Seeking Heirloom Beans

By Steve Sando, "Seeking Beans," September/October 2009

Come along in search of great heirloom beans and learn how to transform a pot of this humble ingredient into amazing meals.

"Nope, I was wrong in a comment I left a while back thinking there was an article about your beans in my latest "Gourmet"; it was my latest "Eating Well"! Just remembered being surprised and excited to see it. "

Rio zape was the first heirloom bean I tasted. Once it was cooked its dark purple zebra markings disappeared and it looked like a pinto bean, but its flavor was anything but ordinary. It tasted of earth, coffee and chocolate. The broth from cooking the beans, known as pot liquor, was even better: thick, rich and with the same hints of cocoa and café.

That first bite of an heirloom bean tasted like something I knew, only better. Like my first taste of a Cherokee Purple or Brandywine tomato, this bean sent a flood of memory to my palate. Once I tasted a few more varieties of heirloom beans I was hooked, so I started seeking out rare varieties, growing them and saving the seeds. Now I travel all over the Americas looking for interesting and neglected beans to bring home and grow at my farm, Rancho Gordo in Napa.

Steve SandoOn a recent trip to Hidalgo in central Mexico, I met Maria. She’s typical of the growers I meet. “My father knew I wasn’t the prettiest of his daughters but I think I was his favorite. The other sisters married well but I got the beans!” Maria declared with a gleam in her eye. Her rebosero beans have been handed down from generation to generation. The bean, which has lacy lilac-colored markings reminiscent of a local rebozo, or shawl, hence the name rebosero, is rich and delicious. Maria has worked hard to cultivate her bean inheritance. Every year she hires a local tractor to till her field. After that, she does everything by hand, by herself. She sells this bean, along with some squash and dry field corn, at the local market, but she can only take 30 kilos with her because she makes the trip on foot.

Soon after I met Maria she invited me for a meal. Maria’s home was simple and rustic, surrounded by a vegetable garden and a pen with her collection of turkeys, chickens and dogs. For lunch, she served a tripe stew, beans and tortillas. Since I was company, she also served a barbecued goat and brought out a bottle of cola. Normally she would simply eat beans, chiles, cactus paddles (nopales) and tortillas. I asked her about how she cooks beans and she said she always prepares them with just onions and garlic and perhaps a little oil.

Photo Credit: Lassa Skinner

Get a full year of EatingWell magazine.
World Wide Web Health Award Winner Web Award Winner World Wide Web Health Award Winner Interactive Media Award Winner