brightly hued beans of every imaginable
shape and texture invite adventurous
chefs to give them a try.
“I’ve been a huge bean freak my whole life,
and to look at them—they look like jewels,”
says Monica May, chef/co-owner of Nickel
Diner in Santa Monica, Calif. “When it’s a
good-quality bean, like an heirloom, they
can be prepared simply. You don’t need
stock, bones and all that.”
May says they use the Santa Maria
pinquito beans in everything from huevos
rancheros to the restaurant’s vegan chili.
Cooked with chopped onion, garlic, fresh
thyme and sage, it’s become a main staple
of Nickel Diner’s flavor profile.
Part of the appeal of buying heirlooms
directly from a grower is freshness. Young
dried beans can cook in a short amount of
time and may not need to be pre-soaked.
They retain their shapes, have skins
that aren’t too tough and reliably retain
a better texture. The majority of beans
come from Canada, China, Mexico and the
U.S., so for many chefs, traceability is a
big part of the appeal.
At Beacon Hill Bistro, Jason Bond uses
heirloom beans from Charley Baer in this
dish of calypso beans with lobster, green
garlic and scallops.
I was amazed how much better they were.
They cooked more uniformly and kept their
individual shape, and the texture was even.”
“The Good Mother Stallards are tremendous,
too, because they perform. It’s a large bean
with great mouthfeel, and when you bite into
it, the skin just pops and yields this beautiful
creaminess inside,” May says.
“But there’s a shell game,” says Sando. “They
get moved from silo to silo, so you pretty
easily could wind up with beans that are 8-10
years old if you don’t know your source.”
Speculation on how to best cook beans
is as varied as the chefs who prepare
them, but some rules of thumb are:
• Bean texture is often better if they’re
soaked before cooking.
• Acid toughens bean skins during
cooking, so, no molasses, tomatoes,
lime or vinegar until the finish.
• Salt is also believed to toughen beans,
and is best added halfway through the
cooking process or at the end.
• Color, for the most part, is a thing to
appreciate while the beans are dry.
• The older the dried beans are, the
longer cooking times they’ll require.
In Boston, a city historically connected to
the bean for centuries, chef Jason Bond
of Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro serves
up heirlooms grown by local farmer
Charley Baer of Baer’s Best Beans, who
specializes in heirloom varieties that are
native to New England. Local sourcing has
helped ensure that staples such as Bond’s
traditional cassoulet or summertime
lobster cassoulet remain consistent.
Traits vary among varieties. The fast-growing Yellow Indian Woman bean is
gold in color with a creamy texture, and is
coveted for chili. The Rio Zape has hints of
coffee and chocolate in the background.
Moro beans are grey with exotic purple
coloring, and are known for their thin skin
and dense bite. Long-loved flageolets are
ultra-creamy and forgiving. “You can rough
them up, and they still like you,” says Sando.
Beans’ versatility and broad appeal has won
them steadfast fans. Among them is John
Ash, an instructor at The Culinary Institute
of America at Greystone, St. Helena, Calif.,
who challenges each of his students to
“adopt” an heirloom bean in an effort to keep
endangered varieties in the marketplace.
“Beans are sort of like potatoes. Different
types have different textures,” says Bond.
“What you want is uniformity—like in
risotto. If some of the rice grains are mush
and some are hard, it’s not as enjoyable to
eat. When I made the switch to heirlooms,
“I think beans are coming to the forefront in
a way they haven’t been before,” says Ash.
“There are a certain group of chefs who
distinguish themselves by finding things
people aren’t familiar with and presenting