Know Your Legumes

Give the humble little bean some respect

By Roxanne Webber | Photographs by Chris Rochelle

The legume family (plants that produce their seeds in a pod and sometimes have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil) is big and badass, and includes beans, peas, and lentils. These foods have been on our plates for thousands of

years as one of the first cultivated crops, domesticated around 7,000 years ago according to the Northarvest Bean Growers Association. They’re low in fat, cholesterol-free, cheap, and a good source of protein and fiber, and there is a huge variety to choose from. Here’s a snapshot of what’s out there; some of these legumes are common, others less so. For the hard-to-find beans, we went to Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo bean company in Napa, California, who also took the time to show us how to cook beans the right way.

  • Mayacoba
    This small bean has a very thin skin and a meaty interior. Sando swears it has a chicken flavor when you cook it simply with a vegetable mirepoix, and he says it makes one of the best refried beans out there.

  • Yellow Indian Woman
    This is a fast-growing, incredibly creamy, small bean that keeps its shape during cooking like a black bean and can sub for black beans in recipes like our stuffed poblanos.

  • Vaquero
    Sando believes this medium-sized, thin-skinned chili bean is a mix of the Anasazi and pinto beans. When cooked, it loses its white spots and creates an inky pot liquor. It’s not superdense but won’t fall apart when stewed.

  • Silvia Flor de Junio
    This is a classic Central Mexican bean, great for cowboy beans or any kind of Texas-style ranch beans. It’s medium-sized, light in texture, with a thin skin, and stays whole while cooking, then dissolves easily in your mouth. This variety doesn’t age well though—if you find some, eat them within six to eight months of harvesting.

  • San Franciscano
    Sando imports these beans from a small farmer in Hidalgo, Mexico, but believes they are nearly identical to another bean called Rio Zape. They are similar in size, flavor, and texture to pinto beans but richer, with a hint of chocolate-coffee flavor. San Franciscanos make a good stovetop bean (a.k.a. pot bean), producing a very dark, flavorful broth. When cooked, they lose their black streaks and turn dark purple-brown.

  • Cargamanto Cranberry
    A variety of cranberry bean from Colombia, with a thinner skin than the more common Borlotti cranberry bean. Quite versatile, with a velvety texture. The Cargamanto’s characteristic deep red streaks disappear when cooked. Cranberry beans are often used in Italian cuisine (sometimes referred to as Roman beans) and are good subbed for the cannellini beans in our minestrone soup.

  • Santa Maria Pinquito
    This small, meaty, dense bean is traditionally served with tri-tip barbecue in Santa Maria County, California.

  • Split Pea
    (a.k.a. Field Pea)
    Ham’s best friend in a hearty soup, this type of pea is specifically grown for drying instead of eating fresh, and cooks up very fast without soaking. You will find yellow and green varieties.

  • More Beans
    From black to fava

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