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The scoop on heirloom beans and what to do with them

Fall is shell bean season in the North Bay. For some farmers, harvest is winding down and their beans await winnowing, as the process that separates the beans from their dried pods is called.

For others, beans are still in the field, good news for the customers who have discovered the quality and diversity of beans grown close to home. Demand is high, and a later harvest by some extends the season.

“Every year, I double my planting and still sell out by the end of summer,” painter Tim Schaible of Canvas Ranch told customers at his farmers market stall on the last Saturday of September. A few of the 20 varieties of heirloom shell beans Canvas Ranch has grown this year leaned against one another on the table. Their colors and patterns typically inspire their names: Appaloosa, Yin Yang or Orca, Black Turtle and Jacob’s Cattle. There were Hutterites, too, a pale tan bean named for a religious community established in New Mexico in the late 1700s. By 10 a.m., Petaluma Gold Rush, a bean listed in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste catalog, already was sold out for the day.

Canvas Ranch, which produced 500 pounds of heirloom beans last year, has about a thousand pounds this year, which should last well into December and perhaps beyond.

Hector Alvarez of Hector’s Honey will harvest nearly a dozen varieties, including Peruano, Flor de Mayo, red Lima and Appaloosa; he expects his beans to be ready sometime in late October or early November.

At Tierra Vegetables, some varieties of beans had been harvested before the late September rains, but others were still in the field. With luck, the sun will dry them before they mildew. Beans are easy to grow, and farmers face a single challenge: rain at the wrong time.

Tierra Vegetables still has several varieties from last year’s harvest, including Haricot Tarbais, Swedish Brown, Petaluma Gold Rush, Yellow Eye, Flageolet, Montezuma Red, Nigel’s, Mrs. Keeney’s Pink, Bolita and Pebble Tepary. If things go well for the next few weeks, this year’s harvest will include Piquinto, Anasazi, Yellow Eye, Bada, cannellini, Rio Zape, Nicaragua Red and Petaluma Gold Rush. A nursery patch is producing seed for next year, with Lazy Housewife, White Settler’s and Bird’s Egg among the new varieties. The beans are available at the farm stand on Airport Boulevard, immediately east of Highway 101.

At Canvas Ranch, Salvadore Barragas, the farm’s manager, is almost done harvesting beans and has employed a low-tech method of winnowing to nearly all the varieties.

After harvesting the beans, Barragas spreads a single variety over a large tarp, tops it with another tarp and then drives a tractor back and forth over the beans. When the top tarp is lifted, the winds that sweep through Two Rock Valley, where the ranch is located, carry away the crushed pods.

“What remains are the beans,” farmer Deborah Walton says, adding that Barragas likens the process to farming in Mexico 25 years ago.

All of Canvas Ranch’s beans are sold dried. They’re available at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market on Saturday, at the Marin County Farmers Market at Civic Center in San Rafael on Sunday, at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, and at Swede’s Food in Kenwood.

A few farmers sell their crops or at least a portion of them fresh, some still in their pods, others shelled and packed into little plastic bags. Nancy Skall of Middleton Farms has fresh lima beans in their broad, almost flat pods. Libby Batzel of Beet Generation has two varieties, including a Romano bean that she left on the vine long enough for the beans to mature.

“They are so delicious — so meaty, rich and creamy,” Batzel said of her beans.

It is this quality, the meatiness, the richness, the creamy texture, that both sets locally grown heirloom beans apart from their mass-produced cousins and also warrants their price. In some supermarkets, you can find a bag of, say, conventionally grown black beans for not much more than $1 per pound. The price of local heirloom beans starts at about $6 per pound.

If all you know of shell beans is canned refried beans from your college dorm days, you’ll likely roll your eyes at the thought of paying a pretty penny for farmers market beans. But if you’ve ever tasted, for example, Tierra Vegetables’ fresh marrowfat beans, you don’t need additional convincing. A marrowfat — white, plump and remarkably rich — is absolutely extraordinary, with a delicate earthy flavor and a texture that is at once light and luscious on the palate. It doesn’t need much more than to be simmered in gently boiling water until tender to dazzle you.

Once you’ve cooked marrowfats or other heritage beans, the possibilities are nearly endless. Whole beans make delicious soups, salads, chilis and cassoulets. They can be tossed with pasta, farro and other grains; ladled over rice; used as a bed for sausage or sautéed greens; or served neat, topped with a bit of onion, parsley and grated cheese. Pureed beans can be slathered onto toasted bread for winter bruschetta, tucked into pasta squares for ravioli or stirred into winter squash broth for holiday soup.

Beans can, of course, be cooked in any pot big enough to hold what you need. But if you love beans, you may want to invest in a bean pot, preferably one made of clay. These pots, which envelop the beans in a blanket of even heat, have narrow openings that capture delicate aromas that would otherwise dissipate into the atmosphere, creating a delicious pot liquor.

To shop for local beans, visit your favorite farmers market, where you should find a number of vendors with an array of varieties. If you have trouble finding what you want, look for Rancho Gordo beans in locally owned markets and cookware stores. The Napa-based company sells more than three dozen varieties of heritage beans.

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Some bean aficionados prefer to cook beans without any aromatics such as garlic, shallots or onions, and others prefer to add them. For details, consult the variations below, where you’ll also find instructions on cooking beans in a clay pot.

Basic Beans

Serves 4 to 6

1 pound dried beans, preferably soaked overnight and drained

1 bay leaf, optional

Kosher salt

Black pepper in a mill

Condiments and garnishes of choice

Put the drained beans and the bay leaf, if using, into a large saucepan or soup pot. Add water to cover the beans by about 2 inches and set over high heat. When the water boils, reduce the heat so that it simmers gently.

Skim off any foam that forms on the surface of the water, and cook gently until the beans are completely tender. It will take from about 20 to 90 minutes or even longer, depending on the variety and age of the beans. Be sure to cook them until they are creamy throughout; beans should not be al dente.

Stir the beans now and then, and add water as needed so they do not scorch.

When the beans are about two-thirds done — when they have softened and are starting to release their aromas — season with salt.

When the beans are fully tender, remove from the heat and let rest in their pot liquor; taste, correct for salt and season with a few turns of black pepper.

Serve the beans simply, with your favorite garnishes; or use them to make soup, salad or another dish.

Variations

To add aromatics, saute a diced yellow onion in a little olive oil until it is soft and fragrant, add 2-3 minced garlic cloves, cook another minute or two and season with salt. Add the beans and continue as described in the main recipe.

Add a yellow onion, unpeeled and cut into quarters, 5-6 unpeeled garlic cloves and a small stalk of celery to the beans and water. Cook as described in the main recipe, then remove from heat and use tongs to remove and discard the aromatics.

For a bit of heat in your beans, add one or two whole serranos, jalapeños or other hot chilies that you’ve scored to expose the seeds; or add a few shakes of crushed red pepper flakes.

For a simple soup, puree the beans with an immersion blender, stir in a tablespoon or two of creme fraiche, ladle into bowls, and top with chopped fresh Italian parsley and crumbled crisp bacon.

To cook the beans in a clay pot, set a heat diffuser over a low flame and fill the pot with the beans, water and, if using, the aromatics. Set on the heat diffuser and slowly increase the heat until the water boils; it will take at least 20-30 minutes. Reduce the heat and cook slowly until the beans are very tender.

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You can make this soup with any two beans that have a nice contrast of color. For Halloween, you might choose a bronze-colored bean such as Butterscotch. This is my favorite combination, as the creaminess of the white beans merges beautifully with the earthier flavor and texture of the black beans.

Masquerade Soup

Serves 4 to 6

8 ounces marrowfat, cannellini or other dried white beans, soaked for at least 4 hours, drained and rinsed

8 ounces Black Turtle, Black Valentine or other dried black beans, soaked for at least 4 hours, drained and rinsed

Kosher salt

Black pepper in a mill

Extra virgin olive oil

Cook the beans separately, using the instructions for the first variation in Basic Beans (above); add a bay leaf to both pots. When the beans are very tender, remove them from the heat and let cool slightly.

Using an immersion blender, puree the white beans. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Wash the immersion blender and use it to puree the black beans. Taste and correct for salt and pepper.

To serve, be certain both soups are hot and put them into two medium-sized pitchers. Set soup bowls or soup plates on your work surface. Pour the white bean soup and black bean soup into the bowls at the same time, pouring slowly from opposite sides so they each fill half the bowl and meet in the middle.

When all bowls are filled, grind black pepper on top, drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Michele Anna Jordan has written 17 books to date, including “Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings.” You’ll find her blog, “Eat This Now,” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. Email Jordan at michele@saladdresser.com.