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.