Magical Heirloom Beans
by Ann Lovejoy
Few vegetables are more beautiful than beans. The vigorous growth, bright blossoms, and leafy abundance of pole beans make them the traditional teepee plant for children. (Pole or runner beans also look splendid decorating a trellised alleé in a formal vegetable garden). Lower growing bush beans make it easy to harvest their generous crops.
Both pole and bush beans are divided into three main groupings. Snap or green beans are eatenyoung, pod and all. To prepare these, both stem and blossom ends are snapped off and any stringy, fibrous “threads” are pulled away before cooking. The string-like vegetable fiber has been largely bred out of modern green beans, but gave old fashioned strains their old common name, “string bean”. When picked as slender fingerlings, green beans are often called filet or French beans. All green beans are tastiest fresh but also hold quality well when blanched and frozen.
Shell or pod beans are eaten when the beans are plump and mature but still soft. These are shelled like peas, popped out of their pods (which are too tough to eat by the time the beans are ripe) and steamed, boiled, or stir-fried. Shell beans taste best when eaten fresh or blanched and frozen, but are also useful for adding to soups when canned. Most shell beans can also be grown for dry beans. Dry or soup beans are harvested in fall when both the pods and their inner beans are mature and completely dry. Dry beans keep well and can be stored in covered jars or sealed bins. To prepare them, they are soaked (usually overnight) before being slow-cooked for soups, chili, and Stews.
What’s An Heirloom Vegetable?
There are dozens of kinds of beans available and it can be difficult to decide which to grow. Many modern vegetables (including beans) are bred for uniformity of size and ripening date. Tough plants that ship and handle well are preferred over more fragile but better tasting types. Heirloom or heritage vegetables (and fruits and flowers) are older varieties that earned favored status through special qualities. Many are simply the most flavorful of their kind. Others are disease resistant or store especially well. Many bear and ripen over an extended period, which is inconvenient for production agriculture but better for people who enjoy eating fresh produce from the garden all summer.
To qualify for heritage status, a plant has to remain in culture for at least fifty years. Varieties like ‘Vermont Cranberry’ beans were favorites of the early New Englanders, who ate them baked as well as steamed and stewed all year round. Many heritage bean strains are far older than that, particularly those of European breeding. For instance, the red-striped ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ wax bean can be found under a dozen variations of name, probably because this lovely Dutch selection has been grown for several hundred years.
However, the actual ancestry of all beans is entirely American. Edible beans got their start in Central or South America. Over the millennia, beans were brought further North as wandering tribes traded seeds and other goods. Beans were among the treasures stout Cortez sent back to Europe in the early 1500s.
A few decades ago, heritage vegetables were becoming endangered species. Major seed companies followed the lead of agribusiness and soon old fashioned crops were replaced by “better” commercial strains. Some modern food crops are terrific·the new super sweet corns and cherry tomatoes are good examples·but many are poor replacements for flavorful old strains. Fortunately, a handful of stalwart seed savers formed first one cooperative seed exchange, then many.
As gardeners found or rediscovered the glory of genuinely flavorful vegetables, the trend toward conformity reversed. Now, dozens of independent seed companies offer regionally appropriate strains of vegetables that grow well and taste great. Try a few each year and see why your granny grew ‘]acob’s Cattle’ beans so faithfully. Let some of each kind you enjoy dry out fully at summer’s end. Store the beans in a tightly covered jar (adding a small sachet of dried milk powder will help eliminate any moisture), resist the impulse to eat them all, and you can grow your own starts next year.
Here in the Northwest, it’s important to hold off on planting beans until several things have happened. These semi-tropical plants hate frost, so don’t plant until after the last frost date has passed. (Your local nursery or County Extension Service agent can tell you the average date for your area.) Beans grow best in warm conditions, so don’t plant until soil temperatures have risen to the 50s. In cold, rainy springs, best results generally come from planting bean starts rather than direct-sowing seed, which often rots in chilly, wet soil.
To make happy bean plants, give them tilth·rich, well-drained soil and full sun. To boost soil tilth, add lots of compost and aged (one or more year old) manure. Beans are less interested in nitrogen (which can actually reduce pod set) than in having plenty of organic material, which promotes terrific root growth. Plants that grow as much and as fast as beans need a sturdy support system!
Space bean plants well apart to avoid the crowding that can lead to disease. In the Northwest, pole or runner beans can be set about a foot apart. Bush beans can be spaced even more generously, allowing ample room for each plant to fill out. Our rainy climate makes bean blights and rust disease difficult to avoid. To minimize them, use generous spacing to promote good air circulation and stay out of the bean path in wet weather or after watering, when diseases are very easily spread through contact.
HEIRLOOM BEAN VARIETIES
CANNELLINI KIDNEY BEAN Tender and mild flavored, these creamy white beans can be eaten fresh or dried. A reliable cool weather cropper, this bush bean matures early even in the Northwest. Pods are at the shell bean stage in about 80 days, and if left to mature, reaches dry bean status when most of the pods are fully ripe and dry. As shell beans, marinated
Cannellini are classic ltalian summer main dish salad ingredients. Cooked dry beans are mixed with olive oil and lemon thyme for a side dish or added to winter soups.
FIN DES BAGNOLS (SHOESTRING BEAN) Skinny filet beans or haricot vert are exceptionally succulent as infants but lose their edge as they mature. These delicacies are best eaten fresh when very young and very slim (1/8th of an inch in diameter is the ideal size). For optimal enjoyment, these early and prolific croppers need daily picking, so you may want to share the harvest with friends and neighbors.
COCO RUBICO Very early, can be used fresh, shelled or dried. Produces heavy sets of big, cream-colored beans with bright rosy colored spots throughout the season. Pods are 5-6″ long, flat, and a beautiful, pink-streaked color. 60 days.
FLAGRANO Firm, flavorful pods each have 8-10 mint-green seeds. Easy to shell by hand. Delicious fresh (prepare like lima beans), frozen, or dried. 76 days.
TIGER’S EYE Wonderfully rich flavor and smooth texture. Very tender skins almost disappear when cooked. Great for chili or refried beans.
TRIOMPHE DE FARCY This handsome, purple-striped filet bean begins producing a week or two after ‘Fin des Bagnols.’ The bright color holds nicely if pods are steamed briefly. Pick when less than 6″ long and harvest at least every other day for finest flavor and texture.
FRENCH HORTICULTURAL French gardeners appreciate these plump, creamy beans both shelled and dry. Shell beans can be picked when the straight pods are flared with red stripes and the beans are still pale. As beans develop darker stripes, they are left to mature for dry beans with a superior flavor.
TONGUE OF FIRE ln ltaly, this is considered the most flavorful shell bean. The big, round beans are lightly steamed and marinated in olive oil, then tossed with tuna and rice for a hearty summer salad. Young pods make tasty fresh snap beans, and mature ones can be dried. Try them in soups or savory Italian bean paste; blend cooked dry beans with olive oil and herbs, then spread on bread instead of butter.
VERMONT CRANBERRY The pink and red striped beans of this old fashioned bush type make excellent shell beans for kids to prepare, since they slip so nicely from their fat pods. Their sweet, delicate flavor adds a pleasing touch to hearty rice salads and summery vegetable stews. The dried beans can be used in chilis and for soups or slow-baked with bacon, onion, and blackstrap molasses.
BOUNTIFUL STRINGLESS Early and productive, this snap bush bean has been popular for a century for very good reason. Often the first to mature, the tender, flat pods are exceptionally flavorful. Enjoy them fresh and pick often. The pods are excellent keepers, but if production gets too heavy, you can blanch and freeze the extras, which hold their flavor very well.
ROMANO ITALIAN POLE This classic ltalian pole bean boasts plump, meaty pods with a rich, distinctive flavor that has earned it an honored spot in countless gardens for generations. Healthy, fast growing plants are highly productive, providing plenty of snap beans for eating fresh as well as freezing or canning.
ASPARAGUS YARD LONG Few garden sights are more striking than a tall, arching tunnel dripping with these enormous, slender pole beans, whole stems can exceed ten feet in height. Far more than an enchanting novelty, these large, stringless beans are prized in Europe for their sweet flavor and tender but crisp texture. Enjoy the fresh pods steamed or freeze them (chopped into manageable pieces) for a delayed treat; they hold quality beautifully if blanched and frozen immediately after picking. Plant late: these exotic beans are easily discouraged by chilly weather.
RED NOODLE Fantastic deep red 18″ pods are delicious, full of nutrition, and keep their color when sauteed! Long vines produce all summer.
DRAGON’S TONGUE This wax bush bean can be eaten at several stages. When the greenish pods turn creamy yellow with dull purple stripes, the pods are ready to eat fresh as snap beans. As they mature, the stripes turn red, signaling the shell bean stage. Blanch the pods for the freezer and watch the stripes vanish when they’re ready to freeze.
PURPLE QUEEN Best for eating fresh, the long, purple pods of this wax bush bean turn deep green when cooked. lf picked young, the colorful raw pods make good eating in salads or minced into sandwich spreads for extra crunch.
DUTCH BULLET This dry bush bean is small and round with delicate flavor. In Holland many consider this the only bean. Boil until they just begin to split, drain and serve topped with butter.
PEREGION Heirloom bush dry bean. Sprawling plants bear small chocolate-colored beans with contrasting stripes or marbling. Disease resistant. 95 days.
YIN YANG Beans have a yin yang pattern, right down to the spot of opposite color on each side. Hard-shelled variety also may be harvested young for tender use. 100 days.
Copyright 1998 Ann Lovejoy and Log House Plants