Heirloom Bean Soup

It wasn’t my intention to write a post about a bean that you’ll have difficulty locating — the Four Corners Gold bean — also known as Zuni Gold. Fortunately, this soup can be made with almost any type of dried bean, heirloom or not, but it does illustrate the perils of heirloom seeds, and why we want to save them.

I purchased these gorgeous gold beans in Tucson, at the non-profit Native Seeds /SEARCH store about a year ago and now they’re no longer available. I set out to find more information about them and very little exists. One source says that they were cultivated by the Zuni tribes that populated the Four Corners region (AZ-UT-CO-NM).

So I searched for Zuni Gold beans and found another source: Kokopelli’s Kitchen. In fact, I found them under the “hard-to-find Southwestern ingredients.” Owner Cheryl Joseph says the beans come from southwestern Colorado and this year’s crop will be small, but she has just over 40 pounds in stock.

Frankly, the number of heirloom bean varieties is mind-boggling, and several organizations (both for-profit and not-for-profit) sell a plethora of rare bean varieties.

Besides Native Seeds/SEARCH, the non-profit Seed Savers has a nice collection of heirlooms, as does Rancho Gordo and Zürsun Idaho Heirloom. You’ll likely find heirloom beans at farmers markets, too. I recently saw some yellow-eyed Steubens at my local farmers market.

For this simple bean soup, you really can use any type of bean you want, but I encourage you to try an heirloom variety just to broaden your bean repertoire.

This basic soup recipe is full of flavor, thanks to aromatics like onions and garlic and a healthy dose of dried herbs.

It’s smoky, too, thanks to a slow simmer with a smoked ham shank, and even a little creamy, thanks to a technique the French call garbure [gar-BOOR], which means a portion of the soup is pureed and added back to the soup to thicken it, making it almost stew-like. (Garbure also refers to a specific soup that originated in the Basque region.)

As with most soups, it tastes even better the second day, but don’t let that stop you from spooning out a bowl as soon as it’s made.

Hearty, comforting, delicious.

Heirloom Bean Soup

[printable recipe]

Serves 6 to 8

1 pound dried heirloom beans (or try Cranberry or Cannellini)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced (about 3 cups)
3 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch rounds (about 1-1/2 cups)
3 stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1-1/2 cups)
3 to 4 large cloves of garlic, minced (about 1-1/2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon dried Italian herbs mix
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 smoked ham shank (about 1 to 1-1/4 pounds)
8 cups water
Kosher salt
Garnish with fresh grated Parmesan and fresh thyme leaves

Soak the beans overnight or by using the quick-soak method (cover with water, bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Cover and let stand 1 hour.) Drain and rinse beans before continuing.

Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir in onion, carrots, celery, garlic, herbs, and both peppers. Saute for a minute or so, just until the vegetables are coated with oil and the garlic is fragrant but not browned.

Add the drained and rinsed beans to the pot along with the ham shank. Pour in the water. (The shank may not be completely submerged, but only a sliver of the top should be exposed. Add a cup more of water if necessary.)

Bring to a boil and then reduce to a good simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, until the beans are almost soft but still offer just the slightest resistance when bitten. (Some bean varieties cook a little quicker, so use the texture of the bean as your guide.)

Remove the ham shank and let it cool slightly, while continuing to simmer the beans. When the shank is cool enough to handle, strip the meat from the bone, removing fat and gristle. Cut or tear the meat into small bite-size pieces. Set aside.

Cook the beans until they are completely soft (no resistance when bitten) but still retain their shape. Total cooking time might be 2 hours, give or take a half hour.

Using a slotted spoon, scoop out about a cup of the beans into a blender. Add enough bean soup liquid to puree the beans to a consistency between heavy cream and sour cream. Pour the pureed beans back into the soup pot and stir. Add the reserved ham pieces and cook long enough to reheat the cooled ham.

Taste the soup and add salt if desired (the shank is quite salty, so you may not need to add any salt).

Ladle into bowls and garnish with fresh grated Parmesan and fresh thyme leaves.

21 replies
  1. Elycooks
    Elycooks says:

    Isn’t the difference between starting from dried beans vs. canned astounding. And the difference between the tasted of heirlooms vs plain old store bought is further astounding. Rancho Gordo has become a staple in our house. Great recipe!

    • chefgwen
      chefgwen says:

      Elyse… thanks for commenting!

      Didn’t even think about mentioning that dried vs. canned dilemma.

      Have to confess that I use canned beans quite often, but do love when I have the luxury of time to start from dried beans.

  2. Ty
    Ty says:

    Reading your blog always makes me hungry for two things:

    1. Food (of course)

    2. Knowledge

    Your thoughtful research and chef expertise makes for a well written blog, always. The eye candy photos are icing on the cake. Makes me want to pick up my food books and snuggle in for a afternoon of reading.


  3. chefgwen
    chefgwen says:

    This just in…. Tucson’s Native Seeds/SEARCH store just got a new shipment of Four Corners Gold Beans ($4 for 1 lb.) But you have to call or visit the store to order:

    Toll Free: 866-622-5561 ext. 6

    526 N. 4th Ave.
    Tucson, AZ 85705

    • Kim
      Kim says:

      Your recipe is now simmering on my stove…however, I didn’t have a ham shank, so I used a pound of bacon instead. I am hoping it still turns out well. (Southerners use bacon quite regularly to flavor soups/stews.) Thankfully, I have a good friend who works at Native Seeds, and she sent me a care package, including a pound of four corners gold beans. I researched the web, and found your recipe, and thought I would give it a shot. My fingers are crossed. Thanks for sharing Chef Gwen!

      • chefgwen
        chefgwen says:

        Kim, thanks for leaving a comment! A pound of bacon…that ought to do it, ha! It might make the soup a little saltier than the shank, so taste it before you add any more salt.

        I loved this soup and I hope you like it as well. Let me know how it turns out.

  4. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    I found these for sale from the Adobe Milling Company located in Dove Creek, Colorado. I don’t remember what I paid for a pound, but you they have a website (www.anasazibeans.com). The Zuni gold aren’t listed, but I bought them in their store, you could call and ask! Thanks for the recipe, I will try it!

  5. Mathew
    Mathew says:

    For what it’s worth, I was just in a Denver area Whole Foods and they had massive quantities of Zuni Gold, Mortgage Lifter and Colorado Lifter beans for sale in their bulk section.

  6. Kathi
    Kathi says:

    My mom found a source for the Zuni Gold beans and gave me 2 pounds (I would only allow her to share that amount, didn’t want to be greedy). I just set them to quick-soak so an hour from now I will be making your recipe for heirloom bean soup. Can’t wait! Thanks for your recipe, looked deelish. We are bean people and usually cook pinto’s and sopaipillas. Something new….exciting! Thank you Chef Gwen and Mom.

    • Gwen Ashley Walters
      Gwen Ashley Walters says:

      Hi Kathi! Thanks for writing. I just noticed the date of your comment. My late mother’s birthday. Happy your mom likes to share her beans with you!

  7. Linda
    Linda says:

    Thank you for posting the recipe. I planted only 20 zuni beans in my garden and have just completed harvest. The plants produced extremely well. I will save enough seeds for planting next spring and triple the harvest.

    • Gwen Ashley Walters
      Gwen Ashley Walters says:

      Linda… I’m impressed that you can garden! I can cook but I’m not a gardener. Good luck with your seed saving!

  8. Sue G.
    Sue G. says:

    We just got some Zuni Gold beans from Adobe Milling in Dove Creek, Colorado, when we were on our way through there last week (early May 2016). I will be making your recipe with them. I know that any bean recipe might do, but I appreciate that you named these beans particularly!


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