Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Love Affair With October Beans

I work for an organic farm. I handle and eat more produce in a week than most people do in a year. I snack daily on raw sweet peppers, fresh-picked asparagus, thousands of cherry tomatoes and every kind of melon. And yes, this is a kind of foodie paradise. I am lucky and I give thanks every day. Still, I have reached a point in my life where it takes a lot for a vegetable to thrill me. Most of what we grow on the farm is comforting and familiar, but sparks no longer fly when I fix a fresh salad, roast new potatoes or sample an heirloom tomato. Sad, cynical? Yes, absolutely. So as the 2009 season went on, I desperately needed to light a new fire in my culinary soul. My cooking was tired, and I was curling my lip at all the tomatoes. Finally, I had a brief fling with a new melon variety in July. Succulent, green and extra-sweet, that melon left me slavering for more.

When the october beans started coming out of the fields, I couldn't help but notice their mottled cream and pink shells. The color itself was enough to intrigue me. The beans themselves match their lovely pods, and emerge slightly shiny, smooth and medium-sized. After a couple of weeks, I finally managed to snag a bag of extras. Fresh beans can be treated like lentils: after hulling, place them in a nice big pan with a 1:2 ratio of beans to water, then bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste for texture -- they should be al-dente, and the color will have transformed into a pleasantly light tan hue.

The first bean was transcendant, and it wasn't just a crush -- I was in love. It was rich, earthy and full of flavor, tasting of autumn and carrying a depth and roundness that compelled me to eat them plain, warm and lacking even a hint of salt. The freshness, I learned, is the key to this robust depth of flavor. Most beans have been dried or canned and kept for quite a while before they are consumed. Flavor and complexity are muted. Not so with these little gems of the field. You'll never want another bean.

A bit of research on the internet yielded confusing results. October beans may either be related to, or the same thing as, borlotti beans, 'French horticultural beans' and cranberry beans. All beans of this type are pink and white, and must be hulled. They can be planted any time from late May through August and take 10-12 weeks to reach maturity. Amy tells me the plants are prolific, but of course it takes a lot of land to grow enough beans, especially these, since you will want to eat them every day. Ask around at the market for october beans instead. They can be a bit pricey ($5 / pint), and are not always available in abundance. However, farmers always appreciate a discerning customer, and if you express an undying love for a particular item, they may take the trouble of putting it on the truck just for you.

How to use them? Beans so delicious can be added to everything. Fall greens are just coming in; why not try an october bean and arugula salad? Check with Cabbage Hill Farm, the booth right next to Amy's Garden, for micro greens and a nice bag of salad mix. Make the most of what's left of the summer as the season begins to change. October beans, tomatillos, apples and walnuts on arugula and mixed asian micro greens made a delicious combination last night, dressed with a simple blend of olive oil, cider vinegar, salt and pepper and chopped fresh basil. The less messing around, the better. You could also saute some onions and garlic, then toss them with the beans and add salt and pepper or other spices, then throw them on rice (long grain wild rice would be beautiful; brown rice, I think, is too similar in color and earthiness to the beans themselves).

While you're at it, check out this episode of Splendid Table, my favorite podcast. The first interview on the show is with Steve Sando, the proprietor of Rancho Gordo, and the author of a book called Heirloom Beans. Now, this blog is all about local eating, but I can't help but be tempted by some of the beans offered by Rancho Gordo online. There is a whole world of beans out there we're missing out on with our plain blacks, pintos and cannellinis. When will there be bean tastings? I'll be first in line.


  1. My grandparents always grew October beans and I loved them as a kid. My grandmother always canned them so we enjoyed them throughout the winter. We always thought of them as a lighter colored pinto. I hope I find them at the market soon. Such happy and delicious nostalgia!

  2. I get my October beans from Seed Savers in Decorah, IA. I'm searching the Internet for information. They are a "new" bean for me. Thanks for your blog...inspiring... As the morning dawns, so shall my first batch of October beans...

  3. My husband and I grew pumpkins this year and its the first agriculture experience for either of us. He first noticed October beans when he shared seeds with a vendor at the farmers market and he in turn gave us a two pound bag of unshelled October beans.
    My mother in law was visiting and prepared them for us and we all fell in love with the legendary October Bean :-) Now we understand why no vendor in our local farmers markets can have enough of them.

  4. I just finished up all of my October beans last night for supper. If I had ever eaten them before, I sure don't remember. But I know they are a favorite of mine now! Thanks.

  5. Would you share your grandmother's technique of canning these October Beans?

  6. LOVE! Had first beans from market tonight. Simmered in a little bacon grease and water, then tossed with barely drops of white truffle oil and fresh parsley - mmmm! They are amazing, though, all by themselves. It's true.

  7. Do you have any recipes for beans, we will love to have it and atleast try to make one.Nice blog you have btw
    Seattle Real Estate

  8. Growing up my father raised October beans. My favorite way that my mother cooked them was in with some green string beans and some fat back (of course now I would use a little olive oil). I would not can them. My mother took the shellies and put them in a freezer container and froze them. She did not blanche them. Then when she wanted some, she would just get them out of the freezer. I have done the same when I was able to find some.

  9. Does anyone know where I can find October Beans in Richmond? I bought some in Williamsburg Farmer's Market a couple of weekends ago.