Beans are intricately woven into the fabric of human history. The first ‘permanent cultures’ evolved when hunter-gatherers and nomadic people began tilling the earth and developing systems of agriculture, and beans were among the first cultivated crops. This progression served as a gateway from what could be considered a ‘primitive’ existence into a more stabilized one, which allowed for long term living situations to be established. With the knowledge of agriculture came the domestication of animals and the art of creating tools and implements. These three things combined, altered the course of human history in an unparalleled way, and beans played an integral part.
There is evidence of peas that has been carbon dated back to 9750 BC, found by archaeologists Thailand. Evidence also exists that suggests, that native people of Mexico and Peru were cultivating bean crops as far back as 7000 BC.
The use of lentils has been traced back as far as 6750 BC in parts of the present day Middle East. Chickpeas, lentils and Fava Beans have been found in Egyptian tombs that date back at least 4000 years. About the same time, (around 1500 BC) parts of present day Asia were growing and using soybeans.
In a completely different part of the world, Native Americans and Mexicans were working with the haricot bean, a diverse category that includes runner beans, kidney beans and lima beans, and it’s adaptability helped it to become a stable crop. It is apparent that beans were an integral part of the development of many cultures throughout the world.
The early farmers who were growing beans also grew grains. Beans and grains have a symbiotic relationship in which the amino acids of each complement one another in such way as to form a complete protein, which is the foundation for the growth and development of many life forms, including humans. Regional and cultural combinations such as lentils and rice, Lima beans and corn, and chickpeas (garbonzo beans) and couscous are a reflection of this correlation. The Native Americans exemplified this with their mixed cultivation of beans, corn and squash. With the onset of the age of European exploration came an increased exchange of beans and grains, as well as other potential crops, and as a result, the range of possibilities was expanded.
With over 13,000 known varieties of beans throughout the world, we have a wide variety to choose from when we try to incorporate legumes into our diet. 4,000 of those cultivars are produced in the U.S. So many beans, and so little time! Here are a few of my favorites, listed in no order whatsoever.
- BOUNTIFUL 46 days – An early bush bean that produces a very large crop. The beans are stringless, broad, straight, and 6 to 7 inches long. The plants grow 16 to 18 inches tall and have light green foliage. Good home garden variety for canning or freezing, that was first introduced in 1897.
- CHEROKEE WAX 43-55 days – Dating from 1946, the hardy 1 ½ foot plants will reliably produce a stringless crop of oval, golden yellow beans. Good choice for canning or fresh use. A vigorous, heavy yielding variety.
- ROYAL BURGUNDY 55 days – A very good producer of round, stringless, purple pod beans, that grow on 15 to 20 inch plants. The delicious beans turn green when cooked. Mexican bean beetles avoid this variety. A good choice for cooler climates.
- PAINTED LADY 68 days – This early variety will help attract hummingbirds to your garden with its delightful scarlet and cream colored flowers. Dating back to 1827, these tasty runner-type beans should be picked when young for best flavor. Beautiful when grown on arbors and trellises.
- RATTLESNAKE POLE BEAN 65 days – This heirloom has unusual, dark-green pods streaked with purple. This vigorous grower often grows to 10 feet tall, and is filled with 7 inch, great tasting pods. Beautiful, light buff seeds splashed with dark-brown markings.
- KENTUCKY WONDER 69 days – This variety was first introduced in 1864, and is still a favorite of many. Tall vines, often growing over 6 feet tall, produce an abundant crop of 9-10 inch beans.
- SCARLET RUNNER POLE BEAN 70 days – This heirloom variety was first grown in the 1600’s, but introduced to the United States in the 1800’s. Large clusters of bright red flowers abound on large, 10 foot vines. Pick the 12 inch pods when young for best flavor. A favorite of hummingbirds.
- FORDHOOK BUSH LIMA 75 days – This old variety was first introduced in 1917, and still remains a heavy producer of high quality beans today. The large, all purpose limas have pods that contain 4 to 5 fat, delicious beans.
- BLACK TURTLE 90 days – This old heirloom variety was first introduced in the late 1700’s, and has beautiful, jet black seeds. The hardy bush plants are disease and heat resistant, and are wonderful in soup.
- DARK RED KIDNEY BEAN 95 days – A great bush variety of dried bean that can be used for baking, soup or chili! Each pod contains 5 large, red, kidney shaped beans that store well. A popular choice for Mexican cuisine.
- GREAT NORTHERN 65 – 90 days – A heavy yielder of “navy” type beans that dates back to 1907. The 2 foot plants produce straight, 5 inch pods with 5-6 thin, white seeds enclosed. Excellent for soups or baking. An heirloom variety grown by the Mandan Indians.
- JACOB’S CATTLE BEAN DRY BEAN 80-100 days – A very old New England favorite that can be used for baking or soup. A beautiful kidney shaped white bean that’s speckled with maroon markings. A heavy yielding bush variety.
- PINTO BEAN 90 days – This bean is a popular choice for Mexican cuisine. The half-runner type 20 inch plants produce light tan seeds with brown speckles. May be eaten as a green, snap bean when young. Commonly used to make refried beans.
No post about beans would be complete without a recipe, so here’s a goodie! Use any combination of your favorite soup beans, including lentils, split peas, etc. This is a vegetarian dish, but you are welcome to add a ham bone, some italian sausage, or chunks of chicken if you just can’t eat a meal without meat. Enjoy!
- 1 lb of mixed beans, your choice of varieties
- 1 tbs vegetable oil
- 1 large red onion, chopped
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
- 2 bunches chopped green onions
- 1 tsp dried basil or 1 tbs fresh basil
- 1 tsp dried oregano or 1 tbs fresh oregano
- 1 tsp dried thyme or 1 tbs fresh thyme
- 1/2 tsp white pepper
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- zest of 1 lemon or lime
- 1 tbs rice wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- 2 qts vegetable stock or 2 qts water with 2 tbs vegetable stock base
Prepare beans by soaking in water overnight or simmering them in water for an hour, draining the water and reserving the beans in a colander. Saute onions in oil for 5 to 8 minutes over medium heat until they are soft. Add minced garlic, scallions and all of the herbs and spices, including the zest, stir and heat through for about 2 minutes. Add vinegar and stir, then add beans, stock or water and base or plain water, cover pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer. Cover pot again and allow to simmer for 1.5 hours. . Check for level of liquid occasionally. Add additional stock or water if soup appears too thick for your taste. Check beans for tenderness. If not soft, cook at simmer for another 1/2 hour. Serve hot with warm garlic bread and some cheese sprinkled on top. Yum!