Try to find a busy farmer sometime to sit a spell and share a family recipe with you and you will often get some juicy information on the run that leaves you hungering for more details.
That is what happened recently when I contacted the Spencers, Bill and Barbara of Windrose Farm in Paso Robles, to discuss their heirloom bean and squash growing program. The fresh dry beans at the Spencers’ stands at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Markets are finally beginning to display bags and baskets of gorgeous, pebble-like beans in a variety of colors, and it is time to start cooking some of them up in a hearty fall stew. Whimsical-looking winter squash is also part of Windrose’s attractive display, and they pair perfectly with beans for delicious, nutritious concoctions.
Fresh shelling beans have been a popular addition to farmers’ market fare for years, as growers discover that intriguing, soil-enriching legumes do double duty on the farm. Nitrogen-fixing beans add nutrients to the soil as they grow and they can be planted to fill in on market tables as other crops go through their growing cycles.
Market customers have been treated to eye-catching displays of fresh cannellini, flageolet, mauve runner, cranberry and lima beans — some in their husks and some in jewel-like displays out of the shell – beginning in late summer. The Spencers have also carved out a specialty niche with several other types of heirloom: Native American beans which have become anticipated fall arrivals; fresh shell beans are easy to prepare, since they require just about forty-five minutes to cook, as opposed to the overnight soaking and hours of cooking that dried, stored beans need to be rendered edible.
The list of the Spencers’ beans is wonderful to contemplate, starting with the Tepary group of beans that include a Paiute mix (firm and nutty), Speckled Tepary (firm and nutty-sweet), White Tepary (smooth, slightly firm and sweet). Tepary beans were featured in a recent New York Times food section story.
In addition, you can find the following beans at the Windrose stand: Midnight Turtle Black Beans (firm, nutty, great for chili or salads – a southwest and Central American staple); Indian Woman Yellow – one of the Spencers’ greatest hits; and a wonderful baked bean, Dos Mesas – a grey/tan bean with black stripes and smooth, creamy texture; Peruano from South America – a large, medium yellow bean that is described as similar to the Italian cannelloni; Tiger Eye, a large orange/tan bean with dark brown stripes and a nutty, creamy taste; Colorado River, a small to medium rust/tan bean that is simply great to look at; Four Corners Gold; Anasazi; Pinquito – the famous Santa Maria Valley small pink bean grown since the Spanish incursion; and Black Eyed Peas (ToHono O’odham) very nutty and sweet. In addition, there are smaller quantities of Borlotti, Paint, China Yellow, Tavera, Black CoCo, Tuscan Zolfino, Lina Cisco, Snow Cap, and Dark Red Kidney. Many of the Spencers’ beans come from Native Seed Search, a company that has been preserving and saving Native American beans for decades.
Harvesting beans is a time-honored tradition that involves pulling up entire dried plants and spreading them on the ground where the pods are removed by tarping them and driving a car over them. Vines are then removed with a pitchfork and the beans are screened and cleaned. An antique farm fanning mill then blows the beans so they can be sorted by size, after which they are cleaned by hand. Bags of cleaned beans are packed with Bill Spencer’s specially almond wood-smoked chilis and tomatoes, which add a wonderful flavor to the cooked final product.
Barbara’s specialty is winter squash, which pair wonderfully with cooked beans and can be creatively combined based on taste and texture. Some squashes to try include: Butternut (several types), Musquee do Provence, Queensland Blue, Sweet Dumpling, Delicata, Marina di Chioggia, Turban, Chirimen, Buttercup, Galeux d’Eysines, Kabocha, and Italian Violin. Winter squash are planted in late May on extra large raised beds with plastic mulch to minimize weeding and maximize soil warmth. Squashes are slow growing and sensitive to heat and cold, so it takes extra planning to bring a bumper crop to market in time for the winter holidays. They will store in a cool dry place for months, and so will your beans. So start cooking!