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Historically, gastronomic accounts date the Christmas Lima Bean to the 1840s when it was especially popular in the southwestern region of the US. The bean, which is often called the chestnut Lima because of it similarity in taste to the nut, is a large—quarter sized—white, flat seed with maroon spots and swirls. These intricate burgundy designs remain on the bean once it is cooked.

The Christmas Lima has a full-bodied, nutty, chestnut taste and the texture of baked potatoes. It is used in both its mature green state as a shelled Lima for eating fresh, freezing or canning as well as used dried, cooked into stews and casseroles. The Christmas Lima is very successful in the high desert environments of the southwest. They are hardy, heat tolerant and very productive—a bean known for its yield and versatility.

lima beans

The row of Christmas lima beans on a shelf at my local Whole Foods Market in Philadelphia disappears more rapidly than those of the Gourmet Valley’s other heirloom beans. After cooking with them recently for the first time, I know why. I had an oversupply of country ham, and so for my inaugural batch I substituted the maroon-and white mottled limas for butter beans, using a recipe from The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations From Two Great American Cooks by the late Edna Lewis and the Atlanta chef Scott Peacock. Cooked and drained limas reheated with a cup of heavy cream, minced country ham, snipped chives, butter, and black pepper—the beans' characteristic chestnut flavor and starchy texture held up to the richness of cream and the salt-and-earth of country ham. The flavors were bold, distinct and autumnal. No one at my table believed that the recipe was so simple.

by Sara Roahen, member of the SFUSA Ark-Presidia Committee