Fresh shelling beans or “shellies” are hard to come by. Oh now and then, I come across a bin of chickpeas at the Persian or Indian grocery store, but only at the farmers market do I find such tender delicacies as fresh cranberry beans (Phaseolus Vulgaris); Limas (Phaseolus Lunatas); or purple-hull peas (Vigna Unguiculata).
Even though I live in the North, the farmers at my market cater to a clientele with strong ties to the South. Southerners know and love their shelled beans. Line up a variety of shellies and challenge anyone who grew-up in rural Mississippi to name them. Not only will they rattle off the names of each variety with ease, but they will also give you a tutorial on how to best cook them—Southern-style of course!
Their passion has become my passion. I always loved beans, but have come to cherish that rare specimen, the fresh shelled bean. When they arrive at the market, I buy them, lots of them. Some I cook immediately, but most I squirrel away in my freezer to be enjoyed all winter and spring long until the next harvest season brings more. Even frozen, their flavor and texture is superior to dried or canned. I’m not poo-pooing canned and dried beans. They have other advantages, and I use them too, but nothing can compare to the fresh shellie.
Season & Selection: Fresh cranberry beans begin appearing in Southeast Wisconsin in early August, followed by Lima beans in mid-August. Purple-hull peas appear last in late August. Shelled beans will remain at the market through November, though starting in October, they will gradually begin appearing as dried shelled beans as opposed to fresh. When at the market, choose plump, filled-out pods. Immature seeds are too difficult to shell. Slightly yellowing or drying pods are perfectly acceptable but avoid completely dry, brown pods.
Storage: Short term—keep pods for only a few days in the warmest part of the refrigerator in a paper not plastic bag. Long term—shell beans and blanche in 5 quarts of boiling water a pound at a time: 2 minutes for small, 3 minutes for medium, and 4 minutes for large beans. Cool in an ice bath, dry and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Freeze beans completely then transfer to freezer bags, label and date. Fully cooked beans can be refrigerated for about a week and frozen for 6 months. Cooked beans freeze very well.
- 3 cups fresh shelled beans = 1 pound shelled = 2 pounds in pods
- 1 t oil (optional)
- Shell and wash the beans.
- In a large heavy sauce pan, add beans and enough water to cover by 2 inches.
- Add oil to prevent foaming.
- Cover and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat and simmer covered on low heat until tender—15 minutes for small beans, 25 minutes for medium sized, and 35 minutes for large beans like cranberries. Test for tenderness often.
- Alternatively, place all of the ingredients in a slow cooker and cook on low for 4 - 6 hours or high for about 2 hours.
- When beans are tender, remove lid, drain excess liquid if desired, stir in salt to taste and serve.
Optional Additions While Cooking
- 2 T olive oil, butter, or bacon fat
- Stock instead of water
- Any smoked meat
- Aromatic herb—bay leaf, or sprig of fresh oregano, sage, thyme, celery leaf or rosemary
- Crushed garlic cloves or small onions
- Spices like curry, cumin, paprika etc.
Optional Additions After Cooking
- Fresh chopped herbs—parsley, cilantro, dill, mint or basil
- Sauces like salsa, BBQ; vinaigrette or cream sauce to cooled beans
Preparations: Shelled beans are not necessarily the star of the meal, more like a strong backbone. Their forte is providing a creamy satisfying texture. Their mild flavor makes them versatile. Follow the recipe for basic shell beans and serve them plain or purée into a dip, sauté them with garlic, herbs or vegetables, add them to a soups, salads or stews. Shellies pair nicely with garlic, shallots, onions, herbs, cream, butter, olive oil, tomatoes, vinegars, lemon, and smoked meats.
Cooking with Kids: Put the kids in charge of shelling the beans. I usually participate and play word games to keep them amused while we work. I also let them help me with freezing them. They prepare the ice water bath, dry the beans, place them on cookie sheets and my big girl does all of the labeling.
WARNING: All shelled beans must be cooked and never eaten raw as the mature beans contain a poison that is neutralized in heat.