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. "

As I ate the beans in Maria’s kitchen, I kept thinking how odd it was that reboseros are barely known throughout the rest of Mexico and the world, let alone in Hidalgo, Maria’s home state. Beans are so ubiquitous in Mexico that they can be taken for granted. One of the foundations of the pre-Colombian diet along with chiles, corn and squash, beans are now coming from China and Michigan to Mexico. And the wonderful regional varieties are in danger of disappearing.

When I visit Mexican markets looking for beans, vendors love to chime in when I ask questions about the more exotic ingredients like cactus paddles or greens that seem to be weeds. Oddly, when I start asking about what local beans they have, things go south. Usually it’s a dismissive, “We like pinto beans or sometimes black but mostly pintos.” Then I’ll spy an Indian farmer sitting on a mat with a large pile of some exotic beans and point to it.

“What about this one? What bean is that?”

“Oh, that’s just our local bean. You wouldn’t be interested in that!” she’ll respond.

Of course it’s exactly what interests me. It’s hard for the Mexicans to understand why a chubby, middle-aged gringo would have any interest in beans. I tell them I’m looking for unusual beans and I get a blank stare back, but for just a moment. Then a flood of memories come out about how beloved this or that bean was and how grandmother lovingly made beans in a clay pot.

When I get home from my bean hunts you might think I’d had enough. But no. I usually put a big pot of runner cannellinis or anasazis on to simmer. Once the beans are done I have enough for several meals and I use them in tacos or salads like the recipes on the following pages. But my favorite way to eat them may just be on their own. When the beans are first done I like to eat a bowlful with a little of the pot liquor, maybe with a bit of grated onion on top or a squeeze of lime stirred in. And I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet.

Steve Sando lives and farms in Napa Valley, California. He is the co-author of Heirloom Beans (Chronicle Books, 2008).

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