Fall’s Bounty: Field Fresh Beans
The sign may say “fresh,” but that is no indication of when beans were picked or how they taste. “Fresh” means they aren’t frozen or canned. Beans, like most farm produce, lose nearly 50% of their nutritional value within one week after being picked. If you live on a farm, or grew up on one, you know exactly what real fresh beans should taste like.
Bean season in upstateNew Yorkspans summer into fall: starting in July, you can pick beans into September; or even October with a fall planting. If you buy “fresh” beans outside of this growing season, it means they are at least a week old, if not more, and certainly not local. You can find cheap beans from national distributors, regional warehouses and big produce auctions sold as “fresh.” But such beans can’t compare in taste to beans delivered within 24 hours from farmer’s field to your plate.
So how do you know if the beans you buy at the roadside stand, local grocer or farmer’s market are REALLY farm fresh? Here’s an old farmer’s trick you can use. In the first 24 hours of picking, beans have natural fuzz much like that of a peach. Any cotton t-shirt or garment you are wearing will work to test the bean for freshness. If the bean sticks to your shirt better than if you’d attached it with Velcro, then the beans are farm fresh. If it doesn’t stick to your shirt, put it back and walk away. Those aren’t field fresh beans.
If beans are more than a day old, they need to go into cold storage to stop further decomposition of the sugars into starch. Field fresh beans should not really ‘snap.’ You should be able to bend a bean almost in half before it splits with a wimpy crisp sound. No seeds inside should show bulges on the outside. Once the plant puts the energy into seed making, the beans are tough and stringy. If it doesn’t taste fresh when raw, beans will taste worse when cooked. Depression era cookbooks often include a recipe for preparing these old beans: “leather britches beans.”
If you pick the beans yourself, you know exactly how many hours fresh they are when you serve them. If you can or freeze beans, freshness matters even more.
Long and slender, with uniformity to a pencil shape distinguishes ripe beans. In the midst of the bush, you put your hand down in where you sighted the bean and feel to the end. Once you have the tail, simply pull up and the bean will pop off easily from its stem.
Each bean comes with a cap when properly plucked. Looks a little like a hat; the natural seal has a string resembling the top of a beanie. You want to pull the bean from the plant with its cap intact. Just before you use the beans in your favorite recipe or want to eat them for a raw snack, bend back the tip at the string end to remove its cap.
BlueLake274 bush green bean seeds are the standard for most backyard farmers, kitchen gardeners, and commercial growers. With a white flower, the bush blooms repeatedly through the summer season. For every blossom, a tender green bean appears. There’s another popular bean with a purple blossom: the yellow bean.
Please don’t call them “wax” beans. Tinned, starchy beans of a ghostly hue deserve this label when you find them on your grocer’s shelf of canned veggies. Ick.
Local, fresh from the field, yellow beans are never waxy. In fact, most blind taste tests reveal no significant difference from green beans. I first took that taste test as a child when I asked the expert in my 5-year-old universe, Joe Reeves, what’s the difference between a green and a yellow bean? Joe had a farm stand along the Mississippi River in the north Minneapolis neighborhood of Camden. Dad and I would pick up fresh produce every Saturday morning. Old man Reeves liked to tease me about knowing my vegetables. The sweet corn he’d sell next week was growing tall up inAnoka,Minnesota, north of the Twin Cities. I learned to eat seasonally as a child because it was considered normal, practical, economical and just plain common sense – even in the city. Joe Reeves taught me there is no real difference in bean taste between yellow and green; the difference is the color. And the color yellow tastes yummy.
Recipe: Creamed New Potatoes and Yellow Beans
1 quart field fresh yellow beans; snap the cap ends off and rinse in cold water
1 lb. of freshly dug and thoroughly washed new potatoes; red or white. It matters most that they are freshly dug and their skins are only paper-thin. The spuds should be small enough to fit inside the palm of your hand when you make a fist.
½ stick salted butter (no substitute for the roux)
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup room temperature water
[1 or 2 tablespoons white flour]
½ c. fresh cream [or buttermilk]
Put a 4 quart pan half full of water to boil.
Wash and prepare potatoes. If medium to large size, halve or quarter.
When the water is boiling, add potatoes. Boil at medium heat for 10 minutes.
While the potatoes are boiling, begin to prepare the roux (white sauce).
In a large cast iron frying pan, slowly melt the butter. Then set aside.
Keep boiling potatoes and add yellow beans to the 4 qt pan. Boil for 2 more minutes. Then turn off heat and let steam until you finish the roux.
Put the butter back on the burner on medium and add one tablespoon of the cornstarch mixture at a time and stir vigorously. Pour in the cream and blend thoroughly. Turn heat down to low and mix with a wire whisk until it begins to thicken.
Drain the potatoes and beans and add the cream sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with
I’d done Dilly Beans since I spent summers as a child with my Aunt Audrey and Uncle Al on their farmstead inWarroad,Minnesota, on Lakes of the Woods. It wasn’t until I spent years here in theFinger Lakesgrowing the old-timey vegetables I loved from childhood that I discovered new recipes for beans. I learned to drizzle herb-infused olive oil and sprinkle crushed garlic over steamed beans. Grilling beans marinated in a little rice vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil is so simple.
Creamed new potatoes and yellow beans is the one recipe I heard over and over again from family, friends and neighbors as central to local cuisine. When folks mention it, there is a visceral reaction that erupts from the stomach and emits a sound; “Mmmmmm.”
Dig potatoes, pick beans. Autumn is nigh.