Eat This Now: Heirloom Beans

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Heirloom tomatoes had their moment, so now it’s the beans’ turn.

The food: What makes a food heirloom? It’s the history behind the plant; heirloom varieties come from seeds that have been passed down through a family for several generations, prized for some feature that makes it distinct. For beans, that could mean unique sizes, shapes, colors or textures. In the U.S., heirloom beans come with memorable names like scarlet runner, appaloosa, runner cannellini and flageolet. While they were first cultivated in North America some 2,300 years ago, these vegetables are just beginning to catch on among grocers as consumers increasingly search out distinct features in their food.

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The trend: Beans are a staple of vegan and gluten-free diets, and thanks to their high fiber and protein content, they’re also a good alternative for animal proteins, which can be high in unhealthy fat.

Part of their appeal is their scarcity. Because the yield of heirloom beans is relatively low — an entire row of plants may only yield a few pods — there are few commercial growers who will take on the finicky plants. And those that do tend to grow only one or two varieties at most.

Steve Sando, the founder of Rancho Gordo, a supplier of heirloom beans out of Napa Valley, California is one of those rare farmers who produces heirloom beans and is an advocate for the varieties. “At first people thought this was a marketing scam — that since heirloom tomatoes are popular, I was just trying to do it with beans,” says Sando. “Twelve years ago, people would come up to me at the farmer’s market and say, ‘oh, I love nuts..oh, beans. Nevermind’ and walk away. Now we’ve grown by at least 20% every year. I’m tired.”

Rancho Gordo has a network of farmers in California and Mexico that share their beans. “My idea of a good time is to go to Mexico and go to a local market and meet indigenous women and find beans I’ve never had before. It’s been a long time coming. It takes a lot of trust,” says Sando.

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Courtesy of Rancho Gordo

Italian Cannellini

The nutrients: The colorful beans produce a number of healthy compounds, says Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).  Some of these metabolites include polyphenolics and flavonoids that may prevent or help to treat chronic diseases like cancer and heart problems, as well as reduce inflammation. Their high protein content also promotes satiety, making them an ideal foundation for a low-calorie diet.

“Heirloom beans are gaining popularity with the discovery that the colored beans are richer in [nutrients] than their pale, monochromatic cousins,” says Shelke. “The growing awareness that two servings of beans per day can help one get rid of their belly fat and reduce overall body fat has increased consumer demand for products made with heirloom beans and beans in general.”

The preparation: Sando says that people who don’t yet know how to cook, but have the enthusiasm to learn, are his best customers. “You may look at these beans and think: I can’t turn this rock into something creamy and luscious,” he says. “You kind of learn how to cook through cooking heirloom beans because you can’t just follow a recipe. There are so many variables–but don’t give up.”

Sando recommends using a crock pot, especially for first-timers, to make sure the beans cook all the way through. “Once you cook them, there’s so much you can do,” says Sando. “When you have a pot of beans, you can eat them plain, you can put them in a salad, you can make a soup. If you’re tired of that you can puree them and put them on a crostini.”

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The taste: This is what wins plain bean eaters over to the heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are both richer in color and boast a more pronounced flavor. “Dishes made with heirloom beans can take on a lot of seasoning and have a distinct taste, whereas, the commercial beans are generally consistently bland and mild tasting,” says Shelke.

I’ve found that some heirloom beans do taste meatier, and don’t need many other ingredients to dress up their flavor. They certainly don’t need that bacon-filled gravy that drowns out most kidney beans.

The takeaway: If you’re adventurous, and looking to diversify your pantry staples, heirloom varieties can add some excitement to your vegetable options. This season, Sando recommends the scarlet runner, whose meatiness makes it a substantial protein substitute. You won’t find heirloom beans at every grocery store, but they are easy to purchase online.  And if you’re interested in becoming a real heirloom bean connoisseur consider joining Seed Savers Exchange to purchase beans or their seeds and grow your own varieties.

Recipe: Rancho Gordo’s Runner Cannellini Salad
2 cups cooked runner cannellini beans
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 scant teaspoon, fresh Italian oregano
1/2 fresh tomato, chopped
olive oil and vinegar to taste
salt to taste

Gently toss all ingredients and chill for about an hour.

Variations: Serve on a bed of lettuce. Substitute vinegar for a fig balsamic.