Lovely Legumes

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

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

  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 ( to read about and to order these rare heirloom beans.

Categories: Eat + Drink Features