THIS IS A tale of two beans. It describes neither the best of times nor the worst of times, because beans have an utter lack of regard for drama.
A modest little bean known as the Pellegrini had earned an outsized reputation in Seattle’s food-nerd underground. Seeds weren’t sold at garden stores, beans weren’t available through any of the upscale food shops and The Herbfarm was the only restaurant that occasionally had them on the menu.
Some people, like Nancy Leson, Seattle-based food writer, KNKX food commentator and local cooking instructor, got a few seeds from Ron Zimmerman at The Herbfarm. Others were given a handful by renowned tastemaker Jon Rowley or Seattle Tilth co-founder Mark Musik. You had to know somebody who knew somebody to acquire them, and it helped to have locally legendary food or farm status, or to be friends with those who did. It also helped to be a little obsessive over something as mundane as a bean.
Angelo Pellegrini, the University of Washington professor best remembered for his book “The Unprejudiced Palate” (written in 1948, it returned to print in 2005), famously ate his eponymous beans one at a time, lightly mashed and dotted with olive oil. Romantic as this might sound to those with both unprejudiced palates and luxuriously long meal times, it seems unlikely to catch on. They’re the size of a black bean, and eating a standard half-cup serving one bean at a time strikes me as a slow ride to the land of tedium.
The champions of Whidbey Island’s Rockwell bean might not have the same degree of renown, but it’s listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, the closest to an Oscar an heirloom bean can earn. This is thanks to years of effort beginning with Georgie Smith of Willowood Farm of Ebey’s Prairie, and up until the farm got hit by a devastating fire in 2017, you could buy Willowood’s Rockwells through Chefshop and try them at occasional Inn at Langley dinners. Hopefully those days will return; in the interim, the Prairie Bottom farmstand a little south of Coupeville has them.
Very happily for gardeners, both magical mystery beans are now available through Bellingham seed company Uprising Organics, to grow yourself or coerce a friend with a garden bed to do so. If you buy the seeds and offer to cook, it’d likely be all the coercion you’d need. Dry beans are well-suited to lazy summers, and lazy gardeners.
Uprising Organics offered Pellegrini seed beans for the first time in 2019. I’ve grown their Rockwells for years, passing along seeds through my own food-nerd connections. Last winter, ready to begin my reign as bean queen, I ordered a packet of Pellegrinis, planting a single row next to my Rockwells.
Rockwells are bush beans, with delicate plants that might grow to 12 inches (I’ve even grown them in balcony containers); one seed results in a harvest of around 16 beans. The Pellegrini bean is a pole bean, an entirely different beast. I planted them weeks early, but by early June, the vines had engulfed their trellis, and the entire thing toppled over on top of the Rockwells one blustery July afternoon. They didn’t object to the day’s drama, but I formally surrendered my bean queendom that day. Nonetheless, each seed resulted in a harvest of nearly four dozen beans, a return on my investment that blew my beloved Rockwells out of the water.
How do they compare when it comes to cooking and eating? Rockwells have colorful magenta splotches, a mild flavor and a creamy texture; they hold their shape beautifully with long cooking. Pellegrinis are olive brown with ivory blotches, otherwise having much in common with Rockwells in flavor and texture. Perhaps you also will prefer to daintily eat them one at a time, but they are champions in winter recipes like baked beans, minestrone or cassoulet. Angelo Pellegrini might haunt me for saying so, but they cook beautifully in my Instant Pot.
Best of all, whether this summer ends up hot and smoky or cool and overcast, they’ll thrive with almost no effort on my part, and I’ll be able to enjoy them — by the complete spoonful, thanks very much — all winter long.