Lovely Legumes

The dried “common bean” is anything but—playing versatile roles as humble staple and specialty heirloom.



Photo by Laura Petrilla

Whether you crave long-simmered Italian white beans or spicy black-bean soup, the freezing winter weather provides great inspiration for cooking with dried beans. Packed with fiber, iron, vitamins A and B, and calcium, they’re healthy as well as delicious.

Most familiar varieties—including cranberry, kidney, pinto and black beans—belong to a species known as the common bean, or P. vulgaris, which originated in the Americas, from northern Mexico to Peru. Ancient civilizations such as the Maya cultivated the bean with care, contributing to today’s stunning diversity of size and color.

European explorers in the New World wrote of the importance of beans for the Incas and the American Indians in what’s now the United States and Canada, and along with other new foods such as tomatoes and potatoes, brought them back to Europe in the 1500s.

While the latter two inspired mistrust and took decades to gain acceptance in kitchens, beans integrated easily into cuisines of all sorts. This is likely because they were so similar to Old World legumes such as fava beans, lentils and chickpeas. Italians in particular adopted the new beans as their own, using the cranberry bean as a jumping-off point to breed now-classic varieties such as cannellini and borlotti beans.

The recipes featuring these beans, however, only reinforced the notion that beans were food for the poor. Now-classic Tuscan recipes such as ribollita, a hearty peasant soup made with white beans and stale bread, originated as fare for people who could not afford meat. The association between beans and the working class continued into the 19th century.

Our region’s very own H.J. Heinz Co. introduced canned baked beans in the 1890s. The beans became a blue-collar kitchen staple here and especially in England, where they first became available in 1901. This sweet, sauced concoction was just one of many dishes that encouraged new ways of eating legumes.

During the next century, the explosion of immigrants to the United States resulted in the introduction of new bean recipes such as Mexican refried pinto beans or Cuban black-bean stew; as these dishes entered the mainstream, the beans used to make them became pantry staples. More recently, the “Slow Food” movement has encouraged growers to resurrect beautiful heirloom beans; these are directly related to centuries-old lines, so the very same mayacoba bean you eat today tastes essentially the same as one eaten in ancient Peru.

Whatever bean you love best, the frigid month of January is the perfect time to put a pot of them on the stove to simmer.

About Dried Beans

Varieties: It’s pretty straightforward to shop for dried beans if they are red kidney, pinto or black—but typical grocery-store white-bean offerings include cannellini, lima, navy, small white or Great Northern. Generally, opt for dried cannellini or white lima beans for a creamy texture and mild, buttery flavor.

Industrial agriculture in the United States, Canada and Mexico is the source for the dried beans you find in the grocery store; bean aficionados will explain that these lack flavor and texture in the same way that industrially grown tomatoes do. Test the theory yourself by buying heirloom beans that are most likely bagged in small batches right after harvest—check specialty stores such as Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. or Web sites such as ranchogordo.com.

Buying:
  Dried beans are at their best within two years of harvesting. The older they get, the longer they take to cook—after enough time passes, the beans may never quite reach a well-cooked consistency no matter how long you boil them. Shop at stores where the turnover is good, and try to use dried beans from the grocery store quickly since they’ve most likely already been stored for a while by the time of purchase.

Going Local: We’re lucky in Western Pennsylvania to have access to lots of great locally grown produce—from apples to squash—but dried beans grown in our region aren’t easy to find. Noticing the void, farmers Beth and Ken Marshall of Next Life Farm, located in Homer City, Indiana County, decided to grow and sell more dried beans last year; unfortunately, the crop didn’t sell well at the Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District.

In addition, shelling the beans was time-consuming. “Beans are easy to grow, but I shell them by hand and it’s tedious,” says Beth. Still, her enthusiasm for varieties such as Jacob’s Cattle, a red and white spotted bean, remains undimmed. This classic Northeast heirloom is often seen in baked beans, and the Marshalls found it was a great fresh sheller and a terrific dried bean.

For now, the couple is back to focusing on growing beans to sell fresh—but if enough enthusiastic shoppers request them when markets begin in the spring, they might just get back into the dried-bean business.

In the ancient world, legumes had such exalted status that four of Rome’s most famous families were named after them: Fabius (fava bean), Lentulus (lentil), Piso (pea) and Cicero (chickpea).

The cranberry bean originated in Colombia, but the Italians bred it to suit their tastes and their recipes, creating two well-known white beans in the process: the borlotti and the cannellini bean.
 

Recipe: Easy White Bean Dip

  • Aromatic fresh sage, garlic and onion add a savory dimension to white beans in this quick-to-make recipe—serve it with whole-grain pita chips for a snack that’s healthful as well as delicious.
  • In a small saucepan or frying pan over medium-low heat, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves and cook until crisp, about 4 minutes.
  • Reduce heat to low, add 1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic and 1 tablespoon finely chopped red onion and stir for about a minute, until fragrant but not browned.
  • In a food processor or blender, puree 1 can of cannellini beans (rinsed and drained) with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice. Remove to a medium bowl. Using a wooden spoon, mix the garlic-sage mixture with the puree and add 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon fresh pepper. Allow flavors to blend for 15 minutes before serving, and if you like, add more fresh lemon juice to taste.

Worthy Heirlooms

If there’s such a thing as an heirloom-bean rock star in the culinary world, it’s Steve Sando. An accidental bean farmer, he found success with his Napa Valley-based company, Rancho Gordo, after Thomas Keller tried his specialty heirloom beans and became an enthusiastic fan, even putting them on the menu of his world-famous Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry.

In 2008, Sando published Heirloom Beans, a book of delicious recipes and photographs of brilliant, multicolored heirloom beans with names such as Good Mother Stallard, Yellow Indian Woman and Rio Zape. The book is proof that this humble food is finding an exciting niche in today’s world of specialty ingredients.

Explore Sando’s fun Web site (ranchogordo.com) to read about and to order these rare heirloom beans.
 

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

The Allegheny County Airport Authority has been lobbying for more direct service from Pittsburgh to the West Coast.
Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

The online grocery delivery service opened this week, promising delivery in 45 minutes or less to selected neighborhoods.
Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

In its 225th year, the reference book on weather suggests we tune up our snow-removal equipment.
Chris Jamison Releases His First EP

Chris Jamison Releases His First EP

The Ross native finished third on NBC's “The Voice” in December of 2014.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

There are plans afoot for a international museum of beer to be built and staffed right here in Pittsburgh.
Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

After an extended hiatus, the storied rivalry between the Pitt Panthers and Penn State Nittany Lions returns in September to Heinz Field.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

The Allegheny County Airport Authority has been lobbying for more direct service from Pittsburgh to the West Coast.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Our dining critic (and Three Day Blow organizing committee member) has a roundup of some open to the public events.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

These comic book shops offer more than just your casual Batman or Spider-Man choices.

Comments


New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

If you’re in need of a dining option that’s not a national chain while visiting the Robinson area, this is one to keep in mind.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

The Steelers running back emphasized his latest suspension resulted from missed random drug tests, and not a relapse into the marijuana-induced haze that got him jammed up last season. But if you lack the maturity to grasp the consequences of your actions (or, in this case, inactions), does it really matter?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Straight out of Canada, the custom menswear store opens its first U.S. location in Pittsburgh.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
'Hands of Stone' Keeps the Boxing Movie Genre Strong

'Hands of Stone' Keeps the Boxing Movie Genre Strong

Reviews of "Hands of Stone" and "Don't Breathe," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

Want even more Real Pittsburgh Weddings? We'll be bringing them to you throughout the fall, beginning with this lovely and lucky couple.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

The store famous for carrying storage and organizational products is set to open at the revamped Block Northway in Ross Township.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

A fall visitation day and a Saturday information session aim to allow interested students a look into life at the university.

Comments