Crop of the week: heritage beans for drying
When I was growing up, green 'Scarlet Runner' beans were standard fare, but I was a late adopter of dried bean cuisine. Dire experiments with lentils during my student flatting days put me off, so tinned baked beans and hummus were about my limit until one of my sons went vegan. As he didn't like green vegetables or fruit, cutting out dairy, eggs, fish and meat didn't leave many options. He lived on black coffee and tinned black beans in chilli sauce. Before he shrank to skin and bone, I tried to expand his culinary horizons by exploring vegan recipes – in particular those based on beans and lentils. Once I mastered the art of cooking dried beans in a slow cooker I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to cook vegan meals that also satisfied my other very pro-carnivore son.
When NZ Gardener columnist, Heather Cole, wrote about harvesting her heritage beans and the Heritage Food Crops Research Trust offered free seeds of heritage North American dry climbing beans I just had to give it go.
As I have limited space, I only grew six plants each of four varieties – chosen mainly because of their evocative names.
'Good Mother Stallard' were first to germinate and the plants shot to the top of the climbing frame so quickly they must have been the inspiration for that story about Jack. They were also the first to flower and form pods. The pods were tasty green before the seeds formed but really came into their own as fresh shell-out beans picked when the beans had swollen but before the pods had dried. Boiled in salted water the pretty purple and white speckled beans took a little longer than green beans to cook. They were so delicious I had to exercise extreme restraint to avoid scoffing the lot before the remaining pods dried on the vine.
The 'Hidatsa Shield Figure' climbing beans are almost too good looking to eat. Each creamy bean has a mottled splash of apricot and brown across the top. The beans are large and are easy to pop out of the pods. I haven't tried eating them yet but they are said to have an excellent flavour.
Brown 'Fat Goose' beans are large and flattish. We ate a lot of these at the shell-out stage when the pods were bright pink. Their creamy texture is great for bean dips and the flavour goes well with fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Picking a few early beans while still green does encourage the plants to continue to produce more flowers but we overdid it in this case, so have less to dry for winter as a result.
'Blue Shackamaxon' were so slow to get going that I thought at first that the seed had failed to germinate but eventually all six plants grew and they have stayed productive the longest. They are still producing new leaves, flowers and pods in the last week of March.
These small, angular, shiny, black beans are packed into slim pods. At the stage when the beans had just formed, whole pods were delicious tossed into stir fries or steamed and served with a drizzle of olive oil and some toasted sesame seeds.
All the bean pods were left to dry and wither on the vine. In hindsight, I should have picked them before the big "weather bomb" a couple of weeks ago as some pods started to go mouldy. The pods finished drying in single layers in some trugs and seed trays in a warm corner of the kitchen. Then I shelled them and stored them them in glass jars.
The beans are different sizes and have different cooking times so you need to cook each variety separately. Soak them overnight before cooking as you would any other dried bean. I use a slow cooker with one cup of beans to six cups of water plus a chopped onion, carrot and a big bunch of fresh herbs (bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, oregano and sage). Tie the stems of the herbs together with a long piece of string. Tie the other end of the string to the handle of the slow cooker so they are easy to fish out later.
Fresh dried beans cook much more quickly than ones that are a couple of years old, so keep testing them while they're cooking until they are melt-in-the-mouth tender. Don't add salt until they've finished cooking. Use your cooked beans in any recipe calling for tinned or home-cooked beans. Some beans hold their shape better after cooking and some have thin skins and a creamy texture suited to dips or refried beans.
I made a homemade version of baked beans with 'Good Mother Stallard' beans, a long red chilli and the last of my tomatoes. It was absolutely yummy! Although in my heart of hearts I do think that every vegan recipe would be so much tastier with a little bacon I'm now a complete bean convert.
In a small garden they provide a lot of nutrition from a small soil "footprint". Pests and diseases are minimal and they couldn't be easier to grow. They have a long cropping period – three months worth of green and shell-out beans plus dried beans for winter. Beans are also legumes, so are able to fix nitrogen in the soil. The spent vines zip through the shredder easily and the empty pods make great mulch. What's not to like?
Want free bean seed to try yourself? Heritage Food Crops Research Trust is giving away a selection of heritage North American dry climbing bean varieties. Just send a stamped, self-addressed bubble envelope to: Heritage Food Crops Research, 126A Springvale Road, Whanganui 4501 to receive an interesting selection of beans.
- NZ Gardener