Plants We Love: Black Turtle Beans

I have one sharp memory of harvesting and winnowing dry beans as a young child in the family garden, perhaps becuse the process involved jumping and stomping on a truckbed full of dry pods on a chilly fall day. Most years, though, our family garden did not include dry beans, and this year was the first I've grown them myself. 

Once we decided to include dry beans in the garden, it took considerable restraint to limit ourselves to 4 or 5 varieties. Heirloom beans are one of those crops with a diversity of colors and patterns that draws me in to a point perhaps beyond reason; the flavor descriptions only furthered the obsession. I poured over the bean section of the seed catalog and found myself wanting to collect these varieties the way birders accumulate species on their life lists.  And yet, this was new to me, the first time I'd planted them in a garden of my own.  Most backyard growers I know don't bother with dry beans.  We've been missing out. 

A double handful of Black Turtle Beans, and two stray Jacob's Cattle Beans, straight from the garden.  

Dry beans are one of those crops that often cause people to ask "is that really worth growing yourself?"  It's a question worth asking.  Buying enough fresh basil to make our year's worth of pesto would be drastically expensive, so certain crops like that make clear economic sense.  Cooking beans, on the other hand, are already one of the most affordable foods available, especially in bulk.  If you credit any sort of value to your time, you probably aren't going to put away much savings by growing your own black beans.  But of course that isn't the only reason we plant. 

One of our goals this year has been to go beyond just vegetable-growing, to really think about and learn what it takes to feed ourselves completely, to grow the staple calorie and protein crops that provide the base of the diet.  When we think about the feasibility of feeding the world--filling the billions of bellies--these kinds of crops seem important to know and understand. 

This is a food you can raise yourself and easily eat throughout the year, without any special means of putting-up. No canning, freezing, or special dehydrating needed. Once they dry on the vine, it's actually quite quick to crush the pods and blow the peices off the top of the heavier beans.  Or you can sit around and shell them by hand if you happen to be having a long conversation with a neighbor who also isn't used to sitting with hands still. Now we have quart jars filled on the shelf for winter, and another box of dry pods that can just wait till we have time for it.  In the end, these were one of our easiest crops.  

They were remarkably simple to grow, essentially taking care of themselves after initial planting and a few passes of weeding and mulch.  By mid-summer they were a thick jungle of leaves well capable of holding out against any weeds--almost impossible to walk through, but that was fine since they didn't really need any attention again till fall, when we collected dry pods from the frost-killed vines. 

The beans pictured here, and appearing most frequently on our table lately, are the Black Turtle Beans, grown from seeds from the High Mowing catalog.  They are the most-mainstream of the bean varieties we grew, in part because black beans are our favorite bean for burritos, a frequent food on our table.  I was skeptical of whether there would be much taste difference between our home-grown and store-bought black beans.  It's not the level of difference that we notice between purchased and home-grown tomatoes, but it's there.  The beans cook more quickly (probably because they did not get an additional heated drying period on a warehouse after harvesting), and we think they do have a richer, deeper flavor. Though they'd be cheap to buy, growing them ourselves was well worth it. 


On the Table: Kimchee topping a little of everything

We're happily in the season of a little of everything in our meals these days.  More and more of the harvest is piling up inside our house as it comes in from the garden.  And I mean piling up very literally: on shelves, in buckets and boxes and baskets on every surface.  Part of what that means is a fantastic span of ingredients within easy reach.  The other part is that every evening we jump into some sort of food-preserving project, many of which last late into the night.  Someday we may have a root cellar, a greenhouse, or even just more storage space.  But for now, we have 200 pounds of winter squash in the living room and I'm grateful for every one of them.  

For the most part we are not using any of the preserved food yet, just reveling in the freshness still available. It's  a luxury for a quick and easy stir fry to have both red and green onions, green and yellow summer squash, green bell pepper and and red sweet peppers, both. Not to mention the red cabbage and green cabbage...both, and all of it from a browse through the fridge and harvest buckets.   

A simple stir-fry has a full range of colors at this time of year as we have just about everything to choose from.  Late summer garden on brown rice.  Photo by Noah. 


Lately that little-of-everything stir fry has been topped with one of our first batches of preserved food:  Kimchee.  We started experimenting with natural fermentation this summer, and on one epic night of pickling in August we made our first batch of sauerkraut and our first venture into Kimchee all at once.  Our friends who came over to help pickle were following more traditional Korean methods for this spicy condiment (including mysterious and partially-translated pepper spice packets sourced from Asian grocers in towns much larger than Missoula) but we went with, as they put it, "the hippie version."

We used the recipe from the "Nourishing Traditions" book that includes Napa cabbage, onions, garlic, hot peppers, carrots, and ginger. We mixed everything with salt and pounded it in a large bowl till the leaves softened and juices start to form.  After that we just packed it into quart mason jars that sat on the counter for 4 or 5 days.  We left town for a few of those days for Noah's birthday--completely unrelated to the fact that the action of the naturally occurring beneficial bacteria that immediately started to work can produce, well, a strong smell.  The neighbor stopping by to feed the cats while we were gone was diplomatic enough not to mention anything.  If you try this, do be warned that the juices will overflow, and you'll have a distinct sour-pickle smell for a few days (but it's really not that bad). And it's worth it!  This batch came out as a refreshing tangy gingery, slightly spicy condiment that we've been putting on top of just about everything.  

Our first batches of Kimchee have been topping a lot of dishes already. The three quarts we made might not last as long as we'd expected.   Photo by Noah.