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Weekly Alibi No Boring Beans

By Gwyneth Doland

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Elizabeth Berry's Great Bean Book by Florence Fabricant, photography by Lois Ellen Frank (Ten Speed Press), paper, $15.95

I've never met Elizabeth Berry in person, but I know her voice well. My first real job out of college was handling customer service at a small local long distance company. One day a woman called in, irate at the amount of her bill and demanding lower rates. At top volume, she unleashed a stream of obscenities that would make Sam Kinison blush and hung up. But I guess she realized she was getting a great rate, because the next day, Elizabeth Berry called back to apologize. We were buddies after that. The company actually had pretty bad service, though cheap, and I had to talk to her often to iron out minor catastrophes. I liked her -- any woman who isn't afraid to tell her long distance company to fuck off is okay with me.

At the time, I knew she grew beans up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere near Abiquiu and that she handled specialty produce for restaurants in Santa Fe, but it didn't mean very much to me. I left the long distance company and forgot about, it until I started cooking, and the foot fetishist chef I was working for wanted a local source of tomatoes during the summer season. I remembered Elizabeth and gave her a call out at the ranch. That year, in addition to her beans, she was growing a dozen different kinds of heirloom tomatoes in red, yellow and even zebra stripes. I lobbied hard, but Chef Foot Fetish thought they were too expensive. All summer long I chopped flavorless, artificially ripened tomatoes while he asked me to take off my kitchen clogs.

I haven't talked to her since, but Elizabeth Berry has been busy. She's just published her very own bean book, written by New York Times columnist Florence Fabricant and illustrated with the beautiful, luminous photographs of Santa Fe-based photographer Lois Ellen Frank.

Mark Miller, Executive Chef and owner of the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, wrote a gushing forward to the book, and he's more than qualified to do it. Berry got her big break when she and Miller decided to collaborate on specialty produce for his restaurant. The pair started out with salad greens, but after an early success with beans, moved quickly from experimenting with twenty to working with over four hundred varieties. Each year before planting they conduct bean tastings and decide collectively which beans to grow the next year. Berry still grows other fruits and vegetables, but for her expertise with beans she has become known as the Bean Queen.

The book includes a fascinating history of beans from the start of their cultivation, tracing the migration of different beans back and forth from the Old World to the New (and you thought beans were boring!). Read this chapter to brush up for your turn on Jeopardy, picking up interesting tidbits like the (should be obvious) fact that lima beans were named for their provenance in Lima, Peru and that in England, Heinz sells 1.5 million cans of baked beans a day.

With tips on buying, storing and cooking beans, the section called Bean Basics will be of great help to those of you for whom a culinary coup means having successfully microwaved a TofuPup. The bulk of the book is devoted to descriptions of almost forty different kinds of beans, each accompanied by a recipe. The recipes were contributed by fans of Berry's beans, including renowned chefs such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill, Larry Forgione of An American Place, Sheila Lukins of Silver Palate, New Mexico's own vegetarian chef and cookbook author Deborah Madison and of course, Mark Miller (whose recipe for Smoky Stewed Mark Beans he recommends alongside buffalo ribs).

The descriptions and photographs make it easy to identify random beans in the bulk bins at the supermarket and the recipes give you a good idea what to do with them. Most of the recipes are easy enough for a beginner to handle, although if you're planning to make Laurent Manrique's cassoulet, you'd better have a good source for duck confit because the recipe doesn't tell you how to make it or that it needs to sit for a couple weeks in the fridge for the flavor to fully develop.

My only real complaint is that the book is really tall and skinny (it measures 4 1/2 inches wide by 10 1/4 inches tall), making it undeniably eye-catching but occasionally difficult to maneuver while reading and nearly impossible to keep open while cooking, even using a cookbook holder. I've warped my copy so badly I'll never be able to pass it off as a Christmas gift (not that I'd want to).

The book is available at a bookstore near you. Ten different kinds of Elizabeth Berry's beans are available from her Web site at www.market2k.com/beans or write to her at Gallina Canyon Ranch, P.O. 706, Abiquiu, NM 87510 and request a catalog.

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