Shelly beans are a summer treat not to be missed

Watch for "shelly beans" in farm markets in the next week or two. Most varieties grown locally are easy to spot in their swollen yellow red-streaked pods.

Inside are plump oval beans, often pink-daubed, too. This color will fade when you cook them, but what a trade-off for sweet creamy succulence -- a milestone of August.

Try to grab a couple of pounds before the chefs snap them all up.

Cook them ahead and they become a jumping off place for summer meals that don't have to be served piping hot or chilled.

There's one catch, as the name suggests: You usually have to shell them yourself. But if people shell a lapful of peas or limas for a summer indulgence, they'll find that shelly beans are worth the effort -- and faster out of the pod.

Here's what to do with them.

A classic is a warm plate of beans stewed with olive oil, garlic and sage or summer savory. Pasta is a nice addition to this. Ditto tomatoes or greens. The beans can be salad, dressed with olive oil, good red wine vinegar, freshly ground pepper, fresh herbs and slivered sweet onion. Cooked shell beans can be tucked into the braising liquid of almost any dish.

Drained and mounded on a platter, they make a fresh companion for many things: fancy Spanish or Italian tuna, hard-boiled eggs, thin-sliced charcuterie, cubes of smoked turkey, summer tomatoes, green beans, even shavings of bottarga.

A wonderful main dish showcase for them is Deborah Madison's Provencale-style veggie braise of farm market snap beans, shelly beans, potatoes, carrots and squash, with basil pesto, soupe a la pistou.

The season for shelly, shell or shelling beans is right now because they are pulled off the vine at the point when the pod has started to turn leathery, but the bean inside is still moist and tender. (The grower could opt to leave them on the vine to lose more moisture and harden for the dried bean market.)

Any bean can be grown to the tender shelly bean stage. They cook in 30 minutes or so -- compared to the same bean dried that could take hours of soak and simmer. One alert: The shelly bean broth is cloudy and dull. Flavor, though, is anything but. They are best fresh, but freeze pretty well shucked.

Most shelly beans grown locally are varietal cousins, with names such as cranberry, 'Supremo,' cannellini, borlotti or bird egg.

Find them at:

• Clarion River Organics six market locations: Organic farmer Marty Schmucker is growing 'Supremo,' a type of borlotti bean.

• Farmers Market of East Liberty, Saturday until noon: Brian Greenawalt will have bird eye beans, seen on Legume Bistro's summer menus, and several other types to come, including limas from his Amish farmers.

• Farmers@Firehouse in the Strip District, Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Jeff Mott will have fresh organic borlotti and limas.

• Mt. Lebanon Farm Market, Wednesday 4 to 7 p.m., Her Bold Farm, Cadiz, Ohio. Holly Herbold (find her on Facebook) has organic 'Vermont Cranberry' and 'Taylor Dwarf Horticultural' beans, 'Jackson Wonder' limas and 'Windsor' favas.

To shell or not to shell

Writer Adam Gopnik, author of "The Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food," says, "A devotion to shelly beans divides even amateur cooks from noncooks more absolutely than any other food -- like sentences, they are a lot more trouble than anyone who isn't producing them knows." Then we have chef/teacher Judy Rogers, author of the "Zuni Cafe Cookbook," who counters: "The only challenge to shelly beans is finding them."

Shelly Beans and Summer Vegetables Stewed in their Own Juices

PG tested

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 onions, chopped into large pieces
  • 7 plump garlic cloves, peeled and halved, divided
  • 3 thyme sprigs, divided
  • 6 sage leaves
  • 12 small (3- to 5-inch) carrots
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 pound small new potatoes
  • 1/2 pound yellow wax or green beans, ends trimmed
  • 5 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped into large pieces, juice reserved
  • 1 bell pepper, yellow or orange if possible, cut into 1-inch strips
  • 1 pound summer squash, cut into large pieces
  • 1 to 2 pounds shelling beans (2 pounds should yield a generous 2 cups beans)
For the basil puree
  • Packed 1/2 cup basil leaves
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Warm olive oil with bay leaves in a casserole dish or Dutch oven over a low flame. When fragrant, add the onions, 6 of the garlic cloves, 2 of the thyme sprigs and the sage. Cover and cook while preparing the vegetables.

Leave the small carrots whole, but if wide, cut into 4-inch lengths. Add them to the pot. Season with a bit of salt and pepper. If the potatoes are the size of large marbles, leave whole. If large, halve or quarter them. Place potatoes in pot on top of carrots and onions. Add small amount of salt and pepper.

Cut the beans into 3-inch pieces and add them, along with the all remaining vegetables except the shelling beans, to the pot. Season each layer of vegetables with additional salt and pepper.

Pour reserved tomato juice over vegetables, then cover and cook until vegetables are tender, 40 minutes to 1 hour. If the pot seems dry, add tablespoons of water or white wine.

While vegetables cook, simmer shelling beans in water to cover with remaining garlic and thyme and a bit of olive oil. When tender, 30 to 45 minutes, season with salt and pepper. Add the beans, along with any remaining liquid, to the pot of vegetables.

Make the basil puree just before serving. Chop the basil and garlic in a food processor with the oil and enough water to make a puree. Stir in the cheese, then season with salt and pepper.

Serve the vegetables in soup plates and spoon the basil puree over them.

-- "Local Flavors" by Deborah Madison (Broadway, 2002)

Fresh Shell Beans With Sage and Garlic

PG tested

David Tanis: "Fresh shell beans are a seasonal treat not to be missed. They cook quickly, usually in 30 minutes so and have a sweet creamy succulence." Quantities here are half the original -- plenty for 4 generous bowls.

3 pounds fresh shell beans in the pod, preferably cranberry or cannellini beans (yields 4 plus cups shelled beans)

  • Olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a few sage leaves
  • Salt and pepper

Shuck the beans from their pods and put then in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add water to cover by an inch or so. Add a splash of olive oil, the bay leaf, sage leaves and a good pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer the beans for about 30 minutes until the skins are soft and the beans are tender and creamy. Taste the beans and add salt if necessary. Cool the beans in the broth. (The beans can be cooked several hours in advance. To serve, reheat the shell beans. Drain them (reserve the broth for another purpose) and put then in a warmed bowl. Grind over a little black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

-- "A Platter of Figs" by David Tanis (Artisan, 2008)

Freelancer Virginia Phillips:


Hot Topic