Friday, November 28, 2014

Farm Bulletin: This Farmer Knows Beans

Contributor Anthony Boutard shares a primer on the beans he and Carol grow at Ayers Creek Farm.

Following on the heels of many inquiries, here is the latest version of our bean propaganda as handed out at the recent Variety Showcase put on by the farming impresario Lane Selman and the Culinary Breeding Network.


All of the beans and grains sold at the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market are grown by us on the farm. We do not repackage other farms’ production or buy bulk beans for resale and we are certified organic. A theme running through Ayers Creek’s grains, legumes and vegetables is adaptation to our latitude, the 45th parallel. We look to maritime-influenced regions such as the Bordeaux and Dordogne in France, Galicia in Spain, the Po River Valley of Italy, parts of the Danube Valley and Hokkaido, Japan. We are not bound by such an analysis, but it is a useful vetting mechanism.

Our primary selection criterion is a bean that can be savored on its own, just a bit of salt and olive oil. Over the last 12 years, we have grown a wide diversity of dry beans; the beans below we deem worth growing. Cute stories and pretty color patterns don't carry much water with restaurants or habitual bean eaters; the flavor and texture are everything once it gets to the plate.

Soaking? Recommended, but not mandatory.

We prefer soaking the beans overnight before cooking. The bean is a dormant, living plant. When you soak it, the plant opens up its toolkit of enzymes and starts to break apart the large protein and carbohydrate molecules that store its nutrients and energy. In our experience, soaking lends the bean a discernible sweetness and a smoother texture than just hammering things apart with heat. We treat soaking as an elegant step in the process rather than an inconvenience. However, with a good bean, it is best to cook it however you want. If the ritual of soaking irritates or crimps your style, relax and follow some other method and hammer away. Regardless, you are not affecting the nutritional value if you soak the beans and toss out the soaking water.

The next day we drain them, add fresh water, bring to a boil and then simmer until tender. Time varies by variety and age of the bean. You can also add herbs, carrots, onions and celery to season the beans. If the dish calls for meat, we generally cook the beans in water first so they retain their own flavor. Avoid cooking beans in an acid liquid such as tomato sauce because they will not cook properly, remaining tough and grainy. It is fine to add salt whenever you want. We follow the late Judy Rodgers suggestion to salt the cooking water to taste. Refrigerate the beans in their cooking liquid.

Anthony and the Roto-Fingers Pea-Bean Sheller.

The church on the way to town has one of those boards updated with infuriatingly banal dictates. This week, it tells us "freedom isn't doing what you want, it is doing what is right." In our world of beanality, freedom is cooking beans exactly how you want; that is the right way. Unless you want to get really, really sick because of some ordeal poison fetish, though, never, ever eat them raw.

Pole Beans

Borlotto Gaston. Result of a decade of work on the great Borlotto Lamon (top photo). It is a superb in every respect. We have been selecting for earliness, short harvest period and four-bean pods. The last trait is very import determinant of flavor and texture; more is packed into fewer seeds. Chestnuts spring to mind as a description of the flavor. A key ingredient for La Jota and Pasta e Fagiole.

Black Basque. A black bean derived from the Spanish ‘Alubia de Tolosa’. The flavor is rich, sweet with a slight hint of chocolate, and with a silky texture. The flavor and texture is unlike any other black bean. Unfortunately, the supply is very limited this year.

Bianchetto. A medium, round white bean with excellent flavor and smooth, dense texture, buttery as opposed to creamy. A very fine bean, though aesthetically not the prettiest.

Tarbesque. Our selection of the French bean called ‘Tarbais’. Good flavor and texture, it is one of the beans traditionally used in the cassoulet. It holds up to long cooking; a trait which is essential to certain dishes. As with the black Basque, the supply is very limited this year.

Bush Beans

Dutch Bullet. We started growing this variety (left) at the suggestion of Kaas Sahin, the late Dutch plant breeder (Bull's Blood Beet was one of his varieties). The lowlanders like it because, as he noted, there is no flatus after eating it, as if that is a virtue for the more childish of us. Actually, none of beans we grow are particularly prone to creating such gastric maelstroms. We describe it is as the best of a red kidney bean without any of that bean's many flaws, or flatus. Dutch Bullet is thin-skinned with a fine texture and a well-balanced bean flavor with a pleasant sweet edge. It is dark yellow with a red eye. A versatile bean which is very popular with our restaurant accounts.

Zolfino. A light yellow bean identified with the Pratamango River Valley of Tuscany. Vastly superior to the cannellino, or white kidney bean. The bean is thin-skinned, very creamy in texture and is best served as a simple white bean soup.  No meat, just the beans, an herb (sage, thyme, or rosemary) and olive oil.

Purgatorio. A small, white bean from Gradoli, a town in the Lake Bolsena area of Italy. The name apparently refers to the fact that it is excellent with seafood, an uncommon trait in beans, and hence well-suited to the observance of the Lenten fast. Someone also mentioned detecting a hint of sulfur in the first stage of cooking, a plausible Dantesque explanation. These beans were recommended to us by Cesar Benelli of the restaurant Al Covo in Venice. Not only does the delicate flavor work nicely with seafood, the skin is thicker and more distinct than that of our other beans, which lends a nice texture when mixed with soft fish. Closer to home, Cathy Whims of Nostrana makes a lovely seafood soup with fish, a hint of cumin, sautéed onions and the beans in their cooking broth.

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