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 ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

Many Pittsburgh bars have solid beer lists, well-mixed cocktails or a bartender who's handy with a shot and a story. We need more than that. What makes these bars the best?
View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

#pixburgh: A Photographic Experience features images from the Sen. John Heinz History Center vault, which contains close to one million images. The show features a sampling of 400 images from the 1850s through today — including landmarks, fun, folly and floods.
In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

Melia Tourangeau, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, looks to lead the ensemble forward after a discordant strike.
Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Umami sets the bar for izakaya openings in Pittsburgh. But its owners still have steps to take to keep raising the standard.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

AFC Championship: What We’re Betting for a Win

AFC Championship: What We’re Betting for a Win

Rhode Island Monthly and Pittsburgh Magazine are making a friendly wager over the outcome of Sunday’s game, and we can’t wait to taste their quahogs.
See How Chess Made Le’Veon Bell a Better Running Back

See How Chess Made Le’Veon Bell a Better Running Back

Watch the video that reveals Bell’s talents that go beyond the football field.
Viral: Steelers' Most Famous Fight Song Synced to Lights

Viral: Steelers' Most Famous Fight Song Synced to Lights

See how a Leechburg man has transformed his home into the ultimate Pittsburgh Steelers shrine, but we must warn you, the song will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
RMU President Named to College Football Playoff Committee

RMU President Named to College Football Playoff Committee

Chris Howard will help decide which four teams will vie each year for college football’s national championship.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

Many Pittsburgh bars have solid beer lists, well-mixed cocktails or a bartender who's handy with a shot and a story. We need more than that. What makes these bars the best?
View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

#pixburgh: A Photographic Experience features images from the Sen. John Heinz History Center vault, which contains close to one million images. The show features a sampling of 400 images from the 1850s through today — including landmarks, fun, folly and floods.
In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

Melia Tourangeau, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, looks to lead the ensemble forward after a discordant strike.
Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Umami sets the bar for izakaya openings in Pittsburgh. But its owners still have steps to take to keep raising the standard.
Daytripping: Have Musket, Will Travel

Daytripping: Have Musket, Will Travel

The rest is history at ye olde Colonia Williamsburg, the former capital of Virginia and now a restored revolutionary war-era village.
Talk of the Tahn: The Consequences of Trespassing

Talk of the Tahn: The Consequences of Trespassing

I snuck into a steel mill. Bethlehem, Pa. I’d been bragging about how big Pittsburgh’s industrial ruins were when a woman in a bar told me, “Bethlehem’s are bigger.” Size matters.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


AFC Championship: What We’re Betting for a Win

AFC Championship: What We’re Betting for a Win

Rhode Island Monthly and Pittsburgh Magazine are making a friendly wager over the outcome of Sunday’s game, and we can’t wait to taste their quahogs.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Restaurant Industry Fundraiser to Aid Injured Chef

Restaurant Industry Fundraiser to Aid Injured Chef

Zach Behm was chef de cuisine at Cure in Upper Lawrenceville at the time of a July car wreck.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


The Trendy New East Liberty Hangout ... Primanti's?

The Trendy New East Liberty Hangout ... Primanti's?

The latest outpost of the popular local chain is housed in the former Verde space in Garfield.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Tomlin Needs to Be Tomlin Against Brady, Belichick

Tomlin Needs to Be Tomlin Against Brady, Belichick

The Steelers are going to have to attack the game to survive it, to grab it by the throat and choke it to the desired conclusion.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Check out the chic decor from Pittsburgh-based artist and designer Janice Nelson.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Shyamalan's Split is Troubling For the Wrong Reasons

Shyamalan's Split is Troubling For the Wrong Reasons

Reviews of "Split," "20th Century Women" and "The Founder," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Pittsburgh Romance: How Their Love Survived Long-Distance

Pittsburgh Romance: How Their Love Survived Long-Distance

From coast to coast and continent to continent, these couples showed that absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Urban Fit Co. Opening Flagship Shop in Sewickley

Urban Fit Co. Opening Flagship Shop in Sewickley

The locally owned active wear boutique is slated to open in March. Plus, get all the details on Pittsburgh’s new luxury residential real estate firm, Piatt Sotheby’s International Realty.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Pittsburgh Artist’s Work to be Featured at Thiel College

Pittsburgh Artist’s Work to be Featured at Thiel College

Benedict Oddi’s collection “Scouts and Nomads” will be on display in a campus gallery.

Comments