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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Discover a New World of Flavor with Ancient Heirloom Dried Beans

Feb 26, 2014 12:36PM ● By Vicki Nowicki

Combination of Mayflower (beans that came over on the Mayflower), True Red Cranberry(good in a baked dish), Bird Egg (good for soup), Hidatsa Shield (all purpose bean, tribe lived in Minnesota region) [photo by Vicki Nowicki]

To clarify the term, “ancient beans” does not refer to the beans on the shelf at the local grocery store, which may be up to 10 years old; their flavor definitely does not improve with age. Americans, rather, are rediscovering freshly harvested dried beans in all their glorious array of colors and flavors in the form of ancient heirloom varieties. Driven by the considerable interest of the public, as was the case with heirloom vegetables, especially tomatoes, the popularity of dried beans as well as American corns and ancient grains will only be limited by the growers who make them available.

We owe these opportunities to local farmers like Molly Breslin, of Breslin Farms, in Ottowa, Illinois. While she was working on CSA (community supported agriculture) farms raising vegetable crops, she noticed a pressing need for grain crops. Molly and her father, John, are bread makers. In 1981, he “captured” a wild yeast from the woods in northern Wisconsin and made a starter for his unique sourdough bread; from that initial batch, he has kept the starter going all these years. He taught Molly how to bake bread and they have been baking and exploring different types of flours ever since, so they decided to grow some ancient grains together on his land in North-Central Illinois.

There was only one problem. The soil was horrible. But fate stepped in and they decided to amend the soil by planting legumes—specifically, heirloom beans. The first variety they planted was Black Turtle beans, which originated in southern Mexico 7,000 years ago. The plants improve the soil by fixing nitrogen through the action of beneficial bacteria that grow on the roots. That first year, they harvested and cleaned the crop by hand, and saved the seed.

The following year, they planted three acres of Black Turtle beans, realizing that by accident they had fallen in love with heirloom dried beans. Four years later, they are now growing four varieties, including Calypso and Tiger’s Eye, two gorgeous and delicious beans that must be sampled to be appreciated. They are selling them at Green City Market, Logan Square Market, Glenwood Sunday Market and others, and Molly says she is hard pressed to keep up with all the requests she has for her beans and grains.

So many of the foods that originated in the New World of the Americas—tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplants, chocolate, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, corn and beans—were grown alongside grain crops. It seems that crops like wheat, barley, millet, rice and corn developed a symbiotic relationship with the amino acids in beans and combinations were formed that created optimal health for humans. All over the world, different regions used regional combinations; like lentils with rice, chickpeas with couscous and of course, lima beans with corn. Succotash, anyone? As a food, beans were useful and convenient—nutrient-dense and easy to store, they lasted a long time, were easy to prepare in different ways and portable for a population that was sometimes on the move.

Seed Savers Exchange has both seed stock and cooking beans so you can grow them or just eat them. [photo by Vicki Nowicki]
Seed Savers Exchange has both seed stock and cooking beans so you can grow them or just eat them. [photo by Vicki Nowicki]
In today’s kitchen, the first question everyone asks is, “Do I have to soak the beans before I cook them?” There are three schools of thought: 1) Yes, cover with two or three inches of water and soak overnight. The next day, pour off the water (some people think it contains a gas-causing chemical), add new water to cover and boil for one to two hours until done; 2) No, don’t soak the beans. They’re going to be boiled and there is no noticeable difference between soaked and unsoaked beans. They are ready to cook; and 3) Yes, but, do a quickie-soak by covering with two or three inches of water, bring to boil for two or three minutes, turn off the heat, cover and soak for one hour. Then they are ready to cook.

Once the beans are cooked, they are ready to be used in any way we would use canned beans; in a soup, in a chili, on a salad, pureed as a spread, as a side dish with herbs and so forth. If we can’t use everything at once, Molly suggests freezing the beans in serving-sized packages. She likes to make a simple side dish by sautéing carrots, onions, garlic and a bay leaf until they are tender, and then adding enough beans to incorporate the mixture throughout and heat it through.

Another easy way to cook them is with the slow cooker. Start with one pound of dried beans that have soaked overnight, cover with water, add one large carrot, one celery rib, one clove of garlic, one medium peeled onion, two sprigs of fresh parsley and two teaspoons of salt. Cover and cook on high for four to six hours until the mixture is completely tender. Remove vegetables and use as above.

Molly will be talking about dried beans in the kitchen at the Good Food Festival, March 15, at the UIC Forum. For more information and to purchase beans, visit, and

Vicki Nowicki serves on the Slow Food Ark of Taste Committee that seeks out and protects rare foods. In addition, she is launching The Liberty Gardens Seed-Lending Library in April ( Contact her at [email protected].


Click here for delcious Two Bean Recipes