Every year as the summer heat wanes and the evenings begin to cool, my favorite fall produce item appears at markets around the Bay Area. Explosions of scarlet and burgundy hues fill the bins where the romano beans and haricot vert had been just the week prior. Cranberry beans have arrived.
Shelling beans of many varieties will be available in the coming weeks and if you have never experienced the velvet smooth texture and tender bite of a fresh bean, now is the time. Easier to shell than peas or fava beans (hence the name) and quick to cook, these beans are an exceptional addition to any autumn meal. When cooked, they are plump and succulent with a texture that is a total departure from any dry bean preparation.
When selecting your beans look for brightly colored, fleshy pods. As the shells get thin and the colors fade, the beans are beginning their drying process. The beans inside will still be fresh but may be slightly discolored. When the pods have more green in them they will be a little more difficult to shell and the beans inside will be pale with fewer speckles. It is almost as if as the beans mature the colors are magically transferred from the shells to the beans inside.
Cranberry beans are perhaps the most common variety of shelling beans and my personal favorite. The same preparation techniques apply to all shelling beans so you may substitute any of them in the following recipes.
Cranberry Bean Ragout
-2 cups shelled cranberry beans
-1 tablespoon olive oil
-1/2 cup diced onion
-1/2 cup diced carrot
-1/2 cup diced celery
-3 whole cloves of garlic
-1 bay leaf
-1 quart vegetable stock (chicken stock or any light broth will work as well)
- salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan large enough to accommodate two quarts. Sauté the onions for a couple of minutes until they begin to be translucent. Add the carrots, celery and garlic and continue to cook for a couple more minutes. Add the beans and stir to coat them with the aromatics and to warm them.
Add enough stock to cover the mixture by an inch. Bring this to a simmer and then reduce the heat to simmer gently for 45 minutes to an hour. Fresh beans cook much more quickly than dried and require no soaking because the water mother nature put in is still there. This is what gives all shelling beans their delicate mouthfeel.
The Ragout is done when the beans begin to burst and are tender. Season to taste and cool them in their liquid. This dish can be a side or the center of the plate with a piece of grilled fish or roasted meat.
This basic recipe is just a launch pad. Any number of flavors may be added to personalize the dish and to tie it into whatever else will be served. The end result will be a creamy bean Ragout with the viscosity of baked beans but a fresh, bright flavor.
Heirloom Tomato and Cranberry Bean Salad
Because the cranberry bean season starts while the tomato season is still going strong this recipe is a favorite of mine. The beans are cooked the same as above except the aromatic vegetables are left in big chunks so the may be removed after cooking. The beans are then tossed with the marinade ingredients while they are still hot. This process, called forced marination, allow the beans to absorb the maximum amour of potential flavor as they cool. In this version I use lemon juice for the acid and sage for the herbal component but your favorite vinegar and herbs may be substituted.
-2 cups shelled beans
-1 onion, quartered
-1 carrot, scrubbed and quartered
-1 stalk of celery, quartered
-4 whole cloves of garlic
-1 tablespoon of olive oil for sauté
-1 quart vegetable or other stock
-1 teaspoon lemon zest
-2 or more tablespoons lemon juice
-1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
-2 heirloom tomatoes, cut into large dice
-2 tablespoons freshly chopped sage
-salt and pepper to taste
In a large sauce pan sweat the onion, carrot, celery and garlic to release their aromatic qualities. Add the cranberry beans to coat and then cover by one inch with the stock. Bring this mixture up to a light boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook until tender.
After 45 minutes or so, when the beans are tender but not bursting, remove from the heat.
Drain the hot beans and pour them out on a sheet pan, reserving the broth for another use (it makes a great addition to almost any soup recipe). Quickly pick out the aromatic vegetable chunks and then place the still hot beans in a mixing bowl.
Add the extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sage and toss gently. Season with salt and pepper and allow to cool at room temperature, stirring occasionally to allow all the beans a fair chance at absorbing the flavors.
Once cool, add the tomatoes and a little more sage to brighten the herbal qualities. If you are a garlic lover some raw garlic can be added at this point.
This salad is a great accompaniment to a grilled steak or chop or can be served as a salad. Some arugula or other green can be tossed in just before serving.
Don't miss this years shelling bean season! Once you have tried them you will wait with baited breath as I do each year for the first bushels to arrive at market.