Monday, November 05, 2018

Farm Bulletin: Our Garden Beans, a Dried Bean Primer

As contributor Anthony Boutard outlines below, he and Carol have been adapting their beans at Ayers Creek Farm to our Pacific maritime climate and the soil of their Wapato Valley location—not to mention their own tastes—for well over a decade. The roster, along with the beans themselves, has changed over the years, and it was time for an update. You can find all of these beans, raisins, popcorn and the farm's other products at two upcoming open farm weekends. Details at the end of this post.

Over the decade and half we have been growing dry beans commercially, we cultivated more than three dozen types. It has been an effort to find beans that will grow in the climate of the Pacific Northwest and appeal to our palate, and, equally important, succeed in commerce. We have trimmed our list to types with distinct qualities while avoiding pointless overlap.


We favor beans that are delicious on their own and yield a good stock on their own when cooked. No need to add stock or meat. Thin skins and a non-grainy texture are also important qualities. Many of our beans come to us upon recommendation of others. We acknowledge and are grateful for their generosity of ideas. We have been working with and eating these beans for 15 years or so. They have been shaped by and adapted to our approach to farming, our environment, our customers and our love of beans. Otello’s Pebbles is the exception; it was a new offering last year, but adheres to the overall idea.

As a general matter, we recommend soaking the beans overnight. This engages the enzymes in the beans which break down the proteins and carbohydrates into simpler units. There is an aesthetic to allowing beans to start the process on their own natural terms, rather than using brute force of heat alone, or worse, the extreme impatience of a pressure cooker. In our experience, soaking results in a sweeter bean when cooked. Nonetheless, plenty of people eschew our biological aestheticism.

Borlotto Gaston a la Ava Gene's.

Garden beans follow two forms of growth, types with a low bush habit and those with a tall vining habit requiring supportive structures. Then there are a handful that refuse to follow a binary habit, called semi-vining, which climb upon one another and the weeds but have no use for structures to guide their wayward nature. The pole types are more expensive because the vining habit requires the nearly simultaneous planting of thousands of bamboo poles and assembling a supporting structure. The poles and structures must be removed after harvest. The pole sorts are worth the effort because they have qualities that are missing in even the best bush types.

The finest beans, with their thin skins, require a gentle hand at harvest. They are far too fragile for a combine. Dry beans commonly found in stores have bred with thicker skins which allows mechanical harvesting and helps them keep their shape in a tin can.

Pole Sorts Described

Borlotto Gaston: A classic large horticultural type with a fine texture and flavor.

Borlotto Gaston.

A passing comment by [Nostrana owner and chef] Cathy Whims at a 2002 winter farms’ market noting how much she loved the beans of Lamon landed this bean in our mix. Over the last decade and a half, we have carefully selected for the lumpy, ugly pods that produce the best quality seeds, improving the quality of the beans in the process. We make the classic sauerkraut, potato and pork jowl soup fragrant with cumin from Trieste called La jota many times over the course of winter. It is the bean that has made Ava Gene’s "beans on toast" their signature menu item—the bean that launched a thousand of pieces of toast.

Tarbesque: A large flattened white bean of the sort most commonly associated with cassoulet. It is a bean for soups or stews where you want the bean to hold its shape.

The original seed stock came from Pascal Sauton when he was the chef at Riverside Hotel back around 2003. This sort of bean is grown around the area of Tarbes in southwestern France. There the Tarbais is protected as an A.O.C., so we deftly renamed it. Sort of like the Tarbais but not exactly. We don’t have the same soils and climate and, unlike the fair people of Tarbes, we pick the pods by the handful, not one by one.

Black Basque.

Black Basque: This black bean is best as a solo performer. Cooked on its own and finished with some olive oil, the stock and the beans make a delicious soup to accompany a bit of toast seasoned with garlic and a chunk of sausage or pork belly. Cathy Whims uses these for her version of Anne Bianchi’s "Bastard Soup." For complex or spicy dishes, the black turtle is a better choice.

Wapato White: A very fine textured white bean with a distinctly buttery consistency. Good solo, with lamb or in an escarole soup.

Wapato White.

We lived for several years in the Boston area. Our neighborhood was considered "integrated” because it included both Italian and Portuguese families. Somerville had its rough edges. One Halloween morning, while preparing breakfast, we watched a hit by the legendary Winter Hill Gang outside our kitchen window—apparently an uncollected debt precipitated the deed, though the debtor was simply shot up to jog his memory, not necessarily to kill him. He survived. The hitmen wore gorilla masks, appropriately, and dropped the revolver in the street. We called the police and they investigated. They told us in a perfunctory manner that the getaway car was dumped in Dedham, as if that might be expected, and the victim claimed he didn’t know anything or anyone—that was definitely expected. Notwithstanding this incident, it was a friendly neighborhood where children, our daughter included, played in the street.

In the Boston area, bean and escarole soup was a winter favorite of the Italian and Portuguese communities, and the supermarkets had mounds of beautiful escarole heads for the purpose. For those on the run, the Progresso company had a canned escarole soup available especially for the Boston market. Much to the dismay of many, they dropped that traditional soup. For a while, they offered an Italian wedding soup with escarole, but now it contains spinach, alas. The last week or so, we have been enjoying many variations on escarole soup.

Bush Sorts

Black turtle: Not much to add. The turtle bean has a distinct flavor well-suited to spices and garlic.

Woodblock label by Anthony.

Carol’s godmother was Cuban and the soup was a staple for us. We wanted a fresh, well-grown turtle bean, so we grew them. For several years, we just sold them at the farmers’ market as several chefs told us black beans were "tough to plate." Fortunately, that dainty sentiment has fallen by the wayside.

Purgatorio: For the most part, beans and fish are not a pleasing combination to contemplate. The flavor and texture are wrong. Purgatorio provides an exception. The small beans provide a better texture for fish and the flavor is neutral, i.e. not especially beany. As the name indicates, it was consumed on Fridays and during the Lenten fast, with fish. Use the bean stock as the base for a fish and beans soup seasoned with a hint of cumin. The Oregon bay shrimp is good as well. This small bean is excellent with lamb dishes.

Purgatorio in a stew.

Here is how it was introduced to us. We had dinner at Al Covo, a Venetian restaurant that specializes in fish. The person serving us noted that she was from Texas and wanted to know where we lived and what we did. On a whim, we introduced ourselves as bean farmers from Oregon. A few minutes later her husband, Cesare Benelli, emerged from the kitchen and told us how much he loved beans. The chef then turned serious and told us that we should grow the bean from Gradoli, as it is the best bean for serving with fish. He checked in the kitchen, but they had run out of the beans. A few months later, our sister-in-law Shirin sent us a gift box with several types of beans, by coincidence it included "purgatorio," the bean of Gradoli.

Zolfino: Another solo performer. Classic bean for a simple white bean soup. Provides a lovely stock during cooking. Cook with a sprig of rosemary, thyme or sage – just a light seasoning so as not to overwhelm their fine flavor. Remove about three-quarters of the beans, mash them into the stock and then return the whole beans. A bit of olive oil to top it off.

Dutch Bullet: This bean is a superior alternative to the kidney bean. It is thin skinned with much finer texture, but has a sweet, beany flavor we enjoy in the red types.

Dutch Bullet.

Given to us by a legendary Dutch plant breeder, the late Kees Sahin, when he visited the farm. He was insistent we grow it and it has been on the dossier for more than a decade. You will notice how thin the skin is relative to the modern red kidney bean, a bean skillfully modified to stand up to the combine and tin can.

Otello’s Pebbles: Excellent assertive flavor, the texture is silky and they cook down to a soupy beany broth. We have added them to the broth of lambs shanks and pork shoulder.

This is another bean that arrived uninvited. We were sent an irritatingly small package of beans by Nancy Jenkins, a food writer and author. The note in the package, written by another person, noted that the bean was grown by someone called Otello and praised the bean as growing well in poor soil. Not much of an endorsement, and not a word about its culinary qualities, worse the package contained what appeared to be an assortment of types, something bean growers work hard to avoid. The package would have been relegated to the ACF seed museum except that Myrtha Zierock and Anthony were planting a block of soy and had space for a few more seeds. We joked that the beans looked like pebbles and tossed them into the seeder. At harvest, we cooked up the beans and found they had their own redeeming qualities. They arrived unnamed so we have dubbed them Otello’s Pebbles.

* * *

From Anthony:

"We are planning a couplet of open days on November 10th and 11th. Our hours will be from 3-5 pm. We will have only a smattering of preserves available at this time. We will be processing the fruit over the following week and are planning another open day couplet on the 1st and 2nd of December. As a reminder, for those who find the journey out to the farm difficult, Barbur World Foods and Rubinette Produce, carry robust selections of our beans and grains in their produce departments. Providore probably has a better selection of preserves on the shelf than we do at the moment. We will have the full complement of our beans, grains and mustard seed. We will also have 'Ave Bruma' melons, escarole, beets, large white onions and demi-sec Lakemont grapes."

Photo of Lakemont grapes by Anthony Boutard. Rum raisin ice cream from Sarah Minnick's Instagram feed.

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