On the Trail of Ancient Beans

BeansmixedWhen archaeologists discovered dried beans stored in a pottery bowl dating to an Anasazi dig, it clinched their theory. Beans were a staple in the diet of those ancient people who once inhabited Mesa Verde. “I’ve seen those small brown beans,” says agricultural extension agent Dan Fernandez, of Dolores County in the Four Corners area of Colorado, “and while they wouldn’t have viability to germinate now, they’re an example of why beans grow so well around here today.” Easy to grow, easy to store, packed with protein: the perfect desert food.

Dolores County is home to pinto, Anasazi and bolita beans. Dry, hot weather with little rainfall kills off most crops, but not these hardy legumes. Their deep root system saves them from drought. Dan has seen a summer with scant rainfall and yet there’s nearly always a harvest of beans. That may explain why the Anasazi were able to withstand arid summers and continue to flourish for thousands of years.

Certainly, the last two summers tested the merits of beans. Denise Pribble, manager of Adobe Milling in Dove Creek, which cleans, packages and sells beans for local farmers, says a drought has plagued the Four Corners region for two years. “Even weeds on the sides of the roads died. But those little beans grew. The beans struggled with no moisture and took longer to cook. You’d have one big bean on an entire bush. This year we’re having a good winter with snow but we’ll need a couple of good winters to catch up.”

Many of the bean farmers in Dolores County are dry-land farmers—they depend solely on the rainfall, not irrigation. Denise favors dry-land beans because she believes they have a sweeter, more intense flavor. But farming without irrigation is a gamble requiring hundreds of acres just to break even. Dan says a typical harvest of 100 pounds of beans brings $23.

So a few local bean farmers are experimenting with heirloom varieties: Zuni gold, mortgage lifters and riozape beans. Most come from the Native Seed Search, a seed conservation bank in Tucson, Arizona.

Saving The Old Beans

BeansanasaziDirector of Conservation, Suzanne Nelson, says the organization collects seed from Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. They also contribute to studies of diabetes in the Native American tribes of the area. She believes that beans, so predominant in the ancient diet, may be part of diabetes prevention. She rattles off some of the ancient beans they store: Yoeme purple stringbeans, Tohono O’odham pink bean, Four Corners Gold and Maicoba from Mexico.

The bolita bean probably qualifies as an heirloom variety as much as the Anasazi. Old-timers believe Spanish settlers brought the bean into Colorado. Bolitas absorb flavors, which lend them to mix with chilies and garlic. Today, Denise says only the older residents of Spanish ancestry from towns like San Luis recognize the bean. “I have little old ladies from San Luis pull in here. They take one look at the bolitas and tears come to their eyes. ‘I haven’t seen this since childhood,’ they tell me.”

Food historians recognize that beans of all kinds form the basis for protein around the world. Now that we know more about nutrition, beans weigh in as a solid benefit to a healthy diet. And inventive cooks have altered recipes to include beans so that they’re integrated into a meal that’s more easily digestible rather than overwhelming.

What’s confounding most contemporary home cooks is the time it takes to cook beans. Open a can and it’s easy. Cook them from scratch and it takes the better part of a day.

Tackling the Dried Beans

BeanssquashBut here are a few good reasons to cook beans at home. You’ll be able to try more kinds, which are often available only dried. Anasazi beans won’t be found in a can. And you can create your own mixes of beans. One advantage to a pot of cooked beans is that it can be divided into smaller portions and frozen. When you need only a small amount, remove them from the freezer and allow them to thaw, or microwave them for immediate use.

Denise recommends a Crock-Pot for cooking Anasazi beans. She doesn’t presoak the beans. Instead, she fills enough water to cover the beans, adds a ham hock, garlic clove and chopped onion. The beans cook on low heat overnight and part of the next day. Denise says there’s always a pot in the office cooking for any hungry person who wanders by. Beans with greens and cornbread are complements in her part of the world.

“There was a time when a lot of people didn’t eat beans,” Denise says. “And now the world has gone crazy for beans. They’re supposed to lower cholesterol, so the American Heart Association is pushing beans. It’s a good way to get protein, and even calcium, without the fat in meats. And a lot of people have become vegetarian.”

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Pinto or Anasazi Beans With Corn Timbale

To cook the beans:

2 pounds of dried pinto or Anasazi beans should soak overnight in water or use the Crock-Pot method. If you soak overnight: In the morning, lift the swollen beans out of the water and place in a six quartz saucepan. Cover with water and simmer until the beans are tender.

Roast separately:
  • One 28-ounce can of tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 1 fresh jalapeno peppers cut in half with stems and seeds removed
  • 1 sweet bell pepper cut in half with stems and seeds removed
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Lift tomatoes out of their juice and reserve the liquid. Combine tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, garlic and olive oil in a roasting dish. Roast 45 minutes in a 350-degree oven, or until the edges of the peppers and onions begin to caramelize in the oil. Remove from the pan, add the reserved juice and place into a blender. Blend thoroughly. Add immediately to the beans. Salt and pepper to taste. This finishes the beans and can be served as a bean soup. Play with the recipe by adding more chilies to your taste, or vary the chilies with mild green chilies. Keep the beans on a slow simmer while you fix the timbales.

Corn Timbale

  • 4 cups of fresh or frozen corn
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups cream or milk
  • 1 roasted, peeled and diced sweet red pepper
  • ½ onion finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • ½ cup of shredded asiago or cheddar cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste

Beat four eggs with the two cups of cream. Set aside. Sauté the fresh or frozen corn kernels and the diced onion in the olive oil. Butter four ramekins well and pat one-fourth of the diced red pepper into the bottom of each ramekins. Mix the corn and onions with the eggs and cream mixture. Pour one-fourth of the mixture into each of the four ramekins. Sprinkle shredded asiago or cheddar cheese on top. Place the ramekins in a roasting pan that has a shallow amount of water. The water should come up to half the height of the ramekins. Bake for 35 minutes in a 350-degree oven. When the ramekins are done (they can be pieced with a toothpick, which comes out clean), turn them out by dragging a butter knife around the interior edges of the ramekin bowls. The timbale will plop out. Place one timbale in the center of a ladle of pinto beans on a plate.

Bean and Corn Enchiladas

Enchilada Sauce
  • 2 Tbs. canola oil or olive oil
  • 2 Tbs. flour
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 Tbs. red chili powder
  • 2 cups tomato juice, juice from a large can of tomatoes is fine
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 8 corn tortillas
  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • 1 cup cooked pinto or Anasazi beans
  • 2 roasted green Anaheim chilies, chopped
  • 1 small red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup of fresh or frozen corn
  • 1 cup grated mild fresh Mexican, cheddar or jack cheese

To make the sauce, add the oil and flour to a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat until blended. Add the garlic and chili powder, stir into the flour mixture. Slowly pour in the tomato juice and stir until all is blended. The sauce should not be thick, but rather the consistency of light cream, so add water if needed.

In another heavy skillet, add the ¼ cup of canola oil. On medium heat, quickly cook each tortilla until it is limp. Remove it from the heat before it turns crisp. Lay the tortilla on paper towels, place a spoonful of beans, corn, onions and chopped chilies on the tortilla and roll it up. Place a little sauce on the bottom of a 9 by 12-inch baking dish. Place each enchilada with the seam underneath. Pour the sauce over all the enchiladas, sprinkle with cheese and heat in a 350-degree oven only until the cheese melts and the enchiladas are hot. Serves four.

Ansazi or Pintos in a Poblano Stew

  • 4 cups cooked Anasazi or pinto beans
  • 2 tbs. olive or canola oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove minced
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 roasted Poblano pepper, skinned and chopped (a Poblano is a green ancho chile)
  • salt and pepper to taste.
  • a mild Mexican cheese or jack, shredded

Place beans in a heavy saucepan. In a skillet, heat the oil on medium and sweat the onion and garlic, add the tomatoes and poblano pepper. When all have stewed, add to the beans. Sprinkle the cheese when serving. Serve with cornbread.

Cornbread Studded with Corn

  • 2 teaspoons oil
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • ½ cup fresh or frozen corn
  • 1 3/4 cups cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Brush the bottom and sides of a 9-inch iron skillet with oil and place in the oven to heat it up. Combine the egg, buttermilk and corn. Separately, combine the cornmeal, soda, baking powder and salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet, forming a batter. Take the skillet out of the oven and pour in the batter. It will make a sizzling sound. Place it immediately back into the oven and bake 20 minutes. Serves about eight.

Spicy Bean Patties

  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
  • 2 Anaheim or mild green chilies roasted, or 1/2 cup of canned roasted green chilies
  • 2 cans of 15 ounce pinto or black beans, or 1 1/2 cups of cooked beans, both drained of liquid
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs, crisp from an artisan loaf
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup olive or canola oil to slightly fry the patties

In the 2 tablespoons of olive or canola oil, sauté the garlic and onions until limp. Add them to the beans, mild green chilies, eggs and bread crumbs. Mix well and mash the mixture a bit. Heat a heavy bottomed skillet on medium heat. Form the bean mixture into patties, dredge in cornmeal and pan fry until the outside is crisp and the inside cooked through. Remove from the pan and serve with a dollop of sour cream, salsa, thinly sliced iceberg lettuce, black olives and avocado wedges.