Romance and History in One Little Heirloom Bean

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It’s no surprise that we’re all about dried beans at Nourish Network. They’re rich in fiber and protein, and a good source of iron, calcium, zinc and B vitamins. They’re cheap, too, offering plenty of nutrition for just pennies.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s just the nice bonus. The real appeal is the rich comfort of a plate of beans or other legumes — these Santa Maria-Style Beans wrapped in a warm tortilla for lunch, or a flavorful bowl of Red Lentil Dal with Caramelized Onions, Carrots and Peas over brown rice on a chilly night.

Heirloom beans–heritage breeds that are the legume equivalent of ancient grains–hold even more allure. When I spy packages of them in the store, I’m seduced by their gorgeous colors and patterns. Even their names evoke culinary romance. How can I resist splashy burgundy-swirled Anasazis (first cultivated by the Navajos) or the purple-and-ivory splotched Appaloosas (another Southwest favorite)? Or the dramatic black-and-white Calypso beans that evoke the yin/yang icon or the smaller version known as the Orca? This weekend, I was won over by shiny Eye of Goat beans, a Baja California native with subtle brown-on-brown swirls.

Given that we eat with eyes first, heirloom beans do a great job of selling themselves.

Heirloom beans can be used interchangeably with more common varieties. Just consider the bean’s size and characteristics. Their flavor ranges from mild and slightly sweet to full-bodied and earthy; their texture varies from creamy to firm.

Though you’re unlikely to find heirloom beans at the local supermarket, they’re still easy to find. Whole Foods carries several varieties (that’s where I spied my Eye of Goats), and I’ve even grabbed packages of golden Yellow Indian Woman beans at World Market. Your farmers’ market may offer some locally grown varieties. And, of course, there are many online sources, including Rancho Gordo, Zursun Beans and Purcell Mountain Farms. Yes, you’ll pay a good bit more for these babies than for more common varieties–about $5 a pound. But that’s still only about 40 cents a serving.

Really, isn’t that a bargain for so much history, romance and flavor?

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Santa Maria-Style Beans

The barbecue of Santa Maria, Calif., is famous for delicious smoked tri-tip, and it’s always accompanied by a pot of pinquito beans. This legume, a cross between white and pinto beans, is grown only in the Santa Maria Valley. You can order them online, use standard pintos or experiment with other varieties of heirloom beans, such as Eye of Goat (which I used here) or Yellow Indian Woman. Using a pressure cooker yields tender beans that hold their shape in about a third of the usual cooking time. If you don’t have one, soak the legumes overnight and cook them in simmering water for 2 hours or until tender. Cooking time will vary, depending on the size and age of the beans. Use any leftovers to make kick-ass burritos the next day.


Serves 8

1 (12-ounce) package pinquito, Eye of the Goat, Yellow Indian Woman OR pinto beans
2 fresh OR 1 dried bay leaves
1 thyme sprig
2 thick slices bacon, chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 serrano chile pepper, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 (14.5-ounce) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon dried mustard
1 tablespoon sherry OR red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Sort through the beans, discarding any stones or split beans. Place the beans in a large pot, cover with water, and soak overnight. Or place beans in a 6-quart pressure cooker and add water to cover by 2 inches. Lock lid in place and bring to high pressure over high heat. Reduce heat and cook 2 minutes. Release pressure using automatic pressure release OR carefully transfer cooker to sink and run cool water over rim until pressure drops. Remove lid, tilting lid away from you, to allow steam to escape. Drain beans.

Return beans to pressure cooker. Add water to cover by 2 inches. Add bay leaves and thyme sprig. Lock lid in place and bring to high pressure over high heat. Reduce heat and cook 45 minutes or until tender.

While the beans cook, place the bacon in a medium saucepan over low heat. Cook 5-7 minutes or until the bacon renders its fat and becomes crisp. Remove bacon from pan with a slotted spoon; drain bacon on a paper towel. Increase heat to medium-high. Add onion and serrano to drippings in pan; saute 3 minutes or until tender. Add garlic; saute 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and mustard, scraping pan to loosen any brown bits. Reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until thick. Stir in vinegar, salt and pepper.

Release pressure on cooker, using automatic pressure release OR carefully transfer cooker to sink and run cool water over rim until pressure drops. Remove lid, tilting lid away from you, to allow steam to escape. Sample the beans; if they’re not quite tender, replace the lid and bring the cooker back up to high pressure and cook another 10-15 minutes. If the beans are tender, drain them through a colander set over a bowl. Reserve 3/4 cup cooking liquid. Discard bay leaves and thyme sprig.

Stir beans, cooked bacon and reserved cooking liquid into tomato mixture. Simmer 20 minutes; adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with cilantro.