One of my favorite fall rituals is harvesting cranberry beans from the trellis in my backyard. Plump and cream colored with red specks, the shelled fresh beans feel like cool pearls in my hand, and they seem almost that precious, too. Not only are they a delicious addition to soups and ragouts, but each year I also watch the plants from the moment I poke a hard, dried bean seed into the soil.
The wait for the harvest only sharpens my appreciation of the beans' distinctive, earthy flavor, but I never cull them all. Instead, I let some of the pods dry and save some pebblelike beans to plant in the spring. Fall harvest is the perfect time to celebrate heirloom produce like cranberry beans, Cherokee purple tomatoes, Smoke Signals corn, Purple Haze carrots—and, if you're a gardener, to plan ahead for next year. Heirloom crops are old open-pollinated varieties that grow true-to-seed, which means that the offspring plant is identical to the parent.
When I harvest the beans and pop them from their pretty red-and-white shells, I almost always cook them the same way. Braising them in just a little water and a generous pour of olive oil with garlic and sage makes their creamy texture and rich flavor shine. I add a crusty country loaf and a handful of arugula leaves, and there's no more satisfying (or simpler) autumn dinner for my family of three.
In fact, I found that one of the delights of these heirloom crops is that simple flavors and colors of rare varieties. A tomato salad, for example, is tasty enough when it's a platter of familiar red slices, but a tumble of juicy, jewel-toned heirlooms in orange, yellow, green, red, and purple is visually stunning and diverse in flavor, from tart to sugar sweet. Different kinds of the seemingly humble fruit can tantalize taste buds with a spectrum of nuances.
I love to cook up a pot of applesauce with winey, highly perfumed Gravensteins from Sonoma County in California—just as my great-grandmother and grandmother used to do each year. One whiff of the aroma irresistibly evokes my grandmother's kitchen, the battered red-handled spoon she used to stir her grainy, homely applesauce, and my connection to previous generations.
But you don't have to reach into the annals of history to discover heirlooms' connection to the past for yourself. Get started with heirlooms by inviting friends for a harvest party. Ask gardeners to bring the best of their crops, or head to the farmers' market to choose whatever unusual varieties catch your eye. You'll discover foods from generations past and marvel at all the shapes, colors, and varieties that make up nature's diverse bounty—and you might just start a delicious tradition of your own.
Kate Washington is a food writer and an avid cook and gardener who is based in Sacramento.