A Farm Full of Beans

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in: People

Caressed by ocean breezes and nestled in the rolling hills of tiny Pescadero, Phipps Country Store and Farm is a step back in time to a pre-high-tech California. Before folks like Hewlett and Packard and Steve Jobs turned our lives around, many Northern California towns were sleepy, with both truck farms and fruit stands part of everyday life.

Nowadays, weary Silicon Valley residents have few remaining nearby escapes where life slows down enough to hear the cry of red-tailed hawks and the bleat of nearby goats. One such place is Phipps Country Store and Farm, located only a few miles from the center of the high-tech universe. When it comes to pace and fresh air, Phipps seems like a million light years from the present.

Tom Phipps, who runs this operation along with his wife Teresa, didn’t start out life as a farmer; a stint in the Navy sent him in search of a new life. He ended up on the California coast growing and selling vegetables, but because his large storefront looked so empty, he started planting beans “we’d never heard of before.”

This dedicated couple offers about 110 varieties of dried beans in the cold months, about half of them grown by the Phippses. What sets their beans apart from the others is the sheer variety of heirlooms, many of which are grown with organic practices.

Like all farmers, they are at the mercy of the weather. In 2010, for example, it rained almost continuously during the harvest season, with dire results. “Last year we lost 90 percent due to molding,” sighs Teresa. But things are looking much better this time around. “This year we planted earlier and so far the rain hasn’t hurt.”

Weather is key for hard-to-find beans

Earlier this fall, Tom and his handful of helpers collected and dried the harvest. They will shuck and sort all of the pods by hand. Once again, they are eyeing the weather. The harvest will amount to 80,000 pounds, “if we get it all in before the rains hit,” Tom says. “Once it gets too wet, the beans will touch the ground, and then they’ll start rotting.”

As the season edged into November, with only a couple wet days spattering the area, the Phippses were optimistic about this year’s crop, much of which has already been collected and sorted. What a gorgeous palette of beans they offer. Heirlooms abound in their copious bins, with a number of hard-to-find varieties. Lavender and celadon Flor de Mayo of Mexico, mottled brick Borlotti Lingua di Fuoco (“tongues of fire”) from Tierra del Fuego and the small brown-and-white American variety known as Painted Pony vie for attention alongside a kaleidoscope of selections, some of which, like the Black Runner, were developed by Tom himself.

Rogue beans turn into a crop

Sometimes luck sends Tom new varieties. “We have a bean here that no one else has, and it’s strange,” muses Tom in his shelling room, where a mountain of drying legumes waits to be separated into the bins. He splits open a few Gigantes, his hands rarely resting as he recounts the story of how he would occasionally come across a black bean spotted with gold among the green French flageolets. After a couple of years he had collected a five-gallon can of this new variety, enough to plant.

Cross-pollination, obscure origins, the laws of Mendel, and the whims of nature, of course, meant that this was little more than a toss-up. Tows and rows of the new bean obliged by producing a crop in stunning colors and shapes that looked nothing like their parents. Proudly holding up a shiny handful, Tom shows that “there are 64 different kinds of beans in there.” He ended up calling them Pebble Beans, just like the pebble gravel they so closely resemble. Peeking out among the more traditional hues are blue beans, which he pointed out “are sacred to Indians.” And, he notes, “My ex, she’s part Indian, so I send her some blue beans every year.”

Check the Phipps website for a list of available varieties. For the freshest beans and biggest variety, the best time to buy is now through the holidays. Below is a recipe for a Chinese appetizer using Phipps’ organic favas, a delicious and unusual take on the unpretentious bean.

Sprouted Fava Beans Shanghai Style

蔥㸆發芽豆 Congkao fayadou

Makes 4 cups and serves 6 to 8 generously as an appetizer

Picture 1 of 8

Dried unpeeled favas. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips

I am obsessed by many foods, and this is one of them. Sprouted fava beans are quite popular in traditional Shanghai-style restaurants, where they usually accompany other light appetizers and beverages like tea and beer. These small dishes are meant to stimulate the palate and relax diners while the main meal is being prepared.

Back in Taipei, I first enjoyed these favas in my favorite Eastern-style restaurants, but the perfect recipe eluded me for years until trial and error led to this version. The missing link? That peerless Shanghainese way with green onions called congkao, which means cooking them slowly in fat until they render their flavor and dissolve into pillowy softness. Congkao, the mushroom/sherry aromas of Shaoxing rice wine and a dash of fish sauce turned this dish from a simple bowl of beans into the stuff of dreams.

Although rarely seen in the West, Shanghai’s sprouted favas are so remarkably silky and this sauce so decadent that it seems a shame to keep it a secret any longer.

Ingredients

2 cups dried organic unpeeled fava beans
8 green onions, trimmed
5 thin slices fresh ginger
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 cup filtered water
2 tablespoons fish sauce (or to taste)*
Roasted sesame oil

Directions

  1. Start this recipe about 5 days before you plan to serve it. Rinse the beans in a colander, place in a medium work bowl and cover by at least 2 inches with cool tap water. Soak the beans 24 hours to fully plump them.
  2. Drain the beans, dump them back in the bowl and cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. Place the bowl in a slightly warm place like the kitchen counter, rinsing and draining them every 12 hours. Keep the beans covered and moistened this way until the vast majority of them have rootlets ¼- to ½-inch long sticking out of them. This will take about 2 to 4 days, depending upon the heat of your kitchen and the freshness of the beans. (The beans can be prepared ahead of time up to this point and stored in a resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator for around five days.)
  3. Cut the green onions into quarter-inch lengths; you should have about 2 cups of onions. Heat the oil in a saucepan, Chinese sandpot (unglazed ceramic casserole) or wok over medium heat until it starts to shimmer, and then add the green onions. Stir the onions around and add the ginger. Lower the heat to medium-low and gently cook the green onions and ginger until they are browned, which will add a nice nuttiness to the sauce. Remove and reserve about half of the oil and green onions as garnish.
  4. Add the sprouted beans, rice wine, water, and fish sauce to the pot, bring everything to a boil over high heat, and then cover the pan tightly and lower the heat to medium-low. Simmer the beans for around 25 to 30 minutes, checking now and then to stir them and to ensure that the liquid has not been boiled off. Add some filtered water if the beans are getting too dry.
  5. When the beans are perfectly done, some of them will have split their casings and the meat of the beans will be soft. If there is still liquid left in the pan, quickly boil it down until the oil starts to bubble and spit.  Pour both the beans and their sauce into a medium work bowl to cool down to room temperature. Add the reserved oil and onions and toss. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Refrigerate the beans overnight to deepen their flavor even more.
  6. Serve the beans slightly chilled or at room temperature as a starter or appetizer with cocktails or beer, sprinkling a bit of roasted sesame oil on top, if you wish. The beans are traditionally picked up one-by-one with chopsticks, the diner using his teeth to ease the bean out of its inedible casing. Discard the skin by plucking it from your lips with your chopsticks, and you will look very proper.

Note: Fish sauce (Vietnamese nước mắm and Thai nam pla) varies in pungency and saltiness, so use as much or as little as you like; if you are allergic to fish, a great alternative is chicken stock instead of the water and fish sauce. My own favorite brand of fish sauce has a pink label and three blue crabs on it; I’ve used it for decades, and it’s always been reliable.


Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.


Photo: Sprouting fava beans. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips

Carolyn J. Phillips’ stories for Zester Daily include:

 


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