Megan Saynisch is a freelance writer, cook, gardener and the creator of Brooklynfarmhouse.com.
The Italian cookbook author and cook, Marcella Hazan, makes a couple of references to fresh cranberry beans in her tome, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (which happens to be my favorite cookbook ever). When I was first cooking out of her book, I had no clue what Marcella was talking about — fresh beans? My first thought was of green beans, of course — that ubiquitous vegetable on the American dinner table — but clearly Marcella was talking about something different. Something wonderful. When I finally found fresh cranberry beans at the farmers' market, I had a moment of profound culinary joy when I realized just how awesome fresh shell beans are, especially cranberry beans, with their beautiful mottled pink and cream pods and seeds. Maybe it’s a little weird to still feel such a thrill when I see fresh shell beans at the market — beans, after all, have a pretty humdrum reputation — but I implore you to seek them out because they blow canned (and even dried) beans out of the water. I promise you that their texture, creamier than any canned or dried bean, and fresh, nutty flavor will change the way you think about the humble bean.
A Brief History
The history of beans can be a little confusing, since the word “bean” is used to describe a number of different varieties and species of the vegetable-slash-legume. The modest “common” bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) has stirred up quite the scientific hullabaloo over its origins: apparently there has been a long-standing debate about the bean’s beginnings. As I was trolling the scientific literature for information (yes, I'm a nerd), I stumbled upon a recent article that definitively proves, through genetic analysis, that the common bean has a Mesoamerican genesis — probably Central Mexico. Domestication of the common bean probably began about 7,000 years ago. From its origins in Central America, the bean has two other centers of genetic diversity, South America and Western Europe (the Spanish were probably responsible for bringing the bean to Europe post-Columbus). It is from these three areas that the many bean varieties we are familiar with today were first cultivated.
My illustrious colleague Kim O'Donnel wrote about snap beans, those summery cultivars whose entire pods are eaten like a vegetable, a few weeks ago. Fresh shell beans are the seeds found inside the bean pods — shell bean varieties have pods that are usually too tough to eat. Most shell beans, even those that are traditionally dried, can also be eaten fresh. A few varieties of bean can be eaten as a snap bean, a fresh shell bean and dried.
- As you might have guessed from the name, Lima beans were first cultivated in Peru (Lima is the capital of Peru, for all you non-geography majors out there).
- Black-eyed peas are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day in the Southern US (usually with a ham hock thrown in, for good measure) — they are said to bring luck and prosperity in the New Year.
- Heirloom vegetables often have colorful names, and shell beans are no exception: Eye of the Goat, Butterscotch, Snowcap and Tiger’s Eye are just a few of the hundreds of shell bean varieties still grown.
- Note to self: never eat Lima beans raw. Some varieties have high levels of the natural toxin linamarin, which degrades into a form of cyanide in the human gut and can make you violently ill. (Most US-grown Limas have had the toxin bred out of them. Cooking also de-activates it.)
Many of the beans we are familiar with in the US are of the same species, Phaseolus vulgaris (the so-called “common” bean). Cultivars of this species include many varieties you're likely to find as fresh shell beans, including flageolet beans, cranberry beans (a.k.a., borlotti beans), black beans and cannellini beans (Phaseolus vulgaris cultivars are also eaten as snap beans). Other species are distantly related, like the Lima (Phaseolus lunatus) and black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata, though previously classified as in the Phaseolus genus). If you're especially lucky, you may even stumble upon fresh chickpeas (Cicer arietinum).
India leads the world in shell bean production (mostly for dry beans), followed by Brazil, Myanmar (who knew?), the US and China.
As Kim mentioned, green beans appear as number 18 on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce; however, fresh shell beans don’t even make the list. Because they are a small-volume vegetable, fresh shell beans are not generally monocropped (the exception may be Lima beans) nor produced with intensive industrial agricultural methods, like excessive pesticide use. In addition, many heirloom varieties of shell beans have been selected for generations to be specially adapted to their environment, such as drought- or heat-tolerance.
In most parts of the US, fresh shell beans are available at the market starting in the late summer through fall. Fresh shell beans can be hard to find and are unlikely to appear in grocery stores — your best bet to locate them is at your local farmers' market.
Fresh shell beans are exceptionally high in protein (making them a fine meat substitute), folate, thiamin, fiber, iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc... I could go on, but you get the point. Beans are a super food. Many varieties, especially black beans, are also very high in anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory flavonoids.
What to Look For
Look for pods that are plump and bumpy — you should be able to feel the fat seeds inside. Some say that you should look for pods that are leathery (i.e., slightly dried out), although I've chosen shell bean pods that look fresh without a noticeable difference in taste in the final, cooked bean. More mature beans, found in drier pods, will take longer to cook. Avoid pods that are very dry or that are moldy.
What To Do with It
Store fresh shell beans in a paper bag in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. They tend to get moldy quickly, especially if there is any moisture clinging to the pods. You can also shell them in advance and store the beans in a container in the fridge for a day or three, but keep an eye out that they don’t mold or dry out.
Like their dried counterparts, most fresh shell beans must be simmered in liquid to cook them, but unlike dry beans, there is no pre-soaking necessary. Fresh shell beans usually take between 10 and 60 minutes to become tender — this will depend on how mature the seeds are and what variety you're cooking. Different types of shell beans differ greatly in flavor, from the chestnut-y cranberry bean to the buttery Lima. However, pork, fresh herbs, garlic, tomatoes, chiles and greens are excellent companions to most varieties. Fresh shell beans are delicious braised in an aromatic liquid, added to pasta or made into a gratin. Fresh shell beans can also be pureed, roasted (seriously — check out this roasted Lima bean recipe) and become the luscious stars of any salad they're in (like this Senegalese black-eyed pea salad or the one below).
When cooking shell beans, don’t add salt to the cooking water — it can toughen the skins. Instead, add salt to taste once the beans have been cooked.
Warm Cranberry Beans with Arugula and Fresh Marjoram
I love the combination of peppery arugula, floral marjoram and meaty, nutty cranberry beans. That being said, this recipe has an almost infinite amount of variations. Substitute parsley or another herb for the marjoram. Substitute spinach for the arugula. Add a squashed anchovy to the lemony dressing. Top with shaved Parmesan cheese. Stir in some drained, olive oil packed tuna or chopped tomatoes. (And if you've only ever had arugula raw, try it like this, wilted in warm beans or in pasta. Its peppery kick remains, but it becomes meltingly soft and delicious.)
1 cup freshly shelled cranberry beans
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
The juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram
1/2 cup baby arugula leaves
Red chile flakes (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
For the Beans:
Put the beans, garlic clove and bay leaf in a medium, heavy pot and cover with water by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover and simmer gently for 45 minutes, or until the beans are tender. (Note: do not salt the water.)
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Set aside.
- Drain the beans. Add the still-hot beans to the olive oil mixture. Gently toss the beans in the dressing.
- Taste and correct for salt — you will probably need to add a bit more salt at this point. Add the fresh marjoram, the baby arugula leaves, the optional chile flakes and a few grindings of black pepper. Stir very gently to combine. Serve warm.
Serves 3-4 as an appetizer or side dish
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation
Fresh shell beans freeze exceptionally well — just shell them, freeze on a single layer on a cookie sheet, then transfer to freezer-proof bags. (I look forward to cranberry bean season, because I buy excessive amounts of them and freeze them in large batches to pull out and add to soups and stews in the winter.)
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)