The Shell Game
Now is the time to get to know the sweet, creamy flavors of beans that come straight from the pod.
FEW VEGETABLES HAVE BEEN ABLE to maintain their seasonal integrity like fresh shell beans. These beans—the fat ones within streaky, colorful pods—generally show up in late summer and are gone before you can return to the market for another pound. Most of us know shell beans (also called “shelling” or “shellies”) after they’ve been dried and removed from the pod (think: black turtles, flageolets and pintos).
Fresh means exactly that; these beans are taken from the plant, in their pods, before they begin to dry. Removal from the pod is labor-intensive, which is likely the reason fresh beans have become more treat than dinner staple (though their short shelf life doesn’t help either).
With the ascendant farm-to-table sensibility and mechanical hoppers replacing hands and fingers, shell beans are coming back. Look for scarlet runners, purple hulls and rattlesnakes, among others (favas, however, aren’t available until spring).
A tie-dye of reds and creams, cranberry beans are among the season’s most gorgeous—not to mention available—pods. After cooking, the beans turn a beige-gray and taste buttery and earthy. For chef Wesley Genovart of SoLo Farm and Table in South Londonderry, Vt., the vegetal taste of fresh cranberry beans is only one part of the appeal. “It’s texture,” he said. “They’re soft and creamy.” He suggests blanching them until tender, about 10 minutes, then adding to a broth or soup. Roasted sturgeon served in an aromatic broth with fresh cranberry beans is a coming item on Mr. Genovart’s menu.
We’ve all encountered garbanzos, aka chickpeas, but not many of us have seen them in their paper-thin pods, which only hold two to three beans. When fresh, the beans range from pale to rich green. “Fresh garbanzos have a grassier and more herbal taste than dried or canned,” said chef Brandon McGlamery of Luma on Park, in Winter Park, Fla. “It’s a brighter, fresher flavor that gets lost once preserved.” Mr. McGlamery hosts shelling parties when shellies are delivered in pods. He suggests frying fresh garbanzos until golden brown and crispy, or braising them in a sofrito—a tomato-rich sauce common in Latin cuisine—and removing them from heat the moment they are done (about eight minutes).
Edamame is the go-to appetizer in Japanese restaurants, but few of us know the beans in their fresh state. Somewhat paler than the bright green we recognize from salad bars and supermarket freezers, “fresh edamame has more of a bean flavor that’s fresh and sweet,” said chef Coby Ming of Harvest, in Louisville, Ky. “You can blanch edamame on their own, with a little salt,” said Ms. Ming, who grew up shelling fresh beans on her grandmother’s back porch. Or you can do what Ms. Ming does at her restaurant: Stuff a tomato with a mixture of blanched edamame, grilled corn, grilled onions, oven-dried tomatoes and fresh basil.
A version of this article appeared September 8, 2012, on page D4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Shell Game.