade, we brought more than 50 types to the market. We have settled on this group of ten which provides a manageable level of diversity and includes our favorites.
Borlotto bean stew.
Borlotto Lamon: This is a classic Italian pole bean from the Veneto. Traditionally used for la jota. The flavor is nutty with a very fine, silky texture, our choice for a desert island bean. Several years ago, a virus brought in by some seeds purchased for a different variety destroyed our crop. We bought new seed but it had declined in quality; the beans were highly variable, with about 90% off-type, and ripened over a five week period. As there is no substitute for the variety, we have spent the last three years reselecting the crop in order to improve its quality. We have invested well over $2,000 in the effort, and we are very pleased with the result.
Ayers Creek tarbais beans.
Tarbais: A flat, white pole bean traditionally used for cassoulet. Also great with kale and cabbage dishes.
Black Basque: A black pole bean from northern Spain. It is a slightly sweet bean with a delicate flavor. Unlike other black beans, it is best prepared with a light hand on the seasonings, and served simply in its own broth with some good bread.
Zolfino: A white bush bean with a yellowish cast. Like the previous bean, go easy on the seasoning, just a sprig of sage or rosemary is enough. We add a splash of vinegar and olive oil before serving.
Purgatorio: A small white bean traditionally served with fish. We have it courtesy of our sister-in-law, Shirin. Many years ago, we had dinner at Al Covo, a restaurant that specializes in fish, and the person serving us noted that she was from Texas and wanted to know where we lived and what we did. We introduced ourselves as bean farmers from Oregon. A few minutes later her husband, Cesare Benelli, came out and told us how much he loved beans. The chef then turn serious and told us that we should grow the bean from Gradoli, as it is the best bean for serving with fish. He checked in the kitchen, but had run out of the beans. A few months later, Shirin sent us a box with several types of beans, including 'purgatorio', the bean of Gradoli. This week, we enjoyed them as a soup in their own broth with some Oregon bay shrimp sauteed with a bit of cumin and lots of freshly ground cayenne.
Black Turtle: The standard black bean for Cuban and Mexican dishes. Holds it own in the company of strong seasonings and whatever else you fling at it.
Gorgeous Dutch Bullets.
Dutch Bullet: A golden round bean with a red eye. Good for soup, perhaps with some escarole added. The late Dutch plant breeder, Kees Sahin, recommended that we grow these beans as they are a favorite in Holland. Our friend, Alice Doyle of Log House Plants, brought Kees to the farm and we spent a whole evening tasting and talking about beans and other vegetables. By coincidence, our neighbors grew several acres 'Bull's Blood' beet for seed this year which is one of Kees's varieties.
Vermont Cranberry: A red kidney bean with dark streaks. Use as you would other red kidney beans. The common name is a misnomer as cranberry beans are round and red like the fruit. This type of bean used to be called a horticultural bean, and is very similar to the old 'Boston Favorite' bean, and it will be perfect for baked beans.
Soldier: A white kidney bean from Northern New England. Similar to the other white kidney beans, the cannellino and lingot. Good for soups and other dishes that call for navy beans or white kidney beans.
Flageolet: A small, greenish bean traditionally served with lamb. It is also good in a gratin. It is named after a small wind instrument related to the recorder, a reference to its long, delicate pod.