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A raw bean’s best friend

by Timber Press on May 10, 2011

in Food, Gardening


About a year and a half ago, when I posted about my first Timber photo shoot, I remembered feeling a tad antsy and impatient as I waited to see just exactly how this book would come together. Now that the photos were finished, the editorial and production teams would just flick their wands and magically whip up a gorgeous best-selling book, right?

As you can imagine, the “make” side of book publishing involves a little more than an instant flick of a wand. It involves numerous people, hours and hours of edits, a little blood, sweat, and even a few tears. Those little details of accuracy and perfection are what make Timber books the trustworthy books they are; as a first time participant in the creation side of the business, I can promise you no detail was left unnoticed. It is safe to say that the color of those Reboseros and Rio Zapes are exactly true to life. The descriptions and flavor profiles will not lead you astray when seeking the right variety for your gardening and cooking needs. And yes, the select list of recipes are certainly tried and true. Through this experience I have gained an even greater respect for our very talented editorial and production staff. I was just a miniscule piece in the grand scheme of this collaborative project, but boy, do I feel proud!

It is with great pleasure to share with you the final book: The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide: Steve Sando’s 50 Favorite Varieties by Steve Sando (and photos by me!). The book is part gardening, part cooking, and most distinctively, a window into Steve’s personal relationship with the varieties he has grown and loved over the years. Shooting the photos for this book was a thrill, but seeing the photos paired with Steve’s delightful narrative is what makes it truly fulfilling. I believe gardeners, cooks, and anyone who loves a good story will find this a worthy read.

Here’s a little excerpt from the first chapter to show off:

Heirloom Beans: Some Basic Bean Botany

Like heirloom tomatoes and other crops, heirloom beans are traditional varieties that have largely been passed over by industrial agriculture. Big ag has little use for a product that comes in seemingly endless variations; it’s simpler and more cost-effective for growers to concentrate on the crops that are easiest to raise, harvest, and ship. So while the world has produced hundreds of varieties of beans over thousands of years, most of us have grown up seeing the same few types on the supermarket shelf from coast to coast: navy beans, black beans, garbanzos, pintos, and kidneys; dried for years, slow to cook and muted in flavor. No wonder beans are considered boring and bland by so many people, given such scanty choices and with all of them mass-produced!

Fortunately—for both our taste buds and biological diversity—a stubborn minority of home gardeners and small farmers has persisted in growing the old beans, even though they may not set as dense a crop or be as easy to harvest as the mass-market varieties. The locavore movement, emphasizing regional food production, and the rise in popularity of “farm-to-table” cooking have brought new customers for these traditional beans, 50 of which you can read about in this book. From the little Blue Speckled Tepary (it’s not a lentil, despite a passing resemblance in shape) to the jumbo Snowcaps and gorgeously colored Mexican runners Ayocote Negro and Ayocote Morado, there’s a universe of flavorful, richly textured heirloom beans to savor.

And because farmers who specialize in these beans tend to be smaller producers, they generally sell through each harvest. You’re much less likely to find years-old heirlooms for sale, because chefs and home cooks alike are buying them up wherever they can find them. What does this mean, to those of us brought up to believe that all dried beans are the same? For one thing, that these recently harvested heirlooms don’t need anywhere near the soaking and cooking time we’re used to allowing for those years-old supermarket brands. Often you can skip the soaking step entirely and still turn out a toothsome bean dish in just a couple of hours.

Secondly, with all the health benefits associated with beans, it’s the taste and texture that makes them truly worth eating—and heirlooms offer a tantalizing array of choices, from dense and fudgy to creamy and light. Some taste potato-like, others are reminiscent of chestnuts. You could eat a different heirloom bean every day for months, each with its own distinctive character.

Another revelation is the pot liquor: heirlooms are so loaded with flavor that they actually create their own rich broth. Just add water! (And a bit of salt, when the time comes.) With beans this fresh, less truly is more; with just a handful of ingredients, you have a mouthwatering dish. You may even discover that fresher beans are easier to digest—I’m not promising anything, but we do have Rancho Gordo customers who report they experience less gas after eating heirlooms.

With few natural enemies and requiring little more than abundant water to cultivate, beans are a forgiving crop for the home gardener. You can even take a few beans from the bag of heirlooms you bought at the market, pop them in warm springtime soil and watch, like Jack in the fairy tale, as they sprout toward the sky. Maybe you don’t have room for enough plants to produce dried beans for cooking, but the flowers will liven up your garden landscape and, if left to mature, will also produce seed for the next year’s crop—or for trading with other seed savers. It’s my firm belief that heirloom beans are as essential in the garden as they are on the table!

1 La Société des Monstres Célèbres May 10, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Oh! We need a copy of this book! We have a lot to learn about growing beans. We grew some Windsor favas last year and they didn’t turn out so well and we need help.

2 Ivette Soler May 10, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Your pictures are as beautiful as you are! I miss you already, you talented and awesome lady!

3 Emma May 11, 2011 at 9:11 am

Oh gee, Ivette, you make me blush. Thank you!

4 Patty May 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Last years beans were beautiful in the garden and I can hardly wait to plant more!

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