Beans, Beans – the Magical Fruit: Dry Beans from the Garden, an interview with Sawmill Creek Farms

  

Beans and peas have a rich and storied history in fact and myth. Also known as legumes, beans of all kinds are members of what is currently known as the Fabaceae or Leguminosae plant family. With species native to almost every continent, beans also constitute the third largest group of flowering plants on the planet, and one of the oldest forms of cultivated food. Beans and peas have shapely often scented flowers, grow happily in cool or hot weather, fix nitrogen in the soil to aid the growth of other plants, and are renowned for their health benefits in the form of high quality plant-based protein, fiber, anti-oxidants and phytochemicals that fare thought to fight cancer and lower the risk of heart and colon cancers. In the garden, beans and peas are some of the earliest crops each spring.....and some of the last each fall. Photo: Dry beans maturing in the field.

Fall is the time when the many varieties of so-called dry beans come into their own. While you may think you know dry beans - pinto beans and black beans in dusty one pound plastic bags along the grocery store shelves. But, Nancy Heinzel and Brian Marshall of Sawmill Creek Farms in Paradise have long grown many varieties of beans and peas, and this past season they experimented extensively with eight kinds of dry beans, which they have been harvesting and preparing for market. They are by far more lovely and diverse than the dry bean options you'll find on the grocery shelf. I recently visited to see the harvest and this weekend they talk to us about the many uses and flavors of dry beans. (For a more in-depth interview and history of Sawmill Creek Farms, please see the profile I ran on them in December of 2009.) Photo: Nancy Heinzel and Brian Marshall of Sawmill Creek Farms in Paradise.

"We planted out 1/2 acre in dry beans this year, as an alternate crop to peppers we grew here last year," they told me as we walked around the bean patch - literally busting at the seams with shiny, winking, colorful beans popping out of their pods.

"We prepared the soil by planting a cover crop last fall that we tilled under this spring, for planting out in May. We prepared the bean seed for planting with a molasses/water slurry to serve as an inoculant, which insures the presence of beneficial bacteria."

"One of the great things about beans is how low maintenance they are. We hand planted the selections, set the t-tape water system on a regular cycle, and then waited. When we saw bean pods start to dry late in summer, we stopped irrigating, and waited for the first of the pods to begin to open," Brian said. Nancy added "It's important to watch and pull the plant and get it contained, say in paper bags or sheets, once pods start opening or you will lose more of the dry beans than you want." Photo: Vermont Cranberry beans open on the vine.

In looks beans grown for drying are not that different than pole or string beans, but when eaten green, they are "very tough and fibrous," Nancy told me. The beans on any one plant do not dry and mature all at once, rather over time from the bottom of the plant on up. It is common to see flowers, and young green pods right beside dry pods on one plant. Their long and staggered production period is another aspect to recommend beans and peas in the garden, but can make it tricky to decide when to pull and contain the dry bean plants. Nancy and Brian try to pull plants when either the majority of the pods in the center of a plant are dry, when more than a few have already popped at the bottom of the plant, or when Nancy and Brian have time. Sounds like all of my gardening tasks. Photo: Nancy shelling her dry beans for storing.

Removing dry and drying bean pods from a plant can be done in several ways. Nancy likes to pull the dry pods off and then crush them slightly in their bag or sheet to release the pod from the bean - the chaff can then be sifted off of the heavier dry beans, which will collect at the bottom of the container you're using. The beans are then left to finish curing until completely dry. Photo: left: Scarlet Beauty beans; right: Calypso beans (which do not hold their color contrast when cooked, sadly.)

A handful of dried Black Cocoa, or Calypso or Scarlet Beauty beans brings to mind precious gems or a painter's palette - a rainbow of jewel-like tones - decorative in and of themselves.

Considered "fresh dried," the beans that Nancy and Brian grow also have "wonderful taste and texture" when cooked. "Because they are fresh dried, you don't need to presoak these beans before cooking," Nancy tells me. "We cooked some up in a Brunswick stew seasoned with out smoked paprika and it was GOOD! GOOD!" she says. Fresh dried beans can be stored in an airtight container in the cupboard or the freezer, and kept free of moisture, will maintain their quality for at least a year. Photo: left: Pinto beans; right: Black Cocoa beans.

Nancy is quite a cook and on the day of our recorded interview she brought me a batch of what looked and tasted like chocolate muffins - moist and delicious. "No wheat flour," she assured me. "Just the dried Black Cocoa beans." Inspired me.

For more information on growing, storing or cooking with dry beans, or placing an order for dry beans from Sawmill Creek Farms, send Nancy and Brian an email:marshall-n@sbcglobal.net. They sell 1 lb bags for $4.50.
Photo: Jacob's Cattle beans.

And, who knew, but for even more information, check out:

US Dry Bean Council: http://www.usdrybeans.com and the

American Bean Organization: http://americanbean.org/.

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