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We spoke to Joe Yonan, the James Beard Award-winning food and dining editor of The Washington Post, about his cookbook, Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein (Ten Speed Press, February 2020). And he provided us with a recipe for his garlicky great northern beans and broccoli rabe over toast (scroll down for the full recipe).

He has written two other books for Ten Speed: Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook (2013) and Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One (2011). The humble bean plays a starring role in many of the culinary cultures we cover, as evidenced by our “Bean Week” series, which included dispatches from Catalonia, Beijing, Mexico, Greece and Istanbul. So we were delighted to talk to Joe about this delicious, versatile and environmentally friendly protein, one that has gained new prominence in the current pandemic.

Why a cookbook about beans? What made you first fall in love with them?

I’ve been thinking about this book for about five years, and really started knowing that I wanted to do it in 2016, when the United Nations declared the International Year of Pulses. I knew all of these various things about beans in the back of my head, but that was the first time I had seen anyone articulate in one place all of the benefits of pulses – as a crop, being something that is good for the soil; as a really affordable source of protein and nutrition that can help feed a growing planet; and then, of course, their versatility.

I was already such a fan and I’ve been eating a primarily plant-based diet for eight years now – longer really, but I made it official in 2012 that I was vegetarian. I mean I’ve always been eating beans, since I was a kid in West Texas, and always loved them. But it wasn’t until I was really thinking about vegetarian cooking that I realized all the different ways in which I could enjoy beans.

So I started treating them as more than either a side dish or a soup or stew. I started realizing they were so good in all different parts of the meal and that they’re so flexible and easy to slip into a lot of dishes.

It was after the UN designation that I started thinking: I really, really need to do this now. It takes me a long time to do things because I have a really busy full-time job. Obviously, in a way, I’m glad that I didn’t do it in 2016 because I think that beans wouldn’t have been bubbling up to the surface. I don’t think we would have quite been ready for it even where we were before the pandemic. And of course I had no idea that we were going to need this pantry sustenance in quite the way that we do now.

As you know, Rancho Gordo has been inundated with orders. Are there any other heirloom bean retailers you can recommend? Alternatively, when you’re buying beans in the grocery store, is there anything to be on the lookout for?

The hardest part about buying beans in supermarkets is that you often don’t know how old they are. If I’m in a supermarket that I know well and where I’m confident they go through the bean stash fairly regularly, I might buy beans out of a bulk bin. But usually I don’t – you never really know how long those beans have been sitting there. So in the supermarket I often buy Goya’s dry beans. They specialize in Latin American products, and their audience really goes through a lot of beans, so they’re usually a very dependable choice.

There are some other really great heirloom bean companies out there. I particularly like one out of Idaho called Zürsun. Timeless Natural Food specializes in lentils – they have really beautiful lentils. I also like Camellia, which specializes in beans that are popular in American Southern cooking – red beans, black-eyed peas, cowpeas, crowder peas.

Internationally, La Tienda is very good. It’s based in Virginia and specializes in Spanish imports. And for Italian products, I often order from Gustiamo, which sells beautiful Italian beans. I also really like Kalustyan’s, which is a fabulous import company with a store in New York City and a great website – they have beans from all over the world. I like this chain of Indian groceries in America called Patel Brothers.

Before we sign off, in your opinion, which bean is the most underrated in the U.S.?

The cranberry bean, also known as the borlotti bean. You can buy them here as cranberry beans, but they’re also sometimes labeled as borlotti beans in Italian markets. It’s an amazing bean, one that I love it, and I don’t feel like people here know it very well.

It’s so plump and gets so creamy – it’s just delicious. I use it in several places in the book, but I used it in one Mexican treatment in particular, because in Mexico it’s called cacahuate bean, which means peanut in Spanish because it kind of looks like a peanut. In the front of the book, I write about this revelatory pot of beans that I had in Mexico City, and they were cacahuate beans. And while I was eating this incredible pot of beans, I was thinking to myself, “How am I going to replicate this when I get back home and [the chef] sends me the recipe?” He had said he gets them from this little village in Mexico, so I was already thinking about what I could substitute for these obscure cacahuate beans. It kind of reminded me of a cranberry bean, so I thought I’d try that when I got home. And then I got home and started Googling around and I was like, “Oh, it’s the same thing.”

That was another reason to love this bean. I mean, I certainly knew them before I worked on this book, but that’s the one that came out of the book process for me as being just a really great, all-around fabulous bean. The chickpea has a special place in my heart, because I think it might possibly be the most versatile bean of any – that’s my desert island bean. And then there are some really glamorous beans. But when I think of underrated, I think of the cranberry bean. It’s not as easy to find in a supermarket as a pinto bean, but it’s also not super obscure – Bob’s Red Mill, for example, sells really nice cranberry beans.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Click here to purchase your copy of “Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein” (Ten Speed Press, February 2020), which features 125 fresh, modern recipes for globally inspired vegetarian mains, snacks, soups, and desserts.

Recipe: Garlicky Great Northern Beans and Broccoli Rabe Over Toast

6 servings

My take on Heartland author and chef Lenny Russo’s wonderfully satisfying bowl of beans and bitter greens amps up the garlic and uses the rich bean cooking liquid instead of stock. I love serving these beans over toast to make it a meal.


2 cups dried great Northern beans (may substitute navy, cannellini, or other white beans), soaked overnight and drained
1 onion, studded with 12 whole cloves
2 large carrots
1 (3 by 5-inch) strip kombu (dried seaweed)
3 bay leaves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large bunch of broccoli rabe, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 thick slices rustic sourdough bread, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon chile oil (optional)
1/4 cup vegan or traditional Parmesan, grated or shaved


Combine the beans in a large pot with enough water to cover by 2 inches. Add the onion, carrots, kombu, and bay leaves, turn the heat to medium-high, and bring the beans to a boil. Let then boil for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat so the beans are at a bare simmer, cover, and cook until the beans are very tender, about 1 hour. (Alternatively, you can cook the beans, water, and aromatic vegetables in a stovetop or electric pressure cooker: Bring to high pressure and cook for 17 minutes if using a stovetop model or 20 minutes for electric. Let the pressure release naturally, then open.)

Discard the onion, carrots, kombu, and bay leaves and strain the beans, reserving all of the cooking liquid.

In a deep skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Stir in the broccoli rabe and sauté until very tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until it starts to soften, about 2 minutes. Stir in the drained beans, 1 1/2 cups of the reserved cooking liquid, and the salt. Cook just until the beans are hot and the flavors have melded, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the pepper, taste, and add more salt if needed.

Divide the toast among shallow serving bowls. Drizzle with the chile oil, if desired, and spoon the bean mixture and broth on top. Finish with the Parm and serve hot.

Reprinted with permission from “Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein, with 125 Recipes” by Joe Yonan, copyright © 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

This article was originally published on April 16, 2020, as part of our CB Book Club Series. Read it in full here.

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