Monday, October 26, 2009

Cranberries too

Yeah, it's just another pic of regular ol' crans... I went to the market today on the lookout for cranberry beans, or any other dry shelling beans. I've been keeping my eyes peeled since the end of August, but I've either missed them completely or the cold and wet summer was detrimental to the dry bean crop... I don't know, but I was craving a big bowl of bean soup!

If you've never had fresh dried beans (I know, it sounds like an oxymoron! But that's exactly what they are!) you have to try to find some. Fresh shelling beans look like overgrown green beans, except that their husks are dried up, yellowed and rather unpromising. But inside those yucky -and sometimes mouldy- shells are hiding little treasures. All the beans available in the dry goods section are, at some point in the year, available fresh at farmers' markets or specialty vegetable shops. They are almost as starchy as the wizened dry stuff, yet they still have some of their 'greenness'. It's a little like the difference between a just picked green pea, still in its pod, and a shelled pea from who knows where. Fresh garbanzos (chickpeas) are truly delightful eaten as a green veg, not at all a stodgy starch (in Montreal, fresh chicks are only available imported in the spring: they require too long a growing season for us Northerners.)

If you can find some, you have to try them: Romano, navy, cattle, soldier, lima, runner... all are pretty pretty pretty so pretty it is almost a shame to cook them at all, but they would be inedible otherwise. It's also unfortunate that I was unable to find some fresh beans to show you just how pretty they truly are. Just to give you an idea, open your pantry if you happen to have some dry beans to hand: you see those cool shapes and patterns on the beans? Now imagine brighter colours, sharper contrasts.

Fresh, shelled beans cook in minutes, not hours, so you can have your bean salad almost as soon as you crave it. And the real boon is that fresh beans do not cause stomach discomfort! Yeah... you remember that grade school limerick "beans, beans, they're good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you fart!" Well, that won't happen with these babies: during the drying process, the sugar in beans turn into a starch that is indigestible to humans, hence the production of gas, but that starch is yet unformed in shelling beans. So buy a bushel, and spend an afternoon shelling beans over a nice cup of mulled cider... By the way, those dried husk are great for the compost, but they are even better as a mulch in the garden. And I was told that they can be used as decorative accents in basket weaving if you are the crafty type.

As I mentioned earlier, these beans can be eaten like any fresh vegetable, simply boil them for 5 to 10 minutes (depending on their degree of dryness), and then toss in some butter with garlic or shallots, or douse them with salad dressing for a warm bean salad. You can also make quick baked beans with fresh beans, just follow your favorite baked bean recipe, and cut the cooking time down to no more than 30 minutes, maybe even less. I'll have to get back to you on that one...

My favorite bean recipe is Bean and Parmesan soup. I usually make it with dried beans, but it's still too early for a stick to your ribs kind of soup, so when I do get my hands on shelling beans, I like to make the lighter version.

Bean and Parmesan Soup 
Serves? maybe 4 as a starter, 2 as a main course, or 1 famished person
 

1 bushel of fresh shelling beans (about 1kg with the shell), any kind or 250g (±1cup) dried beans
1 large carrot
1 big onion
1 small leek, optional
1 huge clove of garlic
butter or oil
Pamesan rind, about 2x5cm (1"x2.5") piece
3 sprigs fresh thyme, optional
1 sprig sage, optional
1 sprig rosemary, optional
½ bunch flat leaf parsley, optional

-Shell all the beans, you will probably get about 2-3cups of beans. I know, it seems like a lot of work, but it's worth it. Give them a quick wash.
-If you are using the dried beans, pick through for any stones or clods of dirt, place in a large pot and cover with water. Leave to soak overnight. On the next day, if you are susceptible to bean gas you can change the soaking water (if you have houseplants, save this water for them, it is FULL of nutrients), otherwise proceed with the recipe.
-Peel the carrot and onion, chop into big chunks. Do the same with the leek, and wash thoroughly.
-In a large pot (if, like me, you only have one large pot, transfer your dried beans to a big bowl), heat the butter or oil or both, add the herbs -you can use dried herbs if you like, about 1 teaspoon each- the onion, carrot and leek. Cook down until the onions are translucent and start to brown on the edges. Add the beans and cover with just enough water. Throw in the Parmesan rind.
*I always buy chunks of Parmesan, and grate as I need it, because it keeps better and longer this way. If you only have grated Parmesan, add it at the very end. However, I find Parmesan blocks more economical than grated: the flavour is better, so I use less, and it keeps indefinitely in the fridge. And I get the rind for this soup!
-Cook until the beans are easily crushed under a fork (about 20 minutes). If you are using the dried beans, it is important that you DO NOT salt the pot until the beans are fully cooked, otherwise they will never soften. Dried beans will take at least 45 minutes to cook, if not longer.
-Take the pot off the stove, and blend it. I've broken a few stick blenders making this soup -it was the cheese!!- so I recommend using a jar blender for this soup. If you do not have a jug, take out the Parmesan before you blend the soup. Or you can make a more rustic soup by chopping all the veggies bite sized, and cutting up the Parmesan rind once it has softened up in the soup (or not).
-Return the pot to the stove, check the seasoning, add grated Parmesan if you want more cheesiness. You may need to add some more water if the soup is too thick -especially if yo are using dried beans.
-Serve as is, or with some pesto. This soup is delicious hot off the stove, but it is even better re-heated the next day. It also freezes very well.

Another tasty way to eat fresh beans is with buttered kale and lots of garlic... I'm hungry!



Bon app'!

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