If you don't know the glory of fresh shelling beans, it's high time you learned. Now is their moment; you really don't have any time to waste. Shell beans are at their height in your farmers' market, as is the last of the corn, which will initiate you into the mysteries of succotash -- and I'm not talking about the nasty packets of frozen stuff you were forced to eat as a child.
At the moment, my favorite shelling bean is the lima bean. It's no wonder that some varieties are referred to as "butter beans," especially in the South. They are so tender, so starchy-yet-creamy, so perfect. Yes, yes, I know all about your childhood trauma and how much you hated them, there on the plate next to the overcooked liver and how you had to sneak all of it to the dog in order to get your Kit-Kat bar. Yeah, me too. It's time for us to get over it. We have now evolved to the point where we like the lima beans better than the Kit-Kat bar, especially when they're fresh. Even if it may cost a manicure or two to get them out of their pods.
While fresh peas probably still reign supreme in my legume affections, I prefer fresh lima beans to cranberry beans, although I love the little red-splotched guys too. But it's the texture of the butter beans that wins me over. With these beauties, it's important not to err on the side of undercooking -- you don't want even one bean that is gritty or crumbly rather than meltingly tender.
Vegetables like fresh lima beans provide the perfect opportunity to slow down. Instead of using pre-washed salad greens and pre-peeled garlic and frozen vegetables and all those other conveniences on which we rely at times in the name of getting a meal on the table, today you can decide that you will slowly, meditatively take the time needed to choose the best, firmest green pods. Then you start shelling, working your way through a couple of pounds of the twistilinear hulls, noticing that your yield of beans is, sadly, quite a bit smaller than the growing pile of spent pods next to you. You have to figure out the best way to open them -- can you slit one side with a fingernail, and pop out the beans? Sometimes these bean-husks are too resistant for that, and you have to break off an end, and see if you can peel a thread of membrane along one side to get the pod open. And other times you just have to fight and wrestle with it until you can get those babies out of there, slightly bruised or nicked but none the less delicious for that.
Although they're more work than my beloved English peas or the prettily painted cranberry beans, they're actually far less effort than favas, with just as great a reward, at least in my opinion. And once you're done with the pesky shelling, some very succulent dishes are but a few minutes away. My current favorite, as you've no doubt guessed, is succotash.
The Northeastern Woodland Indians created this particular vegetable mixture, which serves as just one tiny example of how much has been lost by the suppression and destruction of tribal knowledge. Beans and corn together (and sometimes squash, for a perfect "three sisters" vegetable dish) balance each others' nutrients. The beans and squash both provide niacin, as does the process of treating the corn with lime, also known as "nixtamalization," another Native American invention. If corn is a major part of one's diet, and is not nixtamalized nor eaten with niacin-rich foods, dire circumstances may result. The early inhabitants of this continent knew how to balance the grain. Not so southern Europeans, and most particularly the Italians, who when first introduced to corn (and hence, polenta) in the 18th century, became so fond of it that they ate it to the exclusion of many other foods, and developed pellagra -- as did many inhabitants of the southern United States during the 1900s.
Succotash is worth the effort not only for the superiority of its balanced nutrition. I truly think it one of the most delicious things you can eat in the early fall. If you wish, leeks or green onions are good additions, as are the last few summer squash or green beans. I prefer it in its simplest form -- corn, beans, a little butter, a soupçon of good cream, salt, pepper,
and a generous lashing of piment d'espelette, or failing that, ground cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes. This could also be easily adapted to any dietary restrictions -- the cream isn't strictly necessary, although it creates a lovely bit of sauce, and the butter can be replaced with a splash of olive oil, if you don't use dairy products. However you modify it, take a moment to slow down, and give fresh succotash a try before the frost sets in.
serves four to six moderately, or else just two people who can't believe how good this is.
3 cups of shelled lima beans (from about 2 1/2 lbs. of beans weighed in the shell)
4 ears of fresh sweet corn, kernels cut and scraped from the cobs
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. cream
a grating of nutmeg
salt, pepper, piment d'espelette, cayenne or red pepper flakes
pinch of sugar (optional)
Cook the limas in about an inch of boiling water, until creamy and tender. This could take anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes, and you can only really tell if they're done by tasting them, since cooking time will vary due to the size and age of your beans. Drain them and reserve.
Melt the butter in a medium sauté pan or skillet, and let it brown just slightly, until it foams and has a nutty smell. Gently add the corn kernels and sauté for about five minutes or until the corn seems done (again, this will be dependent on the size and maturity of the corn kernels). Add the beans, the cream and all the seasonings, and simmer together for a couple of minutes until the cream is thickened, and all the ingredients have melded a bit. Taste, and only add the dash of sugar if the natural sweetness in the corn and beans needs a tiny bit of heightening.
Serve alongside almost anything.