From the Ground Up: Beans — not just for peasants anymore
by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan
Beans have historically been thought of as peasant food, something to be eaten where there is no or little meat. As a vegetarian for 10 years, including four years as an Aggie at UC Davis, I learned my way around dried beans in the kitchen in the 1970s. Who would have thought then that this international, ancient workhorse of simple, healthy cuisine would wind up so heirloom, so famous, so fabulously reinvented in the new millennium?
Beans are a term loosely used to describe any legume whose seeds or pods are eaten and which is not separately classified as a pea or lentil. The fruit of the plant grows into a pod, which we eat fresh such as a green bean. The pod contains seeds, which we often eat dried, but which can also be eaten fresh.
Scores of cultures throughout the world have created almost cult foods out of beans, fresh and dried. Think Hoppin’ John in the American south, with black-eyed peas at New Years for good luck, the hearty cassoulet of France with dried white beans, the satisfying hummus from the Middle East with garbanzo beans, or the spicy tofu dishes of China made from soybeans and the ubiquitous refried beans of Mexico made from pinto beans. All foods based on the humble bean, internationally cultivated.
Dried beans are an annual crop. In California most varieties are planted in the spring or early summer and harvested in the fall. They are often rotated with other crops because they, as with all legumes, have a root system that fixes nitrogen in the soil and thus provides a natural fertilizer.
California producers grow specialty beans such as baby limas, garbanzos, pinks, blackeyes, and kidneys as well as over 50 varieties of beans for seed, which are used for planting in other areas of the country. California’s beans are produced on 63,000 acres and provided a cash income to farmers of $69,147,000 in 2010 according to the CA Department of Food and Agriculture, right around the dollar value of cabbage. Yolo County grows beans for seed crop as well as some fresh and specialty beans.
What beans are grown where in California depends on the particular climate and soil needs of the bean. Some beans like cool nights along the California coast like lima beans, they cannot tolerate frost. California leads the nation in the production of dry lima beans. Other beans have to have the heat of the Central Valley.
Bean seeds came to California from both the old and new world in the pockets of immigrants, and were cultivated earlier yet by, California’s Native Americans. The Three Sisters story, that of growing beans, corn and squash together, is a way in which Native Americans passed down the knowledge of growing, using and preserving these important foods.
While there are many species of beans in the legume family, the two major growth strategies are climbers called pole beans, and bush or field beans, which grow as short plants. My favorite of the field beans, called field peas in the south, is the Crowder pea. I long for it in the summer, but simply cannot find it grown here as I did in North Carolina where we ate them with an iconic summer vegetable meal, cooked with fat back. Crowder peas are so called because they are crowded together in their pods causing them to have squarish ends, and such are the reasons beans have folk names throughout the worlds, like nicknames for good friends.
Georgeanne and I typically grow beans in our garden, such as favas for early spring, and bush beans for fresh beans in the summer. We both buy dried beans for summer salads and winter cooking. Georgeanne recently introduced me to Rancho Gordo in Napa, which specializes in heirloom beans.
Steve Sando, the founder of Rancho Gordo, sells dried beans to some of the best restaurants in the United States, like The French Laundry in Yountville. With Vanessa Barrington, Sando wrote the book, Heirloom Beans: Recipes from Rancho Gordo, published by Chronicle Books in 2009, featuring recipes from some of America’s top chefs.
Steve works with four growers in Northern California and Fresno who cultivate new world crop heirloom beans, which means all of them are indigenous to the Americas. Sando shares his seeds via the Seeds Savers Exchange. You can read descriptions of the beans, and find recipes, by visiting his online store at www.ranchogordo.com.
Some four decades ago, in 1971, Francis Moore Lappé wrote her paradigm-shifting book, “Diet for a Small Planet.” In it she repositioned the bean, with medical proof, as making a complete protein (as found in meat and animal foods) when combined with grains. This was a revelation to the new vegetarians, and me, but yesterday’s news to the Old and New World civilizations that had flourished on beans, and cultivated them lovingly for centuries. I’m glad Steve Sando is part of that tradition and so close by.
From my vegetarian days, beans are still a pantry staple for me. I remain dedicated to the habit of soaking beans the night before, but this is not really necessary. Georgeanne cooks beans directly in the pan with water. In the hot days of summer, we both delight in salads with beans, protein and flavor packed, yet light and easy, reminding us of many bean based dishes sampled around the world on earlier travels or simply earlier years here at home.
White Beans, Green Olives and Shrimp Salad
2 cups white beans, cooked (such as cannellini)
½ pound cooked shrimp
1 cup green olives with pimento, chopped coarsely
½ cucumber, cut into matchsticks, about 1 cup
4 sprigs fresh basil, cut chiffonade into fine strips (about 1/3 cup)
½ cup California extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice, optional
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper, or to taste
Putting It Together:
In a bowl, cover beans with water and soak beans overnight. Using a colander, strain the beans from the water. In a saucepan, cover the beans with water and over medium heat cook until beans are soft, but still retain their form, about one hour. Cooking time however depends on the age of the bean, so more may be needed. Using a colander, strain the beans and set aside to cool.
In a medium sized serving bowl, add the shrimp, olives, cucumber and basil. Toss with the olive oil. Add the lemon if you want it (I don’t use it, but some people like this a bit tart), salt and pepper. This can be done ahead of time and the mixture stored in the refrigerator. Add the beans prior to serving, and mix thoroughly. Prepare the salad one hour ahead so the beans have time to marinate in the dressing.
Serve cool or room temperature on a bed of lettuce as a main course salad, or with corn on the cob and sliced tomatoes for a cool super salad meal. Serves 6.
(Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of “The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012.) Co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo, they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm fresh food in school lunch. Reach them at email@example.com.)