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Groundwork: Beans, cute and dried

Dry stage Black Pencil Podded bush beans. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Many vegetables are useful at different stages: Carrots, potatoes and lettuce yield to the cook at baby, interim and mature stages. But none is more versatile, long-lasting and, frankly, as beautiful as the humble bean. String, lima and scarlet runners, to name a few, are harvested young for their pods, or near maturity for the soft shelled seeds, or now, at season's end, in their dried glory.

Recipe Included

Heirloom varieties, in particular, appear too fabulous to eat. Imagine them on the winter shelf in glass jars, jewel-like. Do you feed the eyes or the belly? It's a hard call.

The Black Pencil Podded is an old bush variety in a striking package: metallic black seeds wrapped in a yellow pod, sometimes called Pencil Pod Black Wax Bean.

Pole beans in particular tend to keep on bearing as long as you continue to harvest the pods green and on the small side, but when you've had your fill of beans in late summer, you can get let the pods do their thing. As they begin to age, the seeds within harden and begin to develop their extraordinary markings. Finally, they shrink by as much as half as they desiccate naturally. This is a preservation device for the beans, allowing them to survive until growing conditions return. But that same storage capability has made the bean a vital winter food through the ages, portable and viable without the need for refrigeration.

Vine-withered pod, here of Kentucky Wonder, announces dry bean within. Adorned in October with buds of the cardinal vine. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

At the American History Museum's Victory Garden, Joe Brunetti raised 11 varieties of antique beans this year, most of them climbing types that need trellising. In October, the foliage is dulled a little but still lush, and pepped up by the cardinal vine, a feathery companion with tiny star blossoms. Plant this morning-glory relative once and you'll have it for years. It self-sows with abandon, as does the remarkable and heat-loving purple hyacinth bean. The dried hyacinth bean is a matte black disk with a little white tab sticking out. It is an important staple in African and Asian cultures, but by cooks who know what they're doing. The bean contains toxins and must be cooked and prepared correctly to make it fit for consumption. It is grown here strictly as an ornamental.

As pretty as the Black Pencil Podded is, the most attractive (in my book) is an unnamed heirloom that Joe picked up from a gardener in Lancaster County, Pa. The pod has pink-red highlights and the bean itself is ivory with raspberry swirls. Another beauty is a lima bean variety named red calico. The mature seeds are of the darkest crimson, just stunning. Joe also has raised an antique named Good Mother Stallard. You can see its variegated beauty in this link:

Gorgeous heirloom beans from Lancaster County, Pa. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The advantage of heirloom varieties is that they come true from seed, so all of these can be used not just for winter soup, but for sowing again in the garden, next May. Set some aside for this purpose and store them, labeled, in resealable plastic food storage bags in your fridge (not freezer). As a rule, beans pollinate themselves so you don't have to worry about unwanted hybrids, courtesy of an earnest bee. The odd cross might get through, but that just adds to the adventure of vegetable gardening.

Joe gave me a few beans of the Lancaster heirloom, which I shall grow and share next year with other gardeners. Needless to say, dried beans vary not only in appearance, but flavor. Cue Cindy Brown for a recipe....

-- Adrian Higgins
(Follow me on Twitter.)

Lamb and Shell Bean Stew
6 servings

The aroma from this stew is intoxicating. Removing the shell from the beans takes a bit of effort, but it is worth it. Preparation time will be longer if you cannot find the beans already shelled. The difference in taste between canned and fresh beans is dramatic, although canned beans can be used; make sure the canned ones are drained and rinsed to eliminate some of the sodium. Also, to brighten the "canned" flavor, add the juice from a half of a lemon.

This stew can be made for vegetarians by substituting cubes of winter squash for the lamb. Cooking time of course would be reduced; probably to 30 minutes total. Try peeled Cushaw, butternut or delicata squash.

MAKE AHEAD: The stew can be made and refrigerated a day in advance. Reheat on the stove over low heat.

From Smithsonian Garden education specialist Cynthia A. Brown.

1 tablespoon olive oil, or more as needed
1 3/4 pounds boneless boneless lamb shoulder trimmed of excess fat, then cut into 1-inch chunks
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, chopped (2 cups)
2 ribs celery, chopped
5 medium cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon minced rosemary
3 large bay leaves
1/2 cup dry red wine (substitute beef broth if wine is to be omitted)
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1 cup low-sodium beef broth
2 large tomatoes, chopped
3 medium carrots, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices
3/4 cup mint leaves, chopped
1 1/2 cups shelled fresh shell beans (any type available; see headnote)

Heat a large pot over medium-high heat; add the oil, then the lamb chunks. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 8 minutes, stirring, until the lamb is browned on all sides, then transfer the lamb to a plate.

Reduce heat to medium. Check the pot and add oil as needed, then add the onion and celery. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, then stir in the garlic, rosemary and bay leaves. Cook for slightly less than 1 minute. Add the wine; use a wooden spoon to stir and scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Once the wine starts bubbling at the edges, stir in the mustard, broth, tomato, carrot and mint.

Return the lamb chunks to the pot along with any accumulated juices. Once the mixture starts bubbling again, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until the meat is absolutely tender.

While the lamb and herb mixture is cooking, place the beans in a small saucepan. Barely cover with fresh water and cook over medium-low heat until the beans are tender; this could take 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the age of the beans.

Drain the beans and add them to the lamb and herb mixture. Cook for at least 10 minutes to allow the beans to soak up some of the flavor. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Discard the bay leaves.

Serve warm.

Per serving: 440 calories, 38 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 390 mg sodium, 11 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  | October 25, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork, Recipes  | Tags:  Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, recipes  
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Next: Smoke Signals: The ghoulish grill


I'm confused as to what constitutes a shell bean. If I buy apackage of dried cranberry beans, are they shell beans? What about black beans? Do the beans have to be preserved in their pod to be considered shell beans?

Posted by: Barbara_in_Gambrills | October 27, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

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