I once knew a cook who called herself “The Bean Queen.” I admired her diligence: Every week, she cooked up a batch of dried beans and built her meals around them. But I could never find the inspiration to cook beans myself on a regular basis.
A few years ago, however, I discovered heirloom beans — and any ambivalence I had about legume cookery vanished.
Heirloom beans — distinctive varieties that have been saved and cultivated for generations — are easily interchangeable with conventional varieties. Baked into a simple bean gratin or worked into a bowl of pasta e fagioli, their taste and texture can be a revelation in comparison with ordinary dried beans.
Other heirloom varieties seem destined for particular uses. The ivory, pebble-sized Hutterite soup beans, for instance, purée into a beautifully creamy, nutty soup. Scarlet-hued Hidatsa reds just scream for festivity; they’re wonderful scooped into tacos or paired with rice and chunky guacamole.
Good Mother Stallards, mottled with fuchsia, are positively meaty, with a wonderful, rich flavor that makes an equally good pot liquor. I love to use them in a simple bean salad, brightened with a superior olive oil and flecked with bits of herbs and midsummer tomato.
Though heirloom beans are increasingly available in higher-end grocery stores, I prefer to order them from specialty retailers. Rancho Gordo and Seed Savers Exchange in particular stock wide selections of dried beans with a high rate of turnover, so you’re guaranteed fresh beans that cook up beautifully. (Kelly Myers also has tips for bean cookery in her article “I agree with McGee.”) They’re a little pricier than standard varieties, but I tend to think their nuanced taste and unique genetic heritage are reward enough.
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