These legumes have been around for 7000 years … for very good reason.
Beans are not one of those vegetables that suffers from an image problem. Their significance is evident in the many popular words and phrases that have evolved around them in English and other languages – ‘full of beans’, ‘spill the beans’, and ‘beanfeast’, which means a lavish feast, to name a few.
The word ‘bean’ originally referred only to broad beans. It wasn’t until Greek and Roman times, and with the introduction of African varieties, that it got its botanical name, Phaseolus.
Essentially, there are two categories of fresh beans. There are those, such as green beans, that are eaten in their immature state in pod form, with barely formed beans. There’s also the type, such as borlotti beans, grown for the mature beans that are extracted from the pod. Borlotti beans, along with many others are also sold in dry form.
Originating in Central America, where they’ve been cultivated for 7000 years, beans were then spread north and south by native Americans – they are found wild in parts of Central and Southern America. With European exploration in the 15th century, the Spanish became instrumental in the spread of beans into Africa and other parts of the Old World, and eventually to Europe by the 16th century.
The French penchant for the green bean led them to create many modern cultivars, and it’s why green beans are so often referred to as French beans. However, it took an American breeder in the 19th century to produce the first stringless variety. Regardless of that innovation, the word ‘string’ continues to be associated with beans.
The Italians went on to embrace the borlotti bean – a form of haricot bean – also a Central American native. Not all of the borlotti’s uses were strictly culinary – the trend in the 17th century in Venice was for ladies to plant them in their window boxes, both for ornamentation and the shade they provided, but also to allow the women to discreetly peer down into the streets without being observed. Bean seeds eventually travelled to Australia on the First Fleet, with the first plantings recorded on Norfolk Island as early as 1788.
Green beans are grown throughout Australia, from Mildura in the south to Queensland and Western Australia: Borlotti beans favour temperate regions, but there are fast-growing varieties that tolerate growth in more tropical areas, such as Queensland.
Borlotti beans are mainly grown in temperate areas, but varieties do exist that are suited to Australia’s more tropical regions, where they tend to be extremely rapid growers.
Although available year round, there are two seasons for the best-quality beans: March to July and September to October. The majority grow on bushes, but there are also climbing varieties.
Low calorie and mostly carbohydrate, beans are a good source of fibre, folate and vitamins C and A, and are higher in anti-oxidants than most other vegetables
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Green beans, snap beans, french beans, runner beans and climbing beans are other common names for the green bean. Ranging in length from 10-20cm with a thickness of about 0.25-1cm and containing tiny kidney-shaped green seeds, these are the stock-standard variety of green bean. Over the years, many of the bean’s undesirable traits – such as strings and toughness – have been bred out, meaning stringing isn’t necessary. The exception is some home-grown or heirloom varieties. Green beans are the most versatile for cooking – select smaller beans for salads and large specimens for slow-braising in Middle Eastern and Greek-style dishes.
Baby green beans also sold as baby French beans and beanettes. These are the smallest and finest of the green beans, picked young when their carbohydrate is present in the form of sugar, and therefore the sweetest type. Dark green, very straight and barely 6cm long, these slender beans are favoured by many chefs, both for their taste and appearance. As their yield is smaller and their picking more time-consuming (all bean-picking is done by hand), this variety is the most costly – but worth it. Brief cooking is the key, as is a light hand with seasoning, so as not to overwhelm their delicate flavour. There is nothing more beautiful or simpler than a plate of tender baby beans, tossed with cultured butter and a scattering of salt and freshly ground pepper. Then there’s the French dish haricot vert amandine, where the beans are tossed with sauteed shallots and roasted flaked almonds; or in the classic salad nicoise, dressed with a simple vinaigrette, accompanied by tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, anchovy
Yellow beans – also known as butter beans and wax beans, these pale yellow beans – similarly sized to green beans – are another variety of the green bean, and are cooked in the same manner. They are less common, with a shorter season, running from December to May. More care needs to be taken when selecting them, as they are prone to blemishes and they deteriorate more rapidly. Yellow beans are best served as an accompaniment or in salads, and look particularly spectacular when paired with green beans, providing a great contrast with their striking colour.
Italian flat beans – Other common names are roman beans and, simply, flat beans. Characterised by their flat, wide shape and scallop-edged pods, these grow to 20cm and feature soft, immature seeds. Depending on the preparation, cut these beans into smaller lengths for ease of eating. These beans are considered to be meatier than other types, taking bolder flavours and longer cooking.
Runner beans – These are the same as green beans but are climbing or pole varieties, as opposed to the more common bush-grown types, which are also easier to harvest.
Borlotti beans – Called cranberry beans in the US, they grow in 15cm magenta and white-splashed coloured pods, each containing five to six large kidney-shaped seeds that require podding before use. The greatest repertoire of dishes for them is in Italian cooking, where their savoury, ham-like flavour is put to best use in soups, braises and salads.
Snake beans – Many names exist for this spectacularly long (40cm) African native bean – chinese bean and yard-long bean, for example. Distinguished by their length and purple-tinged ends, snake beans are sold bundled. They are the fresh, immature form of the pod from which the black-eyed pea is derived and were brought to Asia 2000 years ago. The snake bean continues to be used principally in Asian cooking particularly Chinese, South-East Asian and Indian – but is also found in the cuisine of the Caribbean. Beans run the gamut of cooking methods around the world. Cooked simply in Europe, Japan and South-East Asia, the bean is treated quite differently in Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern dishes.
HOW TO BUY AND STORE
When selecting green and snake beans, choose the smallest beans available and, in the case of snake beans, the most slender. Ensure seeds aren’t prominent; and look for firm, blemish-free pods that snap easily when broken and have no damp spots. Store them unwashed in a plastic bag in the crisper section
of the refrigerator – up to four days for green, wax, Italian flat and snake beans, and two days for baby green beans. For borlotti beans, buy smooth, unblemished pods, and store, unwashed, in a crisper drawer or in plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to four days.
AND TO COOK
It isn’t necessary to tail beans – only the tops need to be removed. These can be snapped off or cut away with kitchen scissors. There’s a tendency to under-cook fresh green beans – they shouldn’t be crisp in the way a cucumber is, but tender, with a little firmness to the bite. Add beans to a large saucepan of boiling salted water and cook, uncovered, for approximately 6-8 minutes, depending on thickness. If the beans aren’t to be used immediately, drain after cooking, refresh in iced water, then drain again. Beans discolour in the presence of acid, so if you’re tossing them with ingredients such as tomatoes, vinaigrettes or lemon juice, it’s best to do so just before serving. Large beans are suited to long, slow cooking – they’ll lose their colour but the benefits are a meltingly soft texture and richer flavour.
Beans run the gamut of cooking methods around the world. Cooked lightly and simply in Europe, Japan and South-East Asia, the bean is treated quite differently in Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern dishes, where it is braised until meltingly soft – which can be considered to be over-cooked by Western standards. In France, especially the regions of Touraine and Anjou, it’s common for fresh green beans to be paired with dried white beans.
More fibrous and drier than other beans, even after cooking, these beans suit stir-frying, braising and stewing. When steamed, they lend a delicious crunch to salads, as with the Indonesian gada-gada, see recipe below.
The shelled beans need to be cooked in boiling water or meat broths for 30-40 minutes before use.
* To make borlotti beans stewed with fennel seeds, heat % cup olive oil in a casserole, cook 1 finely chopped onion, 1 stalk of chopped celery, 1 chopped carrot and 2 cloves of garlic until soft. Add 2 tsp fennel seeds, 30gm finely chopped pancetta, pinch of chilli flakes and 400gm can of tomatoes, 500gm cooked borlotti beans, 1 dried bay leaf and 2 cups water and bring to the boil. Cover, transfer to a 170C oven and cook for 40 minutes or until beans are very soft and liquid has thickened slightly.
* For gada-gada, process 2 red shallots, 1 finely chopped stalk of lernongrass, 2 coriander roots, 2 cloves of garlic,
2 seeded fresh red chillies, % tsp ground coriander and % cup coconut milk until a smooth paste forms. Heat 1 tbsp peanut oil in a wok and fry paste for
2 minutes or until fragrant, then add 320ml coconut milk and 180gm finely ground roasted peanuts. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes or until sauce thickens. Arrange quartered hard-boiled eggs, tofu puffs, blanched and trimmed snake beans, carrots, cabbage and bean sprouts on a platter and serve drizzled with peanut sauce and scattered with coriander sprigs.
* Variations of green beans with walnut sauce can be found all over the Middle East. Using a mortar and pestle, crush 75gm walnuts and 2 cloves of coarsely chopped garlic to a paste, then transfer to a bowl. Stir in 1 finely chopped shallot, 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander, 1 tsp ground coriander,
2 tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp white wine vinegar, 1 tbsp lemon juice and 1 tsp sweet paprika until a smooth, creamy paste forms, thinning mixture with a little chicken stock or water, if mixture is too thick. Season to taste, then toss with 400gm blanched green beans. *
BEANS ARE GREAT WITH butter. chillies, dried beans, fennel, feta, goat’s cheese, herbs (basil seeds, flat-leaf parsley, marjoram, oregano, thyme), lemon, mayonnaise, meat (beef, chicken, lamb, pork), mustard seeds and mustard, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pinenuts, pistachios, walnuts) and nut oils (hazelnut, pistachio, walnut), olive oil, oranges, potatoes, seafood, shallots, shellfish, tomatoes, verjuice.
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