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The illustration of a bean's life -- the one that middle-school textbooks used to tell the story of its journey from seed to seed once again -- has always rattled around in my head, however needlessly.
But when I became a gardener, it all made sense, as beans were the crop that gave me my first taste of success. Suddenly I was eating them at every stage in the cycle, from the skinny green beans to the soft-shells to the dried beans.
Beans grow easily and prolifically, and even in less-than-ideal conditions I can count on picking them by the bucket-load. The only challenge is keeping up with the harvest -- but it's also an exercise in seasonal cooking.
Whether you grow your own or take advantage of someone else's bean windfall at the farmers market, the deluge forces you to be creative. Beans three days in a row? We seasonal eaters take our penance and get down to business, plowing through bean salads, bean dips, pickled beans, cold marinated beans for picking at with chopsticks, you name it.
A bean for every cook
This year I am embarrassed to admit that I am growing five kinds of beans in my garden -- and no repeats. I simply couldn't strike any off the list. They're just all so distinctive: fava beans, haricots vert (skinny French green beans), Romano beans (wide-podded Italian green beans), and two kinds of dried beans: cranberry beans (which I will use as fresh shell beans) and calypso beans, for drying.
First to surface are the fava beans, a Mediterranean plant that tastes like a cross between a green bean and a pea. The non-native favas love it here in Minnesota. In fact, our cool springs and falls generally allow for two harvests. This makes sense to me, as they seem prepared for it: Their pods pack as much insulation as an arctic-rated sleeping bag. Four or five big beans grow inside a plump, fleecy pod, and they're encased in yet another layer of protection, a tough, inedible skin.
Some say that you don't have to peel them if you eat them young, but unless they're the size of a newborn's thumbnail, you'll want to peel them. If you boil them for a minute first and then quickly cool them, the skins slip right off.
A taste of the familiar
Next come the green beans, and nothing spells loyalty like a green bean variety. Don't mess with someone's Providers or diss their Dragon beans. I have developed a fierce attachment to Maxibel, a French variety that grows long and slender, and stays skinny long into maturity (like French women, perhaps?). Maxibels arrive early in the season and quickly go bottomless, yielding enough beans for any cook to declare blitzkrieg in the kitchen. This year the beans found their way into the potato salad, the linguini with pesto and the spicy tomato sauce, before completely usurping the potatoes in the warm German potato salad -- victoriously, too.
Italian Romano beans grow in the opposite direction -- wider. But no matter how fat these flat pods become, they always maintain their tenderness and superior, gentle flavor. I like to cut their long pods into diamond-shapes and serve them in a couple of ways: simply boiled and drained, with a little olive oil and Parmesan, and long-simmered, with tomatoes and black olives.
But of all the beans, I anticipate the shell beans the most. You can steal these fresh, fully grown seeds from any bean, but traditionally you take them from the beans you grow for storage. They should be captured right after the pods mature but before they start to dry, when the pods are plump but still green. The fresh beans take just 40 minutes or so to cook to tenderness, at which time their young thin skins seem to disappear and their dense, almost fudgy insides turn into a smooth purée. Fleeting and special, shell beans (known affectionately as "shellies") are one of the wonders of summer eating -- but only the third possible way to eat a bean.
Amy Thielen is a chef and writer who lives in Two Inlets, Minn.
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