Monday, January 19, 2015

An Elusive But Very Big Bean--And a Soup Recipe

Shortly after the earthquake that caused widespread damage in Napa, CA, last August, my husband and I revisited the city that had so captured our hearts (and appetites) the year before. Some buildings looked untouched while others--many ornate, vintage structures--showed visible damage and were surrounded by rubble from bricks and masonry that had fallen during the 6.0 temblor. Luckily for us, the more modern side of the town across the river fared well and was a beehive of activity. We wandered into The Fatted Calf, a popular charcuterie and butcher shop at the fabulous Oxbow Public Market, next door to the beloved Model Bakery, home to a world-renown English muffin (about which you can read elsewhere on this blog).

After buying a roast beef sandwich from the Fatted Calf, my gaze fell on a bag of the largest beans I'd ever encountered--white beans shaped like limas but about three times the size. Of course, being a longtime legume lover, I had to have them. I can't recall the price, (though at the website, most of the beans can be gotten for $5.95 per pound--plus shipping, which strikes me as eminently reasonable for rare, fresher-than-average beans). I bought the bag with the label sporting the picture of the pretty '40s-style woman with her tongue out, suggesting a hearty appetite--for beans, of course!

Rancho Gordo Royal Corona Beans, the label said, were "a big, fat super-creamy white runner bean that's even bigger when cooked." No kidding!

Heirloom beans are the foundation of the Napa-based company, the brainchild of Steve Sando, who writes a lively blog on the website and co-authored a 2008 book on heirloom bean varieties, cooking techniques and recipes. The website is also a great resource for cooking tips and recipes.

In addition to 37 varieties of beans offered for sale on its website (though not all are always available), the company also sells other bean-friendly goods, like chilies, spices, dried corn, rice and other grains. It has storefronts in Napa and San Francisco, and its products are carried in various specialty stores around the country.

Many of its beans are grown in Northern California, with others from Mexico, and some--like my beloved Royal Corona-- hailing from further afield. I discovered this after I used up the last of my beans in a tasty chicken, bean and kale soup and immediately went to the company's website hoping to order some more.

Alas, they were out of stock. When I put my name on the waiting list, I learned I was 98th, most likely behind some well-known chefs like Thomas Keller (Bouchon, French Laundry) and David Kinch (Manresa), all major Rancho Gordo fans apparently. In desperation, I wrote to Customer Service and heard back promptly from Pamela López:

"I'm glad to hear you've become a super fan of our Royal Corona!" she said in an email. "I must admit it's my favorite bean as well! Unfortunately for both of us, we won't be getting it  back for some time as it's harvested in Europe; it's from Poland to be precise. So imagine how long it takes for the beans to sprout and then the time it takes to get to the US... The time seems daunting but it's definitely in our near future, hopefully by the end of this year."

Ms. López chided me gently for letting my blog go to seed, so largely thanks to her (and a less subtle nudge from my hubby), I'm writing about that elusive bean, hoping perhaps my name will move up a few notches on the waiting list (please!). Meanwhile, Ms. López suggested that the company's cassoulet beans would be a good substitute, because, though not as large, they are equally creamy and delicious. Cannellini beans might be another good alternative.

One note on canned beans vs. fresh: Although I've used canned varieties on occasion, there is a definite taste and texture difference in beans that have been soaked overnight, then cooked until they've got just the right bite. There is a meaty firmness to cooked dry beans and more character than in the canned variety, which are a little too mushy for my taste. This is particularly true in heirloom beans that are harvested and sold within a short period of time. They also require less cooking time.

So, finally, here's a soup recipe in which the beans really play a starring role.  It's a variation on an Italian bean and kale soup I've made before. In addition to these meaty, creamy beans, a homemade chicken broth adds a great deal of flavor, along with some Parmesan rind added toward the end. You can use canned broth, but again, you'll sacrifice flavor. However, in a time crunch, it works just fine--especially when amped up with a little Parmesan.

Chicken, Bean & Kale Soup

(8 to 10 servings)


3 quarts (12 cups) homemade* or store-bought chicken broth
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 to 4  carrots, peeled and diced
3 to 4 stalks celery, diced
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
2 cups kale, washed, chopped and loosely packed
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
2-3 cloves minced garlic
1 to 2 cups cooked Royal Corona, cassoulet or cannellini beans**
Parmigiano-Reggiano rind or 2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves 
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 tablespoons fresh leaves, chopped
Other spices to taste
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked chicken breast meat, chopped or shredded


*I made my chicken stock from the frozen carcasses of two leftover roast chickens, leftover gravy, two uncooked chicken backs, plus chopped onions, carrots, celery and spices that I simmered for about 1 1/2 hours, then strained. I added several cups of Trader Joe's Organic Low-Sodium Chicken Broth when the broth turned out not to be quite enough. If you make the stock ahead of time, a little fridge time will allow you to skim the fat off the top before making the soup.

**Directions for dried beans usually include soaking them overnight, then draining them and boiling until done. There are fast-soak methods that call for boiling dried beans for a few minutes, then letting them soak for an hour or so before cooking.


1. In a large skillet over a medium heat, add half the oil and fry chopped onions, celery, carrots and potatoes until softened and golden but not cooked through. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add to a stockpot, along with the chicken broth and bay leaf. Warm over a medium flame until simmering, then lower heat.

2. Add the remaining oil to the skillet and cook kale until lightly wilted on medium heat. Add parsley and garlic, cooking for another minute or two. Add to the stock pot along with the cooked beans and Parmesan rinds, if using.

3. Add salt, pepper, thyme, basil, additional spices and wine, if using. Cook for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and the flavors are well combined.

4. Add cooked chicken right before serving.

5. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and serve with a green salad and some crusty bread.

Buon appetito!

No comments:

Post a Comment