I don’t know how many readers remember a post I wrote in July 2008 entitled, “How Local Can You Realistically Go?” It was a post about the fact that it is very difficult in most areas of the United States to buy and consume locally produced staple foods such as grains and beans, and how two people here in Athens had set out to do something about it.
Visionaries Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian started out small, using a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) project to research the feasibility of growing staple grains in southeastern Ohio. They started with such crops as amaranth and azuki beans, but later, added black turtle beans, heirloom corn, quinoa and spelt to their agricultural trials.
The couple formed THE APPALACHIAN STAPLE FOODS COLLABORATIVE and have created partnerships with Community Food Initiatives, Rural Action and ACEnet here in Athens in order to create a local food system that includes staple grains, beans and hopefully, in the future, oil seeds crops.
This year, they also created The Shagbark Seed and Mill Company, in order to distribute their locally grown and processed staple products here in our region. They are selling their whole kernel heirloom corn, split and whole black turtle beans, whole spelt berries, and freshly stone ground corn and spelt flours at the Athens Farmer’s Market as well as at local outlets such as The Village Bakery, Fluff and The Farmacy.
Having used most of their products recently, I am happy to report that they are all of very high quality–flavorful and very fresh. The spelt flour makes delicious pancakes (look for a recipe for them in the near future), the corn flour makes lovely cornbread, and the spelt berries cook up chewy and delicious and this year, replaced the wild rice I have been using for years in my Thanksgiving Four Directions Dressing. And the spelt was much tastier than the wild rice and will be used from now on.
But my favorite of their products so far are Shagbark’s black turtle beans. Dried beans that were grown locally and harvested this year have a fuller, sweeter flavor than the ones which have been sitting on a shelf in a grocery store or warehouse for who knows how many umpteen years. They also cook slightly faster–not much faster–and I found that the variety that they grew had slightly firmer skins than I was used to, which means that even when they are fully cooked, they have a tiny bit of chew to them. The insides are creamy and soft, but because the skins are slightly tougher than I am used to in black beans, they never turn into mush!
I cooked them in a very simple way–with the Appalachian staple of a ham hock, along with various aromatics and seasonings–and they turned out divine. Simply and utterly divine. Kat and Zak fell in love with them, and both of them ate a huge amount of them the night before Thanksgiving.
So, here, I offer my recipe for black turtle beans–you don’t have to use Shagbark’s beans to make this dish, but if you can get them, I urge you to try them and see if I am not right about their superior flavor and texture to the usual grocery store dried beans.
Shagbark’s Black Turtle Beans
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon dried diced red bell pepper (I use Penzey’s, but you could also use frozen diced red bell peppers here)
2 bay leaves
1 ham hock
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried ground rosemary
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 quarts vegetable broth
1 pound black turtle beans, picked over and rinsed
salt and pepper to taste
minced cilantro for garnish
Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or pressure cooker. Saute onions, peppers and bay leaves until onions are dark golden in color. Add ham hock, garlic and dried thyme and continue cooking, stirring often, until the onions are reddish brown, the ham hock has taken on color and everything is fragrant. Add the rest of the spices, the vegetable broth and the beans.
Bring the beans to a boil, and if using a regular pot, turn down and simmer for two hours or so, stirring as needed, until they are tender. If using a pressure cooker, lock the lid on the cooker, bring pressure up to full, ease the fire under the beans to low, and cook for about twenty minutes. Quick release the pressure and make sure the beans are done. If they are still a tiny bit underdone, just simmer with the cooker open for about ten minutes, or until the beans tenderize completely.
Add salt and pepper to taste and garnish the beans with a sprinkle of cilantro just before serving.
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