The Fat of the Land

Month: August, 2013

Shelling Beans

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One of the perks of tending a vegetable garden is the privilege of tasting plants as they grow. Delicate baby vegetables and their robust mature counterparts make up the bulk of what we see at market, but in the garden, vegetables go through many ambiguous stages of growth while culminating their flavor and appearance. Keeping an open mind and nibbling while I work is my usual technique—tasting green stems and seedpods of bolted plants, under-ripe and overly mature fruits, flowers, weathered leaves. Flavor is a wilderness; we must enter it boldly and explore it deeply.

Sometimes exceptional flavor comes in un-exceptional packages. Such is the case with shelling beans, the name for a bean whose pod has become too dessicated and seed too firm with starch to eat raw, but is not yet solidified into a bean that can be sealed in a jar for the winter. The unshelled pod looks like a Halloween prop—shriveled and sometimes splotched with off-colors, it is not a picture of garden freshness. Once freed from their pod, the glossy, plump beans begin to have allure. A speedy version of the dry bean, shelling beans offer the same meaty satisfaction, but with a charge of freshness to their flavor—creamy and alive in a way their fully mature siblings are not.

Many types of beans eaten at this in-between stage may be called shelling beans. Fava, Cannellini, Borlotti, Flageolet and Lima are some of the more classic examples, used in traditional recipes like Soupe au Pistou, Cassoulet and Succoutash, hailing from a time before industrial food production, when we utilized a broader range of garden produce.

Because the truth, as any gardener knows, is that you can rarely keep pace with a ripening garden. A bean patch produces rapidly once it gets going, outrunning even the most intrepid food preserver. So when the tender green beans turned leathery and plump, gardeners ate those, too, developing preferences for varieties that are particularly exceptional at this stage. As food production moved away from the backyard, we lost a connection to these improvisational foods, the ones we eat because that how we find them when we step into the garden to harvest our dinner.

In this way, even the definition of shelling bean may be cracked open—today at market farmers show up with unconventional harvests like green chickpeas or shelling bean stages of snap bean varieties like Dragon’s Tongue wax and Romano beans.

I will offer a word of caution, however, for those wanting to explore the culinary possibilities of partially mature beans. The “new world” beans, those of the Phaseolus vulgaris tribe that were domesticated in Central and South America (including black beans, pinto beans, kidney, navy, flageolet, cannellini, etc.), as well as Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), contain toxins that cause severe gastro-intestinal discomfort when their seeds are eaten raw or undercooked. While such toxins are not present in the immature pods of these beans, by the time they reach shelling bean stage, you should be aware of how to properly prepare them to avoid accidentally poisoning yourself and loved ones.

I was not aware of this subtle shift toward toxicity, and the first time I prepared shelling beans, sans recipe or anyone’s advice, I decided, lazily, to just throw them in with my risotto rice. They tasted delightful, if not a tad crunchy, and we enjoyed the meal, stashing leftovers in the fridge and going on with our evening. An hour later, it was clear that something was wrong, and by midnight—after dozens of trips to the bathroom and still feeling miserable—I took to the Internet to try and unravel our peculiar reaction to this nearly dairy-free, vegetarian meal.

Something was ringing dimly in the back of my mind, a comment my father had made just a few days prior. He had been telling me about a crime novel he was reading in which the antagonist used raw kidney beans to poison a dinner party crowd. I certainly did not initially suspected beans as the cause of our food poisoning, but after five hours of expelling everything in my digestive tract, I began to question what else it could have been.

A quick search revealed that our Borlotti shelling beans were indeed the culprit and although raw they contain only a fraction of the toxins found in kidney beans, slow cooking builds their toxicity by up to 80%, as we had done with our risotto. I also learned that boiling the beans for a mere ten minutes would have sufficed to dispel any toxic effect. It was a good while before either of us felt a desire for any kind of bean, and we are always careful to boil them to creamy tenderness before taking a taste.

Al Fresco

al fresco

I was buying bulk tea from my favorite local merchant this week when the friendly barista and I struck up a conversation, as we usually do, about drinking tea. She mentioned that the leaves I had just bought, a high-elevation-grown Nepalese black tea, she had recently brewed on a high-elevation hike, drinking it in the thin, crisp air someplace, I presume, in our mountainous backyard. Her face lit up as she described how different her experience of the tea’s flavor was, how the act of brewing and tasting it had been noticeably altered by the elevation or the view or the myriad other environmental details of her mountain perch.

It may sound strange, but tea has taught me more about tasting vegetables than any other plant. It is the perfect metaphor for flavor manipulation: at base level, all tea comes from the leaves of a single species, Camellia sinensis, for which there exists thousands of cultivars, growing methods, harvesting and processing techniques, the endless combinations of which result in an astonishing diversity of flavor profiles. And pairing tea with a certain trail, campsite or garden setting adds further nuance, extending the experience from mouth to whole body.

The first time I noticed this phenomenon was when I was drinking pu-er—a type of dry-fermented Chinese tea with a rich, earthy character—while camping at the base of Mount St. Helens. The full flavor and cedar aroma of the pu-er resonated perfectly with the forest’s moist air, scented by humus, nursery logs and leaf matter and overlaid with mineral freshness from the mountain stream nearby. As if the tea picked up some forest essence that day, I haven’t had a sip of it since without recalling that lush setting.

Eating and drinking outdoors is exciting—a wildflower meadow, garden alcove or cliff by the sea is a place fully alive and that vitality flavors the meal, whether it be a sandwich wrapped in a napkin or a multi-course dinner. I love to wait for the ideal picnic spot to reveal itself on a hike—a suddenly open view or comfortable streamside log. Cooking on the campfire adds ancient, elemental flavors to familiar recipes. Dining in the sanctity of your own garden is a way to relax and enjoy the company of the foliage, flowers and fruit you have worked hard to cultivate.

Your own patio may be the best al fresco dining in town: vegetables picked just before they hit the pan or plate, herbs at arm’s length for extra seasoning, the scent of lilies or gardenia filling out the late evening air as you finish your meal. This is why we toil, isn’t it? To sit, finally, and let our gardens be what they are: nourishers of experience.

And yet, I wonder if there isn’t something more at work while eating the tomato in its sunshine, the beans in their acrobatics, the greens near their soil. If there is not an actual flavor that eating amidst a garden brings (and I believe there must be, as the majority of our sense of taste is olfactory, and to eat in the outdoors is to breathe in the outdoors), there is an understanding, a deep anchoring of place. The way my cup of tea anchored me in that forest camp, fresh vegetables eaten in the freshness of a garden create a bond, a whole-body understanding that cannot be replicated by even the most cleverly designed restaurant interior.

Dining al fresco is a summer rite open to all who know where the nearest patch of grass is, to be practiced as frequently as your whims demand. The more you eat outdoors, the more you will feel compelled to do it again, until the cool autumnal breeze laden with thick raindrops forces the patio chairs back into storage and sends our gardens underground, to begin dreaming next year’s feasts.

Skimming Abundance

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Now is the time of reckoning in the garden: the time of tomatoes that will or will not develop blossom end rot, the time of aphids and cucumber beetles and cabbage worms, the time of weed seeds in full sprint, of peppers bruised with sunscald. Our gardens are extensions of our selves and we feel compelled to guard them, scrambling as we do to ward off the hazards of their biology. When so much can go wrong, it’s easy to overlook all that has gone right.

Namely, that our gardens have never failed us, even when they have failed—when the beets never turned into beets, when the spinach bolted too soon, when the pea seeds rotted in the ground. These too were gifts, the garden’s generous spirit in action. We don’t often think of failure as a boon, but it nevertheless gives you something: the nudge to inquire more deeply, to seek out truer nuance.

While we gorge ourselves on the many ideal vegetables our gardens will henceforth be pumping out, turn an eye to a tattered brown leaf, a bolted something, a patch of weeds gone out of control. The garden is no place for perfection. Trust that perfection will arrive each year in moments of delight, surrounded by a swirl of verdant chaos. Eat the funky vegetables: the carrots with five legs, the two cucumbers grown as one, the worm-eaten kale. Practice acceptance.

Plants let go far beyond the usual harvest stage can reveal new elements of their flavor: bright green cilantro seedpods, while they are still soft, taste like herbal lime peel; arugula flowers surprise with sweetness and a punch of spice; the core of a bolted leek softens over heat like onion-flavored asparagus. If we keep looking, we will keep discovering.

I often find myself muttering excuses for the state of my garden—reasons why the weeding has been ignored too long, why something was planted too late or too early, why I have no luck growing this or that. My garden should own up to its personality, too: today it is gregarious with weeds, tomorrow sedate and heavy with fruit. And when a disease or pest overwhelms a crop, I do better as the deft surgeon cutting out infection than a victim faced with the removal of her own leg. In a garden, we cultivate more than just vegetables; judging our performance by the perfection of our produce ignores more lasting achievements.

For, failure itself is a form of generosity: the giving away of an expected outcome. Failure brings us to a place where we find out what happens next, where we can peak into fresh possibility. What makes us hesitate in the face of failure or generosity is the fear of coming up short. But anyone who gives freely knows that an act of giving is always followed by a wake of abundance. It is a space that, once opened, never empties, such as the space a cup makes when it scoops water from a lake.

The heart of abundance is trust. When the peas shrivel in the scorching sun, there will be cucumbers. When the cucumbers start to taste bland, scores of tomatoes will already be dangling from their vines. When the tomatoes blacken from blight or frost, there will be frost-kissed greens. When the greens slow to a halt in the short days of winter, there will be root vegetables, sugary warehouses of rich, warming flavor. And when their sugar turns cloying, there will be spring greens, bitter and sweet in their tonic. To control a garden is to lose sight of its essence. Trust what it gives you and ask for more. The garden comes back and we come back, and that is a whole other dance.