A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on June 26, 2002.

Cooking Fresh
Here comes the bush and pole beans of summer
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

Now that school is out, here's a surefire way to keep your kids occupied when summer boredom sets in - have them shell a few pounds of beans. Remind them that Grandma didn't have Playstation or a cell phone to entertain her, and that shelling beans or peas was (and still is in the rural South) a warm-weather social activity deeply rooted in tradition.

Plants in the legume family are defined by their seed pods, which split along the sides. Legumes are divided into two categories: bush (also known as ``fresh,'' because they are eaten shell pod and all), and pole, or broad beans, which require shelling.

Bush varieties, such as green beans, grow low to the ground and don't require a trellis for support. Pole beans, on the other hand, garner their name because they require poles or stakes to support their sprawling mass.

Although the farmers' market is still offering the last fava beans and sugar snap peas of the season, these harbingers of spring are making way for the summer arrival of other bush and pole beans, which grow until the fall rains begin.

Everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous Blue Lake green bean, but there are many other green bean varieties worth trying. Organic farmer Joe Shirmer, of Dirty Girl Produce in Santa Cruz, grows exceptionally sweet, tender haricot verts - the slender, French green beans.

``You barely have to cook them, and they really retain their fresh flavor,'' he says. ``There are so many great pole and bush beans out there. To only eat blue lakes is ridiculous. There's always variations in size, shape, color, texture.''

Shirmer also grows Romanos - flat, sweet, Italian bush beans - and Tongue of Fire, cannellini, and cranberry beans, which are pole beans requiring shelling. Sometimes, pole beans can be eaten shell pod and all while immature, depending upon the variety.

Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm in Guinda is particularly fond of the Grenoble green bean. ``It's a thinner, darker green bean than the blue lake, with a sweeter, tastier flavor,'' he says.

Shirmer and Muller point out that most small farmers prefer to grow bush beans, which are less labor-intensive and thus more cost-effective than pole beans.

``Poling takes time and labor,'' explains Muller. ``Those plants are better for home gardeners. Even with bush beans, most commercially grown products come from Mexico and places where the labor is cheap. They're harvested mechanically, so they're picked past their prime to make them easier to remove from the plant.''

Adds Shirmer, ``I sow beans every two weeks in season, so they're a lot of work as it is. Having a large pole bean crop just adds to the load.''

Nancy Skall, owner of the organic Middleton Farm in Healdsburg, disagrees. ``I grow lots of pole beans - Chinese long beans, Spanish musica, limas, favas. But I also have an inexhaustible supply of bamboo growing wild on my property, so we use it to build trellises,'' she says.

``But I think pole beans are also super for consumers if they have time for shelling,'' she continues. ``They're so tasty. And the Spanish musica is a great fresh (bush) variety. It's similar to a Romano, but very meaty, large and sweeter. I also grow Christmas limas, which are a beautiful mottled red and white before cooking.''

Full Belly Farm grows a green bean variety called Strike, along with cranberry beans and an Italian bean called bacchiccia, which has a creamy shell pod and mottled brown beans similar to the cranberry. Some of these beans, like the Spanish musica, are heirlooms, meaning that they are antique varieties that have lost popularity due to the mass cultivation of modern hybrids.

Heirlooms are vital, however, for their role in promoting genetic diversity among plant species. While some heirlooms are prized for their whimsical names and appearance, many also offer flavor complexities unrivaled by more mainstream varieties.

Skall likes to save her own seeds, which not only saves her money on successive plantings, but also enables her to end up with own special cultivars, unique to her farm.

Legumes are rich in nitrogen, an element that acts as an important fertilizer for plant growth. By growing beans and other legumes as cover crops, farmers replenish their soil with nitrogen and other nutrients.

The best way to prepare bush beans is to just steam and eat them, or blanch them until just tender in simmering, salted water. Plunge the blanched beans into an ice bath to halt the cooking process and lock in flavor and color.

Before serving, briefly saute the beans with a little minced shallot or garlic and extra virgin olive oil, then add a splash of lemon juice or sherry vinegar.

Pole beans can be served any number of ways, but it's important not to salt the cooking water, as this toughens their skins. Cook the beans until tender (how long will depend on the variety and size) drain, and saute briefly.

Fresh pole beans are wonderful in a light summer minestrone, or pureed and spread on crostini. For a more robust, winter-style soup, I would recommend using dried, soaked beans as their softer texture results in a thicker soup.

I love sauteeing pole beans with bacon, spring onion and arugula (use the bacon fat to saute the onion and wilt the greens) and serving it as a warm salad or an accompaniment to grilled fish.

Mike Tusk, a local chef, told me how he recently baked white beans in a covered casserole, perfuming them with onion, herbs, and fennel blossoms.

Bush and shell beans lend themselves especially well to herbs such as tarragon, summer savory, thyme and marjoram. Snip a bunch of fresh herbs into a bowl of cooked beans, drizzle on some fruity extra virgin olive oil and a dash of Champagne vinegar, and you have yourself a meal even Grandma would be proud of.

Fresh and shelling beans are available from Dirty Girl Produce at the Berkeley, Ferry Plaza, Felton, and Live Oak farmers' markets; from Full Belly Farm at the Berkeley, Palo Alto, and Marin farmers' markets; and from Middleton Farm at the St. Helena, Healdsburg, and Sebastopol farmers' markets.

Recipe by Wendy Brucker Chef/Owner of Rivoli Restaurant in Berkeley.

Six 8-ounce boneless chicken breasts with skin

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons diced onion

Pinch teaspoon paprika

1/2 cup fresh cranberry or kidney beans, cooked (see note)

1/2 cup fresh black-eyed peas, cooked (see note)

1/2 cup each green and yellow beans, cooked and sliced diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup corn kernels, cooked

2 tablespoons fresh thyme

2 cup chicken stock, reduced by half

3 tablespoon unsalted butter

Preheat oven 450 degrees. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a hot saute pan over medium heat. Add chicken breasts, skin side down, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes until the skin is brown and crispy. Place chicken in an ovenproof dish, skin side up. Bake in oven 10 minutes or until juices run reserve pan juices.

Remove excess oil from saute pan. Add the onion, paprika, cranberry beans, black-eyed peas, beans, corn, thyme, chicken stock, and butter. Bring to a simmer, stir gently, and cook until liquid is reduced by half. Season with salt to taste. Set aside and keep warm.

To assemble, spoon succotash onto 6 dinner plates. Slice the chicken and arrange over succotash. Pour reserved pan juices over chicken.

Note: to cook fresh pod beans and peas, shell them just before cooking. Boil about 2 cups of water for every 1/2 cup of shelled beans or peas. Add a dash of salt to water if desired. Add beans or peas, stir, quickly bring back to a boil and cook, uncovered, until tender. Start testing cranberry beans for tenderness at 30 minutes and black-eyed peas at 40 minutes.

Per Serving: 700 Calories; 36g Fat; 68g Protein; 24g Carbohydrate; 8g Dietary Fiber; 201mg Cholesterol; 904mg Sodium.

E-mail Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
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Last modified: March 26, 2002