Veggie of the Week - Shell Beans
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Say "put 'beans' on the shopping list" and your listener is likely to think either of dried or canned beans or, if the season is right, of string (aka snap, green) beans. Fresh, or shell beans, are something else, the intermediate between the two, sharing the seasonality, and some of the 'greenness' of green beans and the morphological features of dried beans, Shell beans, with a season trailing that of (local) green beans by a few weeks, are a distinctive addition to the beany palette, one worth investigating if you like beans dried or green.
Green beans have flavors, texture and nutritional properties (not a lot of protein, a fair amount of vitamin C ) that place them amongst the 'green vegetables'. Dried beans are something else: essentially no vitamin C, lots of protein and a selection of B vitamins, and texture and flavor that are much closer to (boiled) nuts or some kinds of squash than to anything green, including green beans. The difference is largely the result of green beans consisting largely of pod surrounding more or less embryonic seeds of very small volume relative to the pod. The pod is pretty much a fleshy modified leaf, so it's no surprise that green beans eat like greens. By the time beans are ready for drying, the beans themselves have matured into seeds rich in proteins, minerals and B vitamins, the ratio of bean to pod has reversed, and the pods themselves are like dried leaves.
Shell beans lie on the bean's transition from green to dried. If you've ever grown green beans and missed picking some of the pods, you'll have seen, and I hope eaten, pods containing fairly developed beans. The pods, or shells, are tougher than those of the ideal green bean, and beaniness is much more apparent, with the partly matured beans themselves contributing a somewhat nutty flavor distinct from that of the shell, and differing too in their floury texture. Shell beans are fully matured, the nearly dry pod or shell is discarded and only the beans are eaten: they are dried beans before the drying.
Drying changes a few things. Shell beans contain all the nutritive properties of dried beans, with the addition of some of the vitamin C of green beans. The biggest changes are in flavor and texture. The flavor of a given variety of shell bean is recognizeably like that of its dried counterpart, but on top of this is a reminiscence of its green past, a faint leafiness of flavor wholly absent in the dried bean. Texture is also markedly different, with the shell bean being somewhat less dense to the tooth and more floury than the dried one, a difference readily noticeable in dishes such as bean salad or beans and pasta.
Recipies for shell beans will be pretty much those for dried beans,
leaning more toward mixtures - in soups and salads, or with other cooked vegetables, pasta or rice or potatoes, which show off the fresh bean's particular features, and leaning away from staples, such as spicy or tomato sauce rich dishes which would hide the delicate taste and texture of shell beans. Just now you should be able to buy both green and shell beans, so you could create a dish featuring both of them, a sort of beananza. Since shell beans haven't been dried, they don't require soaking, and cook much faster than dried beans - typically fifteen to twenty minutes. Many of the growers selling shell beans now will have the dried versions later on.