Sunday, September 09, 2012

Farm Bulletin: The Shell Bean, Explained


The first time I saw shell beans in the produce section at the market, I was intrigued. I'd cooked dry beans for years, but had never seen anything like these lovely little beans with their glowing, translucent skins and various colored specks and splotches. Would that I had this explanation from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm to read.

One of the earliest vegetable crops we planted at the farm was shell beans. It was one of those odd ideas that got lodged in our heads, yet we were clueless as to how handle them at a commercial scale. A couple of years later we would repeat the scene with flint corn and frikeh. One of the advantages of farm equipment is that you can plow under your blunders and failures, such as summer turnips, emboldening the creative streak. The beans were planted and we began began to practice the pitch. Sitting around on a hot summer's afternoon shelling beans is a great family time, just like shelling peas. Though, truth be told, as children we had regarded shelling peas and beans as a dreary chore taking us away from far better things.

In the spring of 2000 we planted several different varieties. In June, before the craziness of harvest began, Carol took a week off to visit her parents. In a rural country store, she saw a container of freshly shelled butter beans (limas). She joked that it must be a lot of work to shell all those beans. The woman directed her to a shed out back where they had a bean shelling machine. The big green wooden machine had hand-routed on its front panel "Roto-Fingers Pea-Bean Sheller" (top photo, in the Ayers Creek barn). The manufacturer was Welborn Devices in Laurel, Mississippi. A few weeks later, Larry Welborn shipped his first Roto-Fingers west of the Continental Divide. He quipped that it is highly unusual to find any identifying marks on the machines because, once a farmer had one, the information was obliterated to keep it away from any competitors.

The Roto-Fingers is a batch sheller. About 20 pounds of beans are shelled at a time, and it is a very gentle process. All of our dry beans are shelled in the machine as well. Fourteen years later, many tons of beans have gone through this contrivance handmade one at a time down there in Laurel, and it still runs perfectly.

Fresh shell beans are the equivalent of new potatoes or frikeh sans the smokiness. They are still developing their starches, and they have more of a vegetable flavor than the dry forms. Initially we harvested them very green, but over time we found they are better when they have a range of maturities in the mix. Not every dry bean is good fresh-shelled, and some are very dull indeed. In addition, some shell in a messy fashion and take a long time to clean. The beans, shelled or unshelled, should be refrigerated. Part of the mythology about shell beans is that they keep better in the shell. This is not true—the shells are big chunk of respiring tissue which generates heat and often mold in storage, compromising the beans inside. When harvested, the shell comprises between 50 and 60 percent of the bean's weight.

The soldier or johnson is a white bean from northern New England with a reddish figure around the eye that reminds some of a soldier and others, with a less martial mindset, see a piece of anatomy. Use it as you would a cannellino bean, very good in a cold salad with tuna and some minced shallot. Get a bit of albacore from Robin at Wild Oregon, or a bit of salmon. The flageolet is a small green bean which is often served as a side dish with lamb or in a gratin. The name comes from a French wind instrument similar to a recorder. Vermont Cranberry has the most robust in flavor of the three, yet will disappoint you when the beautiful pink bean turns a muddy brown as you cook it. At that point you are left to enjoy the distinguished flavor. A bit of acid will restore some of the markings.

Chastened after purgatory among the berry flats, the staff writer is even offering a recipe in compliance with the essential style manual for market farm newsletters. If you are inclined to ignore such instruction, there are two things to remember. Never eat shell beans raw. You will suffer a stomach ache that you will never forget. When cooking any type of beans, add any acid ingredients, such as tomatoes, after cooking. Otherwise, the beans don't cook well and stay tough. In some parts of the country, they add a pinch of soda or slack lime to the water to keep it on the alkaline side of neutral.

Cooking Fresh Shelling Beans

Judy Rogers offers this excellent method in her cookbook, The Zuni Café Cookbook.

For about 2 cups:
2 c. fresh shelling beans
1 carrot, peeled, split lengthwise and cut into chunks or minced
1 small yellow onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
Salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil

Rinse the beans in cold water. 

Place the carrot, onion and bay leaf in a 2-quart pan and add cold water to cover. Cover and simmer over low heat until the vegetables have softened and flavored the water, about 25 minutes.

Add the beans and enough additional water to cover. Some varieties may turn the water grey. Bring to a simmer then tilt the pot and skim any foam that floats to the surface.

Simmer gently, uncovered, until the beans are tender, 15-30 minutes, depending on the variety and point of maturity. Stir a few times to ensure even cooking and add water as needed to keep everything just covered. To test for doneness, cut a bean in half. The bean should be moist and tender with no pale, chalky core.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in salt to taste. As it takes time for the beans to absorb the salt, taste the liquid, not the beans for the right saltiness. Stir in the olive oil and leave the beans to cool in the cooking liquid.

Cover and refrigerate up to 4 days in their liquid.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

I can't describe how much I enjoy Mr. Boutard's writings. He's an excellent speaker too as I have witnessed several times at InFarmation........Google it......Thanks for sharing.

KAB said...

I agree wholeheartedly! Fans should check out his book, Beautiful Corn, just out this month.

And for more information on InFARMation, click here.