Using your beans

Chickpeas, baby limas, cranberry beans and giant favas are in season and especially flavorful.

As a driven young chef in my first major job 30 years ago, I did some crazy things in my search for authenticity.

Perhaps my most notorious act was choosing to serve fresh, green fava beans for the opening of the restaurant, an event to which several hundred guests had been invited. I joined the staff in cleaning six bushels of favas, which involved opening the large, tough outer pods, removing the inner beans, blanching them, and then individually removing the skin from each bean. The task seemed endless, with at least a dozen people working for most of a day, but the results were extraordinary because no one (for good reason) in Philadelphia had ever been served fresh favas in a restaurant.

These sweet, faintly bitter beans are an eagerly awaited spring delicacy in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region, where people tend to eat in tune with the seasons.

In this country, most people, if they've had them at all, have bought them dried or canned. But fresh fava beans, and others like them, are increasingly available at farmers markets, ethnic groceries, and even some supermarkets. And they are moving beyond restaurant fare and into home cooking.

In season now and through June (and occasionally through the fall) are beans like the giant-sized puffy favas, the red- and cream-streaked cranberry beans, the short, plump green chickpeas (garbanzos), and baby limas so delicate-tasting that even the most resolute lima loather could learn to love them.

Sometimes called "green" beans, all are plucked young enough that their inner beans don't need soaking, and are quick-cooking and creamy in texture. They're also fat-free, high in protein, rich in fiber, and easy to digest. The catch is that you have to do some meditative prep work, popping the beans out of their protective pods, and, in the case of favas, slipping off their inner skins after a brief dunk in boiling water.

Fresh favas take a fair amount of time to prepare, but just a handful sprinkled on seared, grilled, or broiled fish, or stirred into risotto, stir-fries, fried rice, polenta, or pasta, will add a springy fillip.

I prefer to remove their skins, but not everyone agrees. Women in Puglia, Italy, believe that cooking fava beans "in their coats" gives the beans special powers to increase one's physical potency, making their men stronger both in the fields and in the marriage bed. Look for fresh favas at H-Mart, Whole Foods, Reading Terminal, on Ninth Street, and at farmers markets. Look for frozen green favas (still enclosed in their inner skin) at Asian, Latin American, and Mediterranean markets.

I continue to be surprised, and thrilled, with the locally grown beans I have been finding at area markets. At the Queens Farm stand at the Headhouse Farmers Market the other day, I was excited to find a small pile of purple-tinged edamame in their pods, a less common variety I had never seen in this region before.

To learn more, on an exceptionally rainy day, I met restaurateur Margaret Kuo at Chester County's Queens Farm, run by Xiuqin Qin, who raises more than 200 types of Chinese vegetables, all organically. As the rain beat down, we crouched in one of Qin's plastic-covered greenhouses with this hardworking farmer and expert in Chinese traditional medicine. While Kuo helped translate, Qin explained that she grows two types of edamame (soybeans bred as a green vegetable rather than as a mature starchy legume): those purple beauties I bought and the more common green edamame, found frozen either whole or shelled at local supermarkets.

"Green edamame are more tender but purple edamame are more sweet," she said. Boiled in heavily salted water and sucked from the fuzzy pods, edamame are the Japanese equivalent of potato chips at the bar. Happy hour in Japan wouldn't be the same without a bowl of steaming edamame. One variety is actually named "Beer Friend." And I can vouch that they go equally well with Philadelphia microbrews.

In Italy, land of bean-lovers, especially in Tuscany where the inhabitants are known as mangia-fagioli or bean-eaters, fresh borlotti beans season is cause for celebration. The town of Lamon, north of Venice, puts on a three-day festival every September celebrating its sought-after variety of speckled beans called fagioli di Lamon (beans from Lamon), close cousins to cranberry beans.

Although all common beans (cranberry, pinto, cannellini, black beans, limas, runner beans, and so on) are native to the New World, Italian immigrants brought cranberry beans back to the New World, planting them on the California coast. I've found that the area's many Korean markets are the best place to find what they call "red beans."

Because so many culinary trends start on the West Coast, when I spied fresh green chickpeas at Seattle's Pike Place Market two years ago, I hoped they were a harbinger. Known as Hare Chana or Cholia in Indian markets, green chickpeas are available for the next couple of weeks at Patel Food Market in Montgomeryville. If you miss out, never fear. Frozen green chickpeas are a staple at Indian markets.

I spoke to Morgan Murray at Califresh, a year-round grower of green chickpeas in California and Mexico, who told me its product was coming into the Philadelphia market as demand grew. So, ask for them, no, insist on them, at your supermarket. He learned to prepare them from a Mexican family that grows garbanzos for his company.

To prepare green chickpeas: Roast a single layer of green chickpeas (without oil) in a preheated heavy skillet over high heat, shaking occasionally until pods begin to char, 5 to 6 minutes. Eat hot for a nutritious and fun snack.

To prepare favas: Remove the inner beans from their protective spongy pods. Break back the tips of the pods, and then pull down along the side to remove the strings running along either side. The pods will then open easily. Remove the beans and discard the pods. To remove their skins, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch beans, cooking just until the water comes back to a boil. Drain and refresh in a bowl of ice water or under cold running water to set their color. Slip off the skins, revealing the grass-green inner beans. If the favas are overly mature and yellow rather than bright green, you will need to cook them again in boiling water until tender. Otherwise, eat as is or continue with your recipe.

To prepare cranberry beans: Split open the pods on their slightly curved inner sides and pop out the beans. I'll buy three or four pounds, shell them, vacuum-seal them, and freeze for up to four months, ready to cook. If they're in good condition (firm, full of color and bumpy with plump, fully developed beans), cranberry beans will keep well refrigerated one week in their pods and three or four days more once shelled. These creamy, smooth-textured beans stay whole when cooked and make a welcome addition to salads, soups, and side dishes. Simmer following the directions in the accompanying Florentine Bean Salad recipe, then serve as is or mixed with tomato sauce to accompany grilled beef or lamb steak and kebabs.

 


Where to Buy Fresh Legumes

Headhouse Farmers Market. Second and Lombard Streets. Saturdays and Sundays.

Queens Farm Farmstand. 2069 W. Street Rd. (Route 896 west of Route 202), West Chester (Pocopson Township). 610-793-2834.

Patel Market. 705 B Bethlehem Pike (Route 309 just north of Route 202), Montgomeryville. www.patelfoodmarket. com.

H-Mart. Several locations in the Philadelphia region.

Whole Foods. Several locations in the Philadelphia region.


Gratin of Summer Succotash With Crabmeat

Makes 6 servings

1 pound shelled fresh baby lima beans or edamame

1 bunch scallions, sliced into 1-inch lengths

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 pound lump crabmeat, carefully picked over

4 cups sweet white corn kernels (about 8 ears)

4 large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes, seeded and diced

1 cup shredded basil leaves (about 1 bunch)

1/2 cup heavy cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup fresh white bread crumbs

1. Place the lima beans or edamame in a medium saucepan with enough salted cold water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until bright green and almost tender. Drain and reserve.

2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a small skillet, cook the scallions in 2 tablespoons of the melted butter, just until bright green. Remove from the heat and combine in a large bowl with the limas, crabmeat, corn, tomatoes, basil, and cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon the mixture into an ungreased 6-cup shallow baking dish.

3. Combine the bread crumbs and the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small bowl. Sprinkle evenly over top. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until bubbling and browned on top.

Per serving: 656 calories, 37 grams protein, 90 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 108 milligrams cholesterol, 384 milligrams sodium, 21 grams dietary fiber.


Florentine Borlotti Bean and Tuna Salad

Makes 6 servings

Half an onion pocked with two to three whole cloves (the spice)

2 to 3 cloves garlic

1 small handful of fresh thyme tied with string  for easy removal

1 strip of lemon peel, cut using a potato peeler

2 pounds cranberry beans in the pod, shelled

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, optional

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley leaves

1 (9-ounce) can tuna in oil (preferably olive oil), drained and chunked

1/4 cup pitted cured black olives

1/2 cup red radishes, quartered or sliced

Lemon wedges, for garnish

1. Bring 2 quarts of salted water to the boil along with the onion, garlic, thyme, and lemon peel. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Add the beans and salt and bring back to the boil, skimming off any white foam. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook partially covered 30 to 40 minutes or until the beans are tender when pierced. (Don't throw away the delicious fiber-rich broth - use it as a soup base.)

2. Whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and mustard. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Reserve.

3. Gently toss the warm beans, parsley, and reserved dressing together. (Dress the beans while still warm so the flavors will be absorbed.) Mound the beans into the centers of 6 large salad plates. Top each plate with a portion of tuna and garnish with black olives, radishes, and lemon wedges.

Per serving: 928 calories, 48 grams protein, 94 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 43 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 276 milligrams sodium, 38 grams dietary fiber.


Minted Fresh Fava Beans

Makes 6 servings

3 pounds fresh fava beans in their pods

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint (about 1/2 bunch)

1 bunch scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced

1/4 cup water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Remove the fava beans from their spongy outer pods and discard the pods.

2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the favas and cook for about 2 minutes or long enough to loosen the outer skin. Drain and rinse under cold water. Slip the individual favas from their skins and reserve. If the favas are overly mature and have turned yellow rather than bright green, simmer them in boiling water until tender.

3. In a medium pan, heat the olive oil, scallions, and mint just until the mint gives off its aroma. Add the favas and water and cook until the beans are tender and coated with mint oil, 5 to 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately either alone or over grilled or broiled salmon.

Per serving: 99 calories, 1 gram protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 13 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Capri Lemon Pasta With Peas, Fava Beans, and Asparagus

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Juice and finely grated zest of 2 lemons

A bunch of asparagus

1 pound fresh fava beans, shelled, or 51/2 ounces frozen

14 ounces fresh pasta (such as linguine, tagliatelle or spaghetti)

1 pound fresh peas, shelled, (or 51/2 ounces frozen)

4 tablespoons mascarpone cheese

3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated

A small bunch of basil, torn

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, put the cream and lemon zest in a saucepan and carefully bring to a boil, then simmer for 3 minutes.

2. While the cream is simmering, prepare the asparagus: Snap off the woody ends and cut into 1-inch pieces.

3. Cook the asparagus, fava beans, pasta and peas together in the boiling water for 3 minutes or until the pasta is al dente. Reserve 1/4 cup of cooking water and drain the pasta, peas, beans and asparagus.

4. Pour the cream into the cooking pot, add the lemon juice, mascarpone, and the reserved cooking water. Return to a boil, add the pasta and vegetables, Parmesan, basil and seasoning, and toss together. Divide among 4 bowls and serve immediately.

- From The Modern Vegetarian (Kyle Books)

Per serving: 1,233 calories, 58 grams protein, 154 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 45 grams fat, 150 milligrams cholesterol, 437 milligrams sodium, 35 grams dietary fiber


Aliza Green has been a chef at several local restaurants; she is the author of "Beans, More Than 200 Delicious, Wholesome Recipes From Around the World" (Running Press, 2004), from which the three recipes at right are taken.