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

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

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 Sando

On 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

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).

September/October 2009