By Ellen Kanner
In the tale of Jack and the beanstalk, Jack’s life changed when he traded his cow for a handful of magic beans. A few years ago, a handful of beans changed my life, too, and I didn’t even have a cow. I met Muriel Olivares, who, big-hearted in the way that farmers are, gave me cowpeas, tiny purple black-eyed beauties, to plant as soil-enhancing, nitrogen-rich cover crops to ready my little vegetable plot before planting season.
The two of us met at a local food summit, which brought together chefs, growers, educators, extension agents, policy wonks, journalists — different fields but all of us advocates looking to make local food accessible to everyone. Muriel taught me it starts by growing some of what you eat. “Everything you plant should be edible.”
Easy for her, with her field boasting cowpeas in excellent, established rows. I love legumes, but until then, knew them only from the cooking and eating end. That was all good. Since meeting Muriel of Miami’s Little River Cooperative, I grow my own beans, and that’s better. I began as an uneasy, unpracticed gardener. Undaunted, I prepared my garden, planted my cowpeas and crossed my fingers. A mere three days later, the first tender shoots appeared — your standard-issue everyday miracle, which nonetheless made me swoony with pleasure. Hey, I’m not the first.
“What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden.
Thoreau estimated he had seven miles of bean rows. I’m an urban girl with an urban garden, and if I have seven meters of bean rows, I’m lucky. But I cherish my beans no less for having fewer of them, and I have an advantage Thoreau did not. Seven miles of beans is a lot of beans, and whole sections would produce while he was busy working elsewhere. Field to table takes on a whole new meaning when the field is right outside the kitchen door. I can tend my beans and take in their every beany nuance in a few strides. Thoreau would appreciate that. He might even be jealous.
Thoreau tended to be fonder of plants than of people. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he wrote. “To be in company, even with the best, is so wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” All right, Henry, we get it. But I think you missed out on the magic. It’s right in the beans.
Not only does planting beans replenish the soil, just a few will offer over a pound of beans, even in a small garden like mine. That’s a generous yield. And beans make you generous — I believe that. Home cooks from Morocco to Mumbai have shown me a million ways to love lentils. In New Orleans, I made a new friend over crowders and okra. My Middle Eastern grocer fed me the mashed favas from his homeland and turned me on to za’atar, the secret spice blend of sumac and sesame that gives them their haunting flavor. I’ve swapped heirloom beans and seedlings with other growers, swapped recipes with chefs and home cooks and shelled beans on the porch with master gardeners, farmers, food justice advocates, herbalists and physicians. I’m compelled to feed the people I love dishes like luscious black-eyed peas with fennel, white beans with lemon and sage, black beans with cumin and orange, that soulful Southern New Year’s Day tradition, hopping john — black-eyed peas and rice, and summer-perfect Caribbean pigeon peas and rice.
Since Muriel gave me my first handful of beans, she’s become a mother and her farm is part of a local community sponsored agriculture program. My own world has grown, along with my beans.
There’s serenity in solitude, as Thoreau said, but the real joy — and magic — of beans comes from sharing them, growing them, and feeding them to each other. For more cover crop wisdom from Muriel Olivares, read Cover Cropping.
Friendly Broccoli and Black Beans With Sherry
This sherry-splashed dish is quick and easy and would love to be friends with crusty bread and a green salad.
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 poblano pepper or other mild chile, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 teaspoon cumin
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved or 1 large tomato, chopped
1 head of broccoli, chopped or broken into bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons sherry
2 cups cooked black beans or 1 15-ounce can, well-drained
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
a handful pepitas (pumpkin seeds) for garnish (optional)
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add chopped garlic, pepper and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until vegetables soften and turn translucent.
Add cumin, grape tomatoes and broccoli, stirring gently to combine. Add sherry and stir again. Cover pot, reduce heat to medium low and continue cooking for about 10 minutes, until broccoli is al dente but still a healthy, bright green.
Gently mix in black beans. Cover and heat through, another 10 minutes or so.
Add chopped cilantro, season with sea salt and pepper. Top with optional pepitas, if desired.
Makes 4 servings.
Ellen Kanner is the award-winning author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner (VegNews’ Book of the Year, PETA’s debut Book of the Month Club pick), Huffington Post’s Meatless Monday blogger, Miami Herald syndicated columnist the Edgy Veggie and soulful vegan writer and recipe developer for numerous publications. With her personal food consulting service Veg Therapy, she guides people to make more conscious food choices. As Miami EatWith host, she gathers others at her table and serves up plant-based feasts. Ellen is a firm believer in using fresh produce and is always keen to point to the nutritional benefits foods such as pulses offer and the value they bring to a meal.