What, you may ask, is this all about? Up until two weeks ago, I had no idea that Hank even had a special bean. It was around that time that an e-mail arrived from Hudson Valley Chapter of Slow Food USA announcing a dinner series celebrating a Hudson Valley heirloom bean. That object of commemoration had been brought back from the proverbial brink through the collaborative efforts of The Hudson Valley Chef’s Network, The HudsonValley Seed Library, and Glynwood, an agriculture-focused not for profit in Cold Spring whose mission is to assure “that the Hudson Valley is a region defined by food, where farming thrives”.
This story ends with an event we attended at Agnes Devereux’s Village Tea Room & Bakery in New Paltz, where we were able to sample some of Hank’s bean’s progeny, but before we get to the dinner, let’s start with the beans, where we will pick up the story with Hank’s daughter, Peg. After Hank passed away, Peg found a jar of his prized beans – exactly one glass jar of his X-tra special baking beans. A popular bean it was. In days of yore, the villagers of Ghent (Columbia County) would sit down to feast on a community dinner of Hank’s beans. That tradition died with Hank, and so too, everyone thought, had the beans, until his daughter found his stash in the jar. Recognizing the importance of these remaining beans, Peg contacted the folks at the Hudson Valley Seed Library. What followed was a seven farm collective effort to propagate a new supply of the local cultivar. Working in concert with the above-referenced organizations, the project produced enough to re-introduce Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Beans to area gardeners. Significantly, Slow Food USA, whose mission is to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of heirloom varieties of agricultural products, have “on-boarded” the beans to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, which has recognized over 1100 varieties of heirloom products from over fifty countries. I suspect Hank would be proud. I’m sure he would also be amazed.
To celebrate the successful effort, the Hudson Valley Chef’s Collaborative hosted a series of dinners at area restaurants featuring Hank’s beans, using them in the ultimate culinary celebration of beans – cassoulet, the rustic, peasant, baked-all-day bean stew from the Languedoc – Roussillon region of Southwest France.
Cassoulet is, without question, my favorite dish. Typically, white beans – tarbais beans in France – are blended with confit of duck or goose, and pieces of pork or pork sausage, or whatever the farmhouse might have in the larder, as long as at some point it oinked or quacked. In Toulouse, considered by many to be the birthplace of cassoulet, saucisson a l’ail – French garlic sausage – is a common ingredient. In a classic Toulouse recipe, the stew simmers in the oven all day, forming a duck fat moistened crust to seal in the flavors. When that seal is broken, and the steam carries the aroma to your nose, you will know what the saints have for dinner (with a glass of Burgundy). It is as savory as savory gets, and there is nothing else like it.
Needless to say, when the enticing emailed dinner invite arrived from Slow Food with the particulars, I contacted Agnes Devereux at the Village Tea Room in New Paltz, who was hosting one of the cassoulet dinners and begged for a table at the sold-out event.
As the photos suggest, the meal was as good as the invite suggested, and I would expect nothing less from Chef Devereux’s kitchen, which is one of the best in the region. American restaurant kitchens typically play with traditional preparation, cooking the beans separately, and adding their own toppings of sausage and roast fowl. It’s a winter arrival on most restaurant menus and I always enjoy comparing different kitchens’ riffs on the classic French score.
In addition to the special dinners already held in January, four area restaurants will continue to feature Hank’s beans in their cassoulet on the regular menu: Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson, Crossroads Food Shop in Hillsdale, Restaurant North in Armonk, and Crabtree Kittle House in Chappaqua. For the gardeners among us who want to grow our own cassoulet ingredients, we can now contact the Hudson Valley Seed Library for supplies.