Saving Beans, Making Chili

As an avid but admittedly novice gardener, there is always one area where I tend to let things go. Some years I put everything in the ground, remember to water, but let the weeds go crazy. Other years, I get behind in sowing seed and too much or too little comes up. Sometimes watering is inconsistent and my garden suffers and bears little. However, there is one problem I have every year: keeping up with the beans. 

Anyone who has tried to grow beans knows that they are a fairly forgiving crop and usually quite productive. Sometimes, a little too productive for your average backyard gardener. The past few years, I have picked the young tender beans and frozen the ones I don't get around to eating. Those that get mature and produce actual beans are either chucked into the compost or allowed to dry on the vine and then saved for next years seed. This is the beauty of heirlooms. I have been saving seeds from my beans for years and every spring, they sprout and end up producing good crops. It is a wonderful, cyclical relationship.

Last year, when my boy and I were done shelling the dried beans, we looked in amazement at the huge bowlful sitting in front of us. We were having so much fun popping those hard little beans out of the shells (eventually he was shooting them at me from out of the pods), that when we finally tired of the task, we had over two quarts of dried beans. What were we to do with all of these beans? It seemed a waste just to toss them in the compost. Well, we saved a pint of seed to sew next year. Then, we had the brilliant idea to save some for Christmas presents for our fellow gardeners. A sweet idea for sure, and fun to hear stories about all the places those beans were growing. That still left me with just over a quart of beans.

I had always assumed that the only dry beans that were good for soup, were those labeled in the seed catalogues as, "good dry bean" or "great soup bean". Crazy, huh?! Well, I finally decided to see what the consequences would be of using a normal old bean as a soup bean. I have been growing purple podded beans and some black seeded French green beans for quite a few years now and the size of the beans is usually inconsistent, but on average, they are similar to pinto beans. I decided to cook some up with just salt and bay leaf, in order to get a good idea of their flavor and texture. The results were suprising...they were extremely tasty beans and the texture was what you would want from a bean. My family actually preferred them greatly to the pinto beans from the bulk bins at the coop. I then decided to refry some. Perfect! I was wishing that I had more when I measured out the last of them to make a big pot of chili. 

Now, as I look at my mass of bean vines bursting with voluptuous bean pods, I don't think "Arrrrgh, I've failed again." Instead, I see the beans for all of their wonderful uses: fresh, dried, seed. I just hope that Kadin is ready and excited to help with the harvest again.

If you are interested in trying your hand at saving beans, here are a few tips that I have discovered along the way:

  • Let the beans dry on the vine. I don't pick them until the shells are a bit crispy. If at the end of the season, you have some that are not dried, they will be fine as long as they are mature, but will need to be dried in a food dehydrator, air dried or by some other method.
  • Ensure that the beans are truly dry. If you rush the process and the beans have a high moisture content, they will not keep well over the winter and will probably mold. Check the jars after they are sealed and inspect for moisture. If you live in a northern climate, I don't think there is a need to seal the jars until it is well into winter. Then the humidity in the air will be very low and the beans quite dry.
  • Different beans may require different cooking times. Try and keep them separate.
  • Always soak beans well before cooking them. Don't ruin your tasty, hard-earned beans by rushing the cooking or undercooking.

For you fans of chili, here is a recipe I created at Blue Horizons Cafe years ago. The brown rice is wonderful. It breaks down and somewhat resembles meat or textured vegetable protein. I still remember the fun of a devoted meaty chili person feeling ashamed that they actually liked this chili. Of course, I have also added meat to this and it works brilliantly, whether it is chicken, ground meat, steak, etc. And don't be afraid to mix up the vegetables. We just made a summer harvest version with local peppers, summer squash, fresh tomatoes, grilled sweet corn, onions and garlic.

Blue Horizons Cafe Chili (interestingly, this chili is vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and super tasty...all quite by accident) 

1. Soak: 3c. beans (can be one or more the beginning, it was a mix of pinto, black and kidney)

2. Drain beans of soaking water and place in stock pot with plenty of fresh water, a few bay leaves and salt. Cover and cook.

2 1/2. While everything is cooking in the pot, prepare these vegetables:

1 1/2 - 2 c onion, chopped

3-4 stalks celery, sliced

1 1/2 - 2 c bell pepper, chopped

1/4 c. garlic, minced

1 hot jalapeno (ask yourself what kind of chili experience you prefer. leave this out, or bump up your  heat experience with an additional 1/4 chipotles)

2 c. sweet corn (either cut from the cob or frozen)

3. Add: 1 or 1 1/2 c. brown rice when beans begin to soften. At this point, you will need to stir the pot a bit more often. Add more water as needed. As a general rule, I try and keep the beans and rice covered with a couple of inches of water. After adding the rice, it may be wise to reduce the heat a bit.

3 1/2. Prepare these spices in a bowl or cup:

3-4 T dried basil (or 1c fresh)

3-4 T dried oregano (or 1c fresh)

3T cumin

1/4 c chili powder to taste. Some are more potent than others.

salt to taste. start with 1T then go from there.

4. After about 30 minutes, add 2-28 oz cans of crushed or diced tomatoes. Reduce the heat a bit. I've used fresh tomatoes before...just cook them down with a little salt and then add to pot.

5. Saute the vegetables in a large pan with olive or sunflower oil. When they are beginning to get tender and have released their moisture, add the above spice mix and some water or stock and cook for just another minute to mix the spices. If the beans and rice are cooked, turn heat way down, add the veggies and cook for another 15-20 minutes to thicken and combine flavors. Be careful, this is the point where you are most likely to burn the chili. This chili is best after it sits for a night, but I have never been able to resist for even a minute. If I had to guess, this makes a couple of gallons of chili, half the recipe if you need or freeze the leftovers.

6. I serve this with plenty of cheddar, sour cream, cilantro and green onions on top.

A note on soaking beans: If you did not premeditate the soaking, bring the beans to a boil in salty water and turn the heat off. Let them sit for an hour or two, then carry on with the recipe. It will take a bit longer than an overnight soak to cook them, but works well in a pinch.


Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at 
Simple, Good and Tasty.  He can be reached at