Heirloom beans are romantic, beautiful, and actually good for the soil and your body. So what’s not to like?

So says Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, a farm based in Napa, California that grows heirloom beans and produce. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, even the names are romantic: Good Mother Stallard Beans, Jacob’s Cattle Beans, Eye of the Tiger Beans, European Soldiers, Red Nightfall, Yellow Indian Woman, Scarlet Runners, Rio Zape, and Black Valentines. Rancho Gordo is the big pinto in town. One of his most ardent fans is Thomas Keller, who uses the beans in all of his kitchens, from the French Laundry to Per Se.

Last week, with New Year’s Eve on the horizon, I decided to pull out the Rancho Gordo cookbook, Heirloom Beans, and see what Sando had to say about making a big pot of warm, hearty soup. Traditonally, in the southeastern United Stations anyway, it’s good luck to eat beans on New Year’s day, particularly black-eyed peas. For New Year’s Eve company, I settled on a spicy-sounding Caribbean black bean soup with roasted garlic and tomatoes. Just the thing to ring in the new year and warm up a cold night.

2012 is gonna be an excellent year, don’t you think?

Caribbean Black Bean Soup with Roasted Garlic and Tomatoes
Serves 4

6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4 whole fresh or canned plum tomatoes, with juice
1/2 lb black valentine or black beans, cooked, with reserved broth*
1/2 medium yellow or white onion, chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 c chicken or vegetable broth**
freshly ground black pepper
sour cream, for garnish
1 avocado, pitted and sliced, for garnish
fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

*I’d recommend cooking your beans by first soaking them for a minimum of 2 hours and maximum of overnight, covered with about 2 inches of water. (Actually first make sure you rinse them thoroughly and pick out any pebbles.) After soaking, pour the beans with their soaking water into a large pot, covered by about 1 inch of water (or stock). For flavor you can add a carrot, celery stalk, fennel bulb, onion, leeks, whole garlic cloves, black peppercorns, bay leaf, juniper berries, mustard seeds. You can also keep it simple and not add much. Just don’t add salt until after they’re cooked. Bring the beans and water to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer, with a partial lid, and cook until done, which can take as little as 1 hour or as much as 3 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Put the garlic cloves on a sheet of aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil. Wrap the foil. Put the tomatoes in a baking dish, and if using fresh tomatoes, cut them in half and put them cut side down in the dish. Season with salt and drizzle with olive oil. Roast the garlic and tomatoes until soft, fragrant, and brown, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the beans and their broth in a soup pot and warm over low heat.

**I recommend making your own broth. For a quick vegetable broth I brought about 1 quart of water to a boil in a stock pot with 1 carrot, cut in half, 1 onion, also halved, 1 fennel bulb, halved, 1 celery stalk, halved, 1 clove of garlic, smashed, and a little satchel of spices: black peppercorns, mustard seeds, juniper berries, and cumin seeds.

In a medium, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion, jalapeño, and carrot and sauté until fragrant and beginning to caramelize, about 10-12 minutes. Add the cooked vegetables, cumin, oregano, cayenne, and broth to the beans.

Peel the roasted garlic cloves; chop the garlic and tomatoes coarsely and add to the beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook until the vegetables are soft and the flavors are blended, about 15 minutes.

Let the soup cool slightly, then transfer about half to a blender and blend until smooth. Return the soup to the pot and stir to combine. Season to taste. Serve the soup garnished with sour cream, avocado, and cilantro. Corn bread would make a nice side dish.