Beans, beans, they’re good for … protein, fiber and fantastic flavor

I love the colors and shapes of dried beans. Kidney beans curved tight, deep red and big as old-fashioned jelly beans. Pintos snugged in pink and brown mottled skins. The creamy color and tiny tidiness of navy beans. The earthy goodness in black turtle beans. I like the clackety-chirr sound they make when I pour them into the pot, and the smell of beans cooking. This year, I tasted what may be the perfect beans. Grown near Cedar Hill using organic practices. Sold at local farmers’ markets. And when the grower is none other than Paul Krautmann of Bellews Creek Farm, you’ll likely hear a good story with every bag of beans you buy. He’s already sold out of his fine red kidney beans, but he has black beans aplenty for the chilly months ahead. Krautmann began growing beans for his vegetarian clients. “Beans are a great source of protein,” he said. “Plus, growing vegetables is a blinding amount of work … I was looking for a crop that could be planted, cultivated and harvested mechanically. Dried beans looked like a good deal to me.” Late last summer, his beans were all the buzz at the Maplewood Farmers’ Market; I had to try them. To see if there was a difference, I cooked a pound of Krautmann’s beans and a pound of beans from my local supermarket using the same methods with each. Huge difference. Local beans rule. Hally Bini, market manager for the Maplewood Farmers’ Market, has been cooking Krautmann’s beans for more than two years. “Paul’s beans are so fresh,” Bini said. “They require less soaking and cooking time. Plus, they have a great flavor with none of the mealiness you sometimes find with beans from the grocery.” Bini likes to toss in one of Krautmann’s chipotle peppers to liven up the bean pot. “Paul smokes these peppers himself, and they are fabulous.” Krautmann’s bean production is small scale, with about 4 acres under cultivation. Provided no rain falls after the beans are cut and windrowed, they can be put through a combine within a few days. “This year, the beans got so crackly dry in just one day of hundred-degree-plus temperatures, it sounded like I was combining corn chips,” he said. I used Krautmann’s beans to make a killer vegan chili spiced with toasted cumin seeds, ground fine; jalapeño; green peppers; onions; garlic; New Mexican chile powder; and cayenne. It was take-your-hat-off hot – and good. Next, I made a nontraditional cassoulet, using black, pinto and red kidney beans, cooked separately with plenty of onions and garlic, then mixed together in equal amounts for the stew. (Anything you cook with black beans turns an unappetizing gray, so spend the extra time for a prettier dish.) Try adding chilled beans to salads for low-fat protein and loads of fiber, or serve them over rice, Cuban-style, seasoned with bacon, cilantro and a spurt of lime juice. Denise Wissman’s Kimker Hill Farm bean mixes and packaged dry beans are another good local bet. Wissman, who is well-known for her fine milled flours and grains, buys her beans directly from local farmers’ co-ops. Wissman’s Mixed Bean Soup made a wonderfully flavorful main dish; I cooked the mix, using her recipe that comes with every pound as a guide. I used cubed pork roast from Hinkebein Hills Farm in Cape Girardeau, then served the soup over a small mound of spinach couscous for added color. Warm, delightful and so healthy. Buying local has become a habit with me, so I’m not often surprised by the flavor difference that comes with these close-to-home products. Still, I did wonder about the extreme differences in taste and texture between the locally grown and store-bought beans. I asked Rob Meyers, founder and executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute in Columbia, Mo., if he had any explanation for the better taste and texture Krautmann’s beans deliver. Meyers helps local farmers introduce new crops, and Krautmann sought his help when he began growing dried beans. “Most beans are sold within two years of harvest,” he said, “but beans can be stored several years, so it would not shock me if some beans on store shelves were older.” Sounds like a reason to me.