Beans are a staple in this house. I have always eaten a certain amount of them but now they feature in meals at least twice a week. So much so that we have over-planted the garden with these protein and fibre-packed beauties. The difference between a French bean freshly picked from the vine and one you buy in a supermarket is night and day. Sugars naturally present in any vegetable start converting to starch the minute it is picked. The longer it sits off the vine waiting to get to your table the less sweet and the more starchy it becomes. A lovely slender French bean just snapped off the vine is tender and sweet without a hint of starchy fibre that make them so tough from the shelf. I cannot tell you how important growing your own becomes after experiencing this taste revelation. I experienced a similar awakening the first time I ate a freshly picked runner bean. Why would you shred something that delicious into something the frozen food section calls French Cut Green Beans?
We have seeded 4 types of French beans. Purple, yellow, and green to give our eyes a delight as well as our palates. We like them as thin as possible somewhere between a BBQ skewer and a pencil. Closer in size to a bamboo skewer is better but a pencil thin bean will do. I toss them with finely sliced onions in a balsamic vinaigrette as a 3-bean salad. My favourite is quickly blanched and tossed into a salad Nicoise made with tender, waxy baby potatoes, Nicoise olives, sliced hard-boiled eggs, chunks of line-caught tuna, dressed with an anchovy and lemon-laced vinaigrette on a bed of crisp Romaine lettuce. Serve me a chilled glass of Rose wine and I am in heaven. The larger ones I make into sweet and sour pickled Dilly Beans spiced up with garlic and whole Chile de Arbol; a small, thin, red, dried chile from Mexico. This year not only will I have truly fresh beans to work with but also lovely ferny fronds of fresh dill and possibly our own garlic.
Today we scooped up wonderful re-fried pinto beans made in my pressure cooker. There are some aficionados who would say beans made in a pressure cooker are not true beans, but I disagree. The dried beans I have had from a long-stewing pot are slightly more tough than the tender-skinned ones from my pressure pot. Besides in terms of energy consumption a pressure cooker saves so much and we should be conscious of wasting that resource. I flavour mine with a chopped onion, garlic, oregano, salt and a nice knob of butter. Lard is used traditionally but many of the cooks I know have switched to butter for the richness it adds. Our favourite torta or sandwich from Guadalajara is made with a slathering of re-fried beans instead of mayonnaise or butter.
We have 33 Borlotti Lingua de Fuoco planted too. This is an Italian dried bean that is superb when flavoured with sage and thyme. Some seed companies encourage you to eat them green and tender but we prefer to save them for winter, eating the fresh Broad, French and Runner beans instead. The French beans will also be left to dry off at the end of the season producing a bean similar to a French Haricot or Navy bean, perfect for using in a New England Bean Pot.We have harvested our own dried beans before. We threshed them in the traditional way. The dried bean pods were spread out on a tarp and beaten with poles to dislodge the beans. We then winnowed them by pouring them from a height into a bucket letting the wind blow away the chaff and pods. We managed to grow 95 kilos that year. You always have to pick through home-grown beans before cooking them. Nothing is worse than breaking a tooth on a stone or biting into a bitter, shrivelled bad bean. Lingua de Fuoco are incredibly beautiful beans with cherry red splotches on a cream coloured skin. We once had them thrown at us during a celebration parade from a float supplied by a local farm. Better than candy but hard on the head if they hit you with force.
We also have Broad Beans, I knew them a Habas or Fava beans. I confess I am not a great fan of them when they are dried, unless they are ground into flour and used to make Falafel. However when they are little babies still sweet and green tucked into the protective spongy white lining inside their shell they are a treat. They are fussy to shell if they get too large as not only do you need to shell them from the pod but after you cook them you need to pop the tender lobes out of a leathery exterior skin. Frankly they are a lot of bother. But for that brief time when they are young and are the earliest beans of the year they are worth the effort.
So this morning when I was greeted by the crooked over heads of little beans shooting up from inside compost filled pots. It is a day to celebrate. Their emergence recalled that moment in Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck when Teresina Cortez and her large family terrified by the failure of the local bean crop are delivered from starvation by four sacks of dried beans miraculously appearing on her porch.
Beans are life.