Chef Matt Costello, who presides over the Inn at Langley's kitchen on Whidbey Island, is all about sustainability — which means paying attention to the seasons and using local ingredients, including the island natives called Rockwell beans.
The Inn at Langley is arguably the nicest place on Whidbey Island. Overlooking Saratoga Passage in the heart of the hyper-charming town of Langley, the inn was the brainchild of former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and his wife, Pam. They built it in 1989 and still stop by from time to time for breakfast or dinner in the spacious “Chef’s Kitchen” and fireside dining room. In fact, even though they’ve handed over day-to-day operations to Seattle-based Columbia Hospitality Co., the Schells maintain an active interest in the property.
“Paul calls every morning,” says Matt Costello, who is both innkeeper and chef. Costello started cooking professionally in 1989 at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel (now the Fairmont Olympic) in Seattle. In 1994, he went to work for Tom Douglas Restaurants at both the Dahlia Lounge and Palace Kitchen. Under his watch, the Palace Kitchen was nominated for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the nation.
Full disclosure: Costello and I are charter members of the Seattle chapter of Chefs Collaborative, an organization devoted to sustainable practices in the restaurant industry. Fuller disclosure: I was the opening chef at Friday Harbor House when the Schells and their partners launched it as a sister property to the Inn at Langley in 1989, so I have an almost familial interest in Costello and an intimate understanding of what it takes to build a menu around an island’s locally grown and foraged foods.
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But if Costello’s menu follows the seasons, it never does so slavishly. And if the seasonal ingredients are predictable, the preparations are not. Rhubarb, when it makes its annual appearance in the spring, gets roasted to accompany a buttermilk panna cotta on a menu that might also include asparagus and artichokes paired with lamb.
In the summer, the menu bursts with produce from local farms; a “sweet corn broth with green garlic and Dungeness crab” leaps to mind. And one autumn was ushered in with an amuse bouche of pumpkin pave served with matsutake mushrooms. What fun!
So how does a seasonal Northwest chef say winter without prompting the darkest kind of thoughts? If the chef is as savvy as Costello, he says it with Penn Cove mussels and a “clove-dusted duck breast with pumpkin and Brussels sprouts.” But one of the most intriguing courses on the menu when my wife and I were there in January was a plate of Alaskan black cod that included something called Rockwell beans.
The beans, it turns out, have a rich history on Whidbey Island. They’re named for one Elisha G. Rockwell, who apparently grew them in some quantity around the turn of the last century. According to Jimmie Jean Cook’s history of central Whidbey called “A Particular Friend, Penn’s Cove,” Rockwell was retiring from a career in prospecting when he moved to Coupeville on the island in 1890. He married a local Native American woman named Mary. No one knows if Rockwell bought the beans, or if they came from Mary, but everyone agrees that the beans are unique to Whidbey. Costello discovered them when a third-generation island resident, Georgie Smith, brought the beans to a potluck at the inn. Smith, who runs Willowood Farm of Ebey’s Prairie in Coupeville, grows produce for local farmers markets and for the inn; her family has been growing the bean for generations.
“My grandmother used to take them to church picnics,” she says. Last year, Smith decided to grow enough to sell the beans commercially. This summer, she hopes to have at least 1,000 pounds to sell at the farmers market.
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Georgie Smith prepares Rockwell beans the way her grandmother, Roberta Smith Haeger of Whidbey Island, taught her. If you can’t find Rockwells, says Smith, you can substitute any traditional baking bean such as cannellini beans or any of several heirloom beans, like cranberry beans, soldier beans or Jacob’s cattle beans.
1 pound (about 2 cups) dried Rockwell beans or other beans
6 cups water
½ cup brown sugar, or to taste
3 tablespoons dry mustard
1 medium-large onion, peeled and diced
4-5 large cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
4 ounces cured salt pork, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Soak the beans overnight, or give them a quick soak by bringing them to a boil and turning off the heat for one hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Put the beans and their soaking liquid in a 2-quart oven-safe casserole dish with a lid (a cast-iron Dutch oven is ideal). Add the brown sugar, dry mustard, onion, garlic and salt pork.
3. Cover the beans and bake until the beans are soft and creamy, about 3 ½ hours, depending on how fresh the beans are. Check the beans every 30 minutes, stirring and adding water if the beans start to dry out. When the beans are soft and creamy, taste and add more brown sugar or dry mustard, plus salt and pepper, as desired.
4. Take the lid off and cook for an additional 15 minutes to caramelize the top and cook off any excess water.
— Recipe courtesy of Georgie Smith