Sometimes I get a tad impatient with a simmering pot of dried beans. While the beans bubble away for what seems like hours, I grow ever hungrier and grouchier! Canned beans make a fine and quick substitute, but their flavor is no match for the real deal. That's why I jump for joy when shelling beans -- the just-picked pods that hold tender, sweet, fresh beans -- arrive in farmers' markets at the end of summer. Unlike their dried counterparts, fresh beans cook quickly, in a matter of minutes rather than hours.
There are hundreds of varieties of shelling beans, each with a unique, colorful pattern and an equally colorful name that often reflects the bean's history. 'Jacob's Cattle,' 'Good Mother Stallard,' 'Lazy Housewife,' and 'Mayflower' are just a few that can be purchased online and grown from seed. At the market, you'll likely encounter two common varieties. Cannellini beans have slender yellow-green pods that look a bit like haricots verts but have small, cream-colored beans inside. Cranberry beans, of which there are several sub-varieties, including Borlotti beans, are crimson with white marbling, like an excellent, fatty rib-eye steak. Keep your eye out for the less common shelling beans. Christmas Lima beans look like burgundy-tie-dyed gems wrapped up in flattened green shells -- they're seriously gorgeous enough to wear as jewelry. Tiger's Eye beans are the color of caramel, with thin skins that practically disappear during cooking. The fresh shelling bean season can be as short as two to three weeks, so hop to it.
Look for damp, shriveled pods bulging with beans. Fresh shelling beans in their pods will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week. Once shucked, the beans are best cooked within a day or two. The shucking process can be meditative, especially with a glass of wine in hand, and it's a pleasure to swish the smooth beans in cool water. Try simply boiling the beans with a clove of garlic and a sprig of thyme, then drizzling them with olive oil. They can be eaten straight away, added to soup, tossed in a salad, or baked with pork sausages, fennel, and kale. With fresh shelling beans, the possibilities are endless and time is not an issue.
Shelling Bean Ragout
Feel free to use any variety of shelling bean in this light yet flavorful ragout. Fennel and sage are lovely partners for pork sausage, but there are many flavor combinations that would work well. Try rosemary and tarragon with chicken sausage, if you like.
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups fresh shelling beans (about 2 pounds unshucked)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 pork sausages (or a few more, if you prefer)
1 small onion, halved and sliced
½ small fennel bulb, sliced
3 - 4 fresh sage leaves, torn into small pieces
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ cup white wine
2 - 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup chopped kale leaves
1 cup chicken stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the beans under cool, running water. Place them in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot and pour in enough water to cover the beans by 1½ inches. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are fully tender, about 20 minutes. Every pot of beans cooks a little differently; you'll know the beans are nearly done when they stop pinging off the sides of the pot and instead move lazily around in the liquid. Let the beans cool in their broth. (The beans can be prepared up to this point and then refrigerated in their broth for up to two days.)
Preheat oven to 325ºF.
Heat a wide, oven-safe skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in remaining tablespoon olive oil. Slice the sausages lengthwise, place them in the skillet, and then brown on all sides. Transfer sausages to a plate.
Reduce the heat to medium, then add onion, fennel, sage, fennel seeds, ¼ teaspoon salt and several grinds of pepper to the skillet. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften and brown, about 5 minutes. Pour in white wine, and cook until nearly all the liquid evaporates. Add garlic, ¼ teaspoon salt, kale, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat. Nestle the browned sausages into the vegetables and beans. Bake for 40 minutes.
Serve ragout with crusty bread for soaking up the flavorful broth.
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