Beans

Beans

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

In the beginning there were beans – broad beans, that is. These ancient, edible seeds grew abundantly all around Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean from the earliest times. In the days before humans learned how to cultivate plants, and had to scrabble around in the dirt for sustenance, broad beans were a godsend. They were easily gathered, were packed with stomach-filling starch, protein and other nutrients, and, most importantly, could be dried and stored for long periods of time.

Broad beans were also easy to propagate, and became one of the first vegetable crops to be cultivated. Like other ancient crops such as lentils and peas, they belong to the leguminous plant group known as ‘pulses’, which have large nutritious seeds contained in an outer pod. Pulses were frequently combined with grains such as wheat, barley or millet to provide the main sustenance for early civilisations. As well as eating them, the ancient Greeks were said to have used broad beans as election ballot-counters. The Romans made them into cakes or porridge, while the Egyptians’ passion for them endures today in little rissoles known as ‘tamia’ (elsewhere known as ‘falafel’) and ful medames, a humble peasant stew which has been adopted as the national dish.

Numerous other types of beans have been grown around the world since antiquity – soya beans in China and Japan; haricot, butter, lima, kidney and endless others in the Americas – but broad beans are the only variety native to the Middle East and Europe. Other beans didn’t reach Europe until the fifteenth century, as part of the exciting new range of foodstuffs brought by explorer ships from the New World. As is so often the case, these new beans, which came in a dazzling range of colours, shapes and sizes, quickly overtook dull old broad beans in popularity. And so, tender little pale-green flageolets were taken up by the French, and the Tuscans’ fondness for mild-flavoured borlotti beans led to their reputation as Italy’s ‘bean eaters’. The English preferred yet another sort of New World bean, the fresh ‘green’ bean.

Green beans are simply a variety of bean which have been cultivated for eating whole, rather than for their seeds alone. They also originated in the Americas, many thousands of years ago, and are grown today by home gardeners the world over. They come in a range of shapes and sizes – from the thin, elegant French beans to wider, flatter runner beans, or the long Asian snake beans. Green beans often used to be called ‘string’ beans because of the fibrous string growing down the seam, which had to be pulled off before cooking. Today, though, most beans have been bred to be ‘stringless’.

Selecting and storing beans

Fresh beans including broad beans and all varieties of green beans are seasonal and at their firm, snappy best during the summer.

When choosing any sort of green beans ensure that they are dry and unblemished, not wet and wrinkled, and, above all, crisp and firm, not limp and bendy. The freshness and age of fresh broad beans is a little harder to determine as they come hidden within their own fleshy pod. This pod is often misshapen and mottled, and it can be hard to tell the condition of the beans within – but certainly avoid soft and floppy pods. Later in the season, both the pods and the beans are likely to be larger. New-season broad beans, though, are small and tender, and can even be eaten in the pod.

Dried beans, of course, are readily available throughout the year, though it is impossible to know how long your particular choice has been sitting on the shelves. As with all pulses, we recommend you buy from a shop with a swift turnover and a knowledgeable clientele. Middle Eastern stores and health food shops are usually a good bet.

There are numerous different varieties of dried beans available, but for the most part, Middle Easterners tend to use dried broad beans (which can be large, dark and unpeeled, or smaller, split and peeled) and white beans such as haricots, cannellini and butter beans. Dried beans last well, but should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard.

Using beans

Green beans these days rarely need stringing, but usually require rinsing and a quick top-and-tail. Cook them in plenty of boiling salted water for 2 minutes or until they are just tender (personal preference should dictate whether you like them meltingly soft, or still with a slight squeak). If you are eating them straight away, drain them thoroughly and then dress them immediately in a little butter or olive oil. If they are to be used later, they may be refreshed in cold water.

Fresh broad beans need to be removed from their furry pods before cooking. Unless they are baby-small they will also need to be peeled, which is easily achieved if you boil them rapidly for 2–3 minutes, then drain them and rinse them under cold water. When they are cool enough to be handled the tender beans can be easily squeezed out of their leathery skins. They need little further cooking, but just a gentle reheating, perhaps in a little butter or olive oil. From this stage they can also be added to pilafs and risottos, or dressed while warm for salads.

Dried beans and other pulses these days are pretty clean and it is unusual to find little stones and grit lurking among them, especially those in the plastic packages in supermarkets. If you buy them loose though, it is probably a good idea to wash them well, as they can be dusty, and to pick them over for alien matter.

Some people are put off cooking pulses because of the need to rehydrate them before cooking. But although it requires a little forethought, the soaking process really requires zero effort on the cook’s part. Long soaking overnight in two to three times their volume of cold water is ideal, as it allows for a slow and thorough rehydration. The long soak is also helpful in leaching out some of the indigestible oligosaccharides which create gas in the gut – for this reason you should always throw away the soaking water. A pinch of bicarbonate of soda added to the soaking water is said to help loosen the skins. Some large beans with very tough skins (like giant dried broad beans) require even longer soaking (one to two days) in order to squeeze them out of their skins.

The quick soak method can be handy if you need to soak beans in a hurry (it is all relative, of course, as even the quick soak requires several hours). Rinse and pick over the beans as usual and then place them in a pan and cover them with twice their volume of cold water. Bring the water to the boil, and cook rapidly for 2–3 minutes. Then remove the pan from the heat and allow the beans to soak for at least 4 hours. Drain off the water and then proceed to cook.

After soaking, beans should be covered in plenty of fresh cold water, which is brought to the boil and then lowered to a simmer. The beans will take from 45 minutes to 2 hours to cook, depending on their size and age. As for all other pulses, do not salt the water until the very end of the cooking time, as it toughens the skins and slows down the cooking process.

Recipes in this Chapter

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