When I asked a farmer for these lovely dried October beans, he was surprised. People buy them fresh for shelling, but not for drying. The same goes for limas and butterbeans.
Have people forgotten about dried beans altogether?
Someone said “they’re too much work.” Not really. Not if you’re the kind of person who likes to sit on the back porch with a glass of wine every once in a while. Why not shell beans and drink wine? Why not have a bean-shelling party if you have a bunch?
Freshly dried beans are a revelation. I’m not exaggerating.
People who know him will tell you that this boy of mine can be picky. He was not a bean-eater before he met me. A few years ago, I fed him some big, meaty white beans I’d grown in my garden. Just boiled up and served with salt, olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. I got the sighs of satisfaction usually reserved for steak. “I didn’t know beans could be like this.”
Right. Some things: Canned beans are not really beans. They are mushy bits of cellulose and salt. The dried beans found in healthfoodstore bulk bins are not usually beans either. They are old, dead, shriveled bits of cellulose without any salt. Don’t even talk to me about dried beans bagged in plastic on grocery store shelves. Ancient. Rocks. Not food.
So. Where do you get real beans? For the most part, you have to get them from farmstands, farmers’ markets, or your garden. And like I said, sometimes you have to encourage your farmers. They don’t know people want dried beans.
People don’t know people want dried beans. And trust me, they do. All they have to do is taste them. Flavor. So much flavor. And I’ll tell you another secret: freshly dried beans don’t take a year and a day to cook like old dead ones do. You soak them (for a few hours or a few daysâ€”whatever works for you) and put them on to simmer when you start to cook. They’ll be done soon enough.
Good beans have so much of their own flavor, they don’t need a lot of help. Just a dab of fat (olive oil, schmalz, bacon fat), some onions or garlic, a bit of herb or spice. And salt. Enough salt is key. But don’t add it until the beans are almost doneâ€”it can make the skins tough. (I like to cook beans ahead of time and let them sit in their lovely broth for at least a few hours. That way the salt soaks in and they are wonderfully silky and people can’t believe how good they are.)
Some information on bean varieties: The ones I fed the boy that time were Drabo beans. I can hardly find any reference to them online. But they’re good. Very good. Fedco usually sells the seeds, but apparently their grower had a crop failure in 2007. Fedco has a great selection of bean varieties. You should grow beans. They are ridiculously easy to grow. Just keep half an eye on them for the growing season and pick them when the pods start to dry out. Don’t have a garden? If you live in California you are a lucky bastard. I was at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco this summer, and there was a stand selling maybe 30 varieties of heirloom dried beans. Good Mother Stallard, Red Nightfall, Goat’s Eye. (Yes, they were $5 a pound. But I calculatedâ€”that’s still cheaper than canned beans.)
Some opinions on bean nomenclature: October beans are the traditional Appalachian “shelly” bean. Some people say they’re the same as borlotti or cranberry beans. But I’ve grown borlotti beans, I’ve grown cranberry beans, and I’ve grown October beans, and I can tell you that they are not the same. So it won’t surprise you, then, that to my tongue limas and butterbeans are not the same beans either. Try shelling butterbeans. They are flat. You hardly think there’s a bean in there. Limas are fat. And they taste different too. Try them. Eat real beans. You’ll love them, I promise.