Saturday, August 16, 2008

Farm Bulletin: The Meaning of Beans, Pt. 1

The following treatise on beans comes to us courtesy of our well-informed correspondent and Bard of Ayers Creek, Anthony Boutard. You can find him and assorted beans at the farmers' markets in Hillsdale and McMinnville.

In April, our friend Laleña Dolby asked us to unravel basic bean nomenclature. As we are staggering toward bean season, this slightly didactic response might clarify some terms.

What we call "beans" belong to the family Fabaceae, with two notable exceptions. Members of the Fabaceae are known colloquially as pulses or legumes. They all bear a fruit that botanists call a "pod." The pod splits into two halves, sometimes called valves. The pod has a distinct stem side and the seeds are fastened to that side. The place on the seed where it was attached to the pod is called the hilum, or the "eye." Most of the beans we eat are in the genus Phaseolus and all of these originated in the Americas.

Fava beans are actually a vetch, genus Vicia, and the "yard-long" or "asparagus" beans are a species of edible podded field pea, genus Vigna, to which Mung and Adzuki beans also belong. To keep things confusing, most members of the genus Vigna are called "peas." Moreover, they are in a different genus from the English or French pea, which is a species of Pisum. These are all "Old World" types, and were brought to the Americas by settlers.

There are also coffee and vanilla beans. Coffee is in the family Rubiaceae. Coffee bushes bear fleshy red berries, and inside the berries are two seeds we also call beans. There is no botanical basis for calling them beans. Vanilla beans are the fermented fruit of an orchid. It is a pod filled with seeds like the garden bean, just from a very different part of the plant kingdom.

String beans. These are traditional varieties that have a "string," or tough vascular tissue, along the stem side of the pod. If you break the bean and a stringy thing dangles forth, it is a string bean. If it breaks cleanly, it is a snap bean. Some beans "snap" when they are young, and develop a string as the pod matures. Others snap until they are too tough to eat. String and snap beans belong to the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) species. Traditionalists believe string beans are the best flavored of the beans, but they are a lot of work because they must be picked very young, or the strings must be removed with a stringer or a paring knife. The old southern varieties like "Caseknife" and "Creasy Cutshorts" are good string beans, but take too long to mature here. Yes, we are stubborn enough to think we could sell beans that have to be stringed. You all were spared that hard sell.

Runner beans. These are perennial bean plants that form a tuber and generally have a climbing habit. They are a separate species, Phaseolus coccineus, from the common green bean (P. vulgaris) which is an annual, dying after bearing fruit. The flowers or runners are large and showy, and they are often planted as ornamentals. Some are called "half runners" because the crawl rather than climb. Lima beans (P. lunatus) and tepary beans (P. acutifolius) are two other species of beans commonly eaten in the southern parts of the US. The pods of lima beans have a sharp point when they are dry, and stick into your flesh. They also pop open explosively when fully dry. We have tried growing them for five years, but unfortunately limas are poorly adapted to our climate.

Pole beans. These are climbing beans that can be trained up webbing, poles or twine. The beans that climb include: garden beans (snap and string, fresh shell and dry, green and wax), pole limas and runner beans. Pole beans are sought out because of their exceptional flavor and tenderness. The Willamette Valley once grew hundreds of acres of strung Blue Lake Pole beans; all had to be picked hand. (For those who delight in grammatical quirks, pole beans are strung; string beans are stringed.) Today, pole varieties have been replaced by bush beans that can be machine harvested.

It should be noted that pole green and wax beans are best when they have started to develop a seed. They also benefit from long, slow cooking. Among the dry or shell beans that grow on poles are Borlotto Lamon, Tarbais, Alubia de Tolosa and Bianchetto. There are pole beans that taste like crap, but as a rule the best quality dry beans are pole types. They have a most refined flavor and a creamiest consistency.

Go to Part 2. Shell, wax and bush beans, plus a secret recipe!

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