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Seasonal Pantry: The fleeting pleasure of shell beans


During a narrow window in late summer and early fall, those of us who shop at farmers markets enjoy a special seasonal treat, fresh shell beans. These are the beans that, left on the bush a week or two longer, become the dried beans that we know so well.

Fresh shell beans are, by nature, a fleeting pleasure, just as their cousins, fresh fava beans, are in mid-spring.

Several vendors currently have fresh shell beans. The ones I have seen have already been shelled and packaged in plastic bags but I am not going to name the vendors, as none have a big supply. You need to be your own detective this time.

Unlike their dry counterparts, fresh shell beans should not be soaked before they are cooked, they should be salted; they don't take as long to become fully tender. They have a lovely creamy texture that dried beans, no matter how good they are, lack.

One of the best ways to enjoy fresh shell beans is simply. All you need to do is cook them in salted water — add a bay leaf and half an onion if you like — until they are tender and then let them cool slightly, in their water. They are delicious just like this, absolutely unadorned. They are also delicious with a scoop of rice, polenta or small pasta; a splash of the best olive oil or good vinegar; chopped fresh tomatoes; a spoonful of creme fraiche or cheese and minced herbs - parsley, perhaps, or cilantro. A slice of crusty hearth bread is great for sopping up juices and if you like things spicy, add a few shakes of Tabasco, Crystal or your favorite Mexican hot sauce.

You can make a more substantial dish by adding cooked sliced sausage to the finished beans, with or without a scoop of rice.

With beans this delicious, all you need for a complete meal is a big green salad and, if you're really hungry, some sliced tomatoes. But don't wait; if you do, they'll be just a memory until this time next year.

This recipe combines an old California recipe from the ranchero days for Spanish rice with the fresh shell beans currently and briefly in season. The combination results in a dish not entirely unlike New Orleans-style red beans and rice, though it is lighter and creamier.

Mexican Style Beans and Rice

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pound fresh borlotti beans, or other fresh shell beans

1 bay leaf

1/2 yellow onion, peeled

— Kosher salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small yellow or white onion, cut into small dice

1 fresh poblano pepper, seeded and cut into small dice

1 serrano pepper, minced, optional

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon chipotle powder, optional

— Black or white pepper in a mill

1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice

3 cups homemade chicken or vegetable stock, boiling hot

1 cup tomato concasse

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 lime, cut in wedges

— Mexican-style hot sauce of choice

Put the beans into a medium saucepan, cover with water by about 2 inches, add the bay leaf and onion, season generously with salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer the beans until creamy and tender; time will range from 15 to 35 minutes, depending on how fresh the beans are.

Meanwhile, pour the olive oil into a large saucepan set over medium-low heat, add the diced onion, poblano and serrano, if using and saute gently, stirring now and then, until soft and fragrant, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more. Add the chipotle powder, if using, season generously with salt and pepper and add the rice.

Cook and stir for about 5 to 7 minutes, until the rice begins to take on a bit of color.

Add the boiling hot stock and the tomato concasse, cover the pan and simmer gently for 15 minutes without lifting the lid. Remove from the heat and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes. Uncover and fluff with a fork.

Stir half the cilantro into the rice.

To serve, fill soup bowls or soup plates about half full with rice and top with beans and some of their cooking liquid.

Garnish with the remaining cilantro and serve immediately, with lime wedges and hot sauce alongside.

This dish, too, is inspired by one from early California and was originally made with beans brought from Peru and named Lima after the Peruvian city.

Fresh Shell Beans with Jack Cheese and Poblanos

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 1/2 pounds fresh borlotti or other shell beans

1/2 yellow onion, peeled

1 bay leaf

1 thyme sprig

1 oregano sprig

1 Italian parsley sprig

— Kosher salt

— Black or white pepper in a mill

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 yellow onion, diced

3 garlic cloves, minced

5 or 6 poblanos, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into small dice

1 or 2 serranos or other hot chile, seeded and minced

2 cups (8 ounces) grated Jack cheese

1 cup homemade chicken stock or cooking liquid from the beans, strained

1/2 cup sour cream or creme fraiche

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

Put the beans into a medium saucepan, cover with water by about 2 inches, add the 1/2 onion, the bay leaf and the sprigs of herbs and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat and simmer gently until the beans are creamy and tender, about 15 to 35 minutes, depending on the exact age of the beans. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Put the olive oil into a small sauce pan set over medium heat, add the onion and saute until soft and fragrant, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the beans to a 3 quart baking dish. Add the sauteed onion and garlic, the poblanos and serranos and the cheese. Pour the stock or cooking liquid over the cheese and add the sour cream in dollops over the surface. Top with bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper.

Set on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 30 minutes, until hot, bubbly and slightly browned on top.

Remove from the oven, let rest 10 to 15 minutes and serve.