Beans have so much going for them. They are very easy to grow. There are countless varieties. Countless ways to preserve them and prepare them. Combine them with a grain and you have a perfect protein (which is great for vegetarians). Like all legumes, they gift the soil with nitrogen.
And they are tasty!
Because some areas of my garden are relatively new and the soil could use some help, I planted lots of beans this year. I generally like bush varieties. I planted two rows of blue lake bush beans because they aren’t stringy and two rows of nickel French fillet beans because I love the delicate flavor and crunch of those skinny little beans (and they aren’t stringy). I also tried interplanting more blue lakes with my sweet corn, mimicking the old Native American “three sisters” concept of planting beans, corn, and squash together (my butternut squash went in off to the side of the corn and beans). This works because again, the beans give the corn nitrogen they need, and the beans also help stabilize the corn plants, which tend to blow over easily.
Then one Saturday afternoon in the spring I was listening to one of my favorite NPR programs, The Splendid Table, and the host was interviewing the author of a book about beans about his favorite beans. He mentioned the yellow Indian woman bean, an heirloom variety of a shelling bean that when cooked, he said, is “weirdly creamy.” And like many heirloom vegetables, it comes with a cool back story—that the yellow Indian woman bean was grown and passed down for generations in a Swedish family that settled in Montana, where it is now commonly found in Native American communities. He also said it was very prolific.
Of course, I had to have some. I searched around and found that Seeds of Change sells the beans by the packet, so I ordered some (big mistake — one of my perennial complaints about Seeds of Change is that they are so chintzy with their quantities, yet what a price tag! I barely got enough to plant a row and a half. I should have ordered a pound of them from Rancho Gordo).
But it’s been a fun first foray into drying beans. I harvested about a pint of the beans, most of which I will save and plant again next year, in hopes of increasing my quantities. That’s another cool thing about heirlooms — saving those seeds! To harvest drying beans, you wait until the pods have turned brown on the vine. then you shuck them and stick the shucked and already-dry beans into the freezer for a few hours to kill any lingering fungus, then you just store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Easy!
In the meantime, my blue lakes and nickel Frenches have been coming in. Some I have cooked and eaten fresh (here is my favorite recipe), and I spent several hours yesterday canning beans. You need a pressure canner for beans. Because beans are a low-acid food, the high temperatures achieved in a pressure canner are required to kill the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which thrives in a low-acid environment and causes the deadly botulism. My pressure canner belonged to my mother, who got it from my paternal grandmother, who got it from her next-door neighbor right here in Decatur decades ago. My canner has come full circle.
I followed the directions in the Ball Blue Book of Home Canning (the basic instructions haven’t changed since my grandmother’s 1932 edition). After a five-minute boil of the five pints of beans, I packed them into the hot, sterilized jars and covered them with the water from the boiled beans, leaving about an inch of head space. Then I sealed them inside the canner, turned up the heat to get a flow of steam going through the valve for about ten minutes. Then I closed the valve to raise the pressure to ten pounds (that’s 240 degrees). Then using the heat on my stove to control the pressure level, I processed the beans for 20 minutes at a steady 10 pounds.
And aren’t they pretty? I added in a handful of yellow wax snap beans I received through my CSA, and I love the contrasting effect in the jars — like a little sprinkle of confetti. Months from now, when the days are short and I am longing for summer, I’ll open a jar of these and cook them long and low with a little hunk of peppered bacon I keep in the freezer. Or maybe I’ll toss the jar into the slow cooker with some tomatoes, potatoes, onions, chicken stock, a cube of frozen pesto, and whatever else I might have in the fridge or pantry at the moment for a batch of vegetable soup.
Please pass the cornbread!