I've had a long love affair with heirloom beans and began singing their praises in print fifteen years ago in my book, Recipes From and Ecological Kitchen (now in paperback as Lorna Sass’ Complete Vegetarian Kitchen).
Because of this love affair, when I was in Northern California last year, I went out of my way to meet Steve Sando, whose life mission is to make available every good-tasting bean indigenous to the Americas.
Every year, Steve travels to small villages in Mexico. "I scour the markets looking for little old ladies sitting behind small piles of unusual-looking beans," he told me. "Then I bring some home and see how well they'll grow in Napa."
Eventually his passion turned into a business called Rancho Gordo, which sells dozens of gorgeous heirloom beans with fetching names like Black Calypso, Scarlet Runner, Rio Zape, Christmas Lima, Black Valentine, Good Mother Stallard, and Yellow Eye, each with its distinctive look and flavor.
Some of the beans Steve sells were close to extinction before he began to grow and distribute them. It follows that anyone who eats heirloom beans is supporting continued genetic diversity.
"It's so sad that they are building a cement wall between us and Mexico," Steve told me when I spoke with him recently. "It would be so much more productive to focus on and share what we have in common – like beans, chiles, and other distinctive, valuable foods indigenous to the Americas."
All beans sold under the Rancho Gordo label have been harvested and stored with care and are sold within two years – unlike supermarket bagged beans which are of unknown age and origin. You can be sure that recently harvested beans have more flavor and better texture than those that have sat in storage for years.
The best beans I've ever tasted were slow-cooked in the oven. The recipe couldn't be easier. You just need the patience to let time do the work. I can promise you that the taste and creamy texture of heirloom beans are worth the wait.
Makes 5 to 7 cups cooked beans
Since this process take a while, and since beans freeze very well, I suggest making a whole pound at once. Defrost frozen beans either at room temperature or in a microwave.
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 250 degrees.
Set the beans in a large Dutch oven or lidded ovenproof casserole. Sprinkle with salt. Add the onion and garlic, if using. Pour in enough boiling water to cover the beans by 2 inches.
Cover and bake until the beans are tender, 1 to 4 hours, depending on size and condition. Check from time to time and add boiling water, if needed, to keep the beans covered.
If you're not sure whether the beans are done, cut a few in half. If done, there should be no opaque dot in the center.
Drain the beans, reserving the broth for your next soup. Toss the beans in a little olive oil, add some chopped fresh herbs, if you like, and serve.
Recipe copyright, Lorna Sass, 2008