My first pick of this season's garden beans has just been cooked and consumed, with great relish. Beans are certainly one of my favourite vegetables. But what kind of beans, you may ask? Let’s do a quick bean review.
Beans are classified as legumes, along with peas, peanuts, and lentils. They are the seeds of flowering plants in the Fabaceae family. Beans can be divided into two main groups: those with edible pods and those with edible seeds, the latter also known as ‘shelling varieties’.
The former group includes French beans, runner beans, sugar snap peas and Italian flat beans; the latter includes the likes of cannellini or butter beans and myriad similar varieties.
This of course is the season for the beans which are eaten with pods and all, though I’d controversially include broad beans in this category and ignore the botanists’ cries. In my view there should be a sub-category to differentiate beans with edible seeds that are mainly dried, from those seeds that are seasonal and eaten fresh, like broad beans, edamame, peas and butter beans which are cooked fresh in Spain when in season.
So which of those seasonal green, yellow or purple beans are the most common?
Runner beans, also known (quite deservedly) as string beans, are long, flat green beans with a rough skin. They are traditionally the British ‘veg' from the ‘meat and two veg’ old school combo, also present at traditional Sunday roast. Runner beans are a plot staple: one of the easiest crops to grow, producing an abundance of long green pods from mid-summer to early autumn. Most are climbers, delivering large harvests in a small area, with a few dwarf varieties ideal for containers.
Common beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, better known as French or green beans can actually come in yellow and purple hues as well. The latter regrettably lose the colour when boiled and become boringly green.
Italian flat beans are a variety of common bean with broader, flattened pods. They can be used interchangeably with string or green beans though some Italian snobby chefs/recipes call specifically for the use of those beans.
Broad or fava beans should really be known as British beans: they love wet and cool summers hence are grown in summer only in the cool parts of the temperate zone. Although it’s a shelling variety, it is consumed when freshly picked in Europe and UK. Frugal chefs and writers encourage us to eat them with pods, but as much as I’m all against food waste, a broad bean will never be a mangetout to me.
Let’s cook those beans then!
Broad beans are slowly coming to an end, so use them in Persian rice at least once this summer. They are also getting starchy, so the time to make a side dish of crushed broad beans is now.
Runner beans on the other hand will be at their best now, not too overgrown and not too stringy. Garlicky runner beans is a favourite dish, but try them in the bulgur wheat salad with chorizo, too.
Green beans are gorgeous with fish or steak, briefly boiled or steamed. But they go wonderfully well with tomatoes, as well as dressed with Parmesan cream.
Mangetout are excellent in stir fries: check out chicken chow mein, Thai fish stir fry or beef and asparagus, in the last one replacing asparagus with mangetout or sugar snaps. And don’t miss fresh peas! Make the most of them in pasta dishes or added to fried rice. Happy cooking, old beans!