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Colorful and Tasty Fare for the Holidays : A variety of locally grown beans are an example of food that is both healthful and friendly to the planet.


In Somis, the roadside veggie stand operated by Underwood Ranches Inc. will be more colorful than usual this holiday season.

At first glance, the stand will look like it's stocked with open sacks of semi-precious stones. On closer examination, you'll discover that you're looking at beans--a particularly planet- and people-friendly food staple. These are dried beans--with names and coloring as diverse and exotic as jewels--flageolet, yellow eye, madeiria, Jackson wonder, Swedish brown, French green lentil, Spanish toledano and Christmas lima. Advice on how to cook the legumes is available, and certain varieties will be packaged in combinations that taste particularly good together.

The Underwood firm's motto is "agricultural innovation," which is sort of ironic considering that an ancestor of Craig Underwood, a partner in Underwood Ranches, was growing beans in Ventura County in the 1870s. Perhaps the innovation part is that they are promoting a less-chemically grown type of crop--which quite literally restores the earth by pumping nitrogen into the soil as part of the natural growing cycle.

And then there's the people-friendly aspect: the realization that this ancient Native American staple is the world's best source of low-fat, high-fiber nutrition.

Further, according to another Underwood partner, Minos Athandossiadis, the bean these days is haute cuisine . Wolfgang Puck's trendy Granitas restaurant in Malibu is featuring spectacular bean dishes this season.

The humble legume lends itself to a variety of flavorings. "Ten years ago, no one had heard of pasta salad," Athandossiadis said, "but in five years, bean salads will be as widely known."

The Underwood firm has tested more than 70 bean varieties for possible cultivation in our county, focusing on about a dozen to sell here and ship to a widening national market. "We have our bean-cleaning equipment working full time," Athandossiadis said.

A multitude of salads, soups, side dishes, desserts and even main dishes has been thought up by clever cooks. Bean burgers--not just the soy type but ones made with beans such as the ones grown locally--are appearing in specialty shops and restaurants.

Beans have a long history in Ventura County. According to Underwood, seven local families, including his own, claim to have introduced the lima bean to the United States. The California Bean Growers Assn. has been headquartered here for decades. And since 1919, Meridian Foods (under the Seaside Brand) has been packaging a dozen varieties of dried and canned beans for shipping from Ventura.

A century of using largely non-chemical means to cultivate this planet-friendly crop has greatly enhanced the productivity of our local farms. In the Midwest, growers must regularly interrupt their corn cropping and plant beans to repair the soil.

Ironically, our local earth-stewardship has come to a strange turn of events. No amount of productivity--even a zillion bushels an acre--can make our local farmland more financially viable than a building development. So, where the Underwood's family originally grew lima beans, buildings--namely the County Government Center--arose. Fortunately, at least for now, the upscale status of beans and other designer crops is helping local growers stay in business.

If you want some new holiday food sensations, something good for the earth and everybody on it, but don't want to experiment--even with the excellent new bean cookbooks now available--get a prepackaged mix at a health food store or from Underwood Ranch.


* CUISINE: Starting this week and continuing year-round, Underwood Ranches' Somis location offers 14 varieties of earth-friendly dry beans--and advice on how to turn them into gourmet dishes. The California Bean Growers Assn. has published its own guide, "Cooking With California Dry Beans," which is available by calling (800) 225-2326.

* COOKBOOKS: Earthwatch also recommends the following bean cookbooks, available through local bookstores: "Boutique Bean Pot," by Kathleen Mayes and Sandra Gottfried, Woodbridge Press, Santa Barbara, and "Romancing the Bean," by Joanne Saltman, Kenneth Kramer Publisher, Tiburon, Calif. The Lean Bean Original Flavor Burger, manufactured by Garden Valley Foods, is available at local health food stores.

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