Asparagus gets all the attention. Its’ season is coveted by locavores all year and we rush out to buy it expensively during the short six week season.
While we love asparagus season, it is runner beans that we look forward to all year long in our kitchen. They have a crisp-vibrant-green freshness that can be used in hundreds of ways, and often form the basis of entire al fresco meals in the summertime. Their season starts a few weeks after the last of the local asparagus, and lasts sometimes into the end of August if the plantings are staggered.
This spring, I planted three packets of runner beans. One was a green, skinny, delicate French runner bean that I order from a grower on PEI, and the other two packets were common green and yellow runner beans. I planted in two stages to stretch the season’s production. An additional planting resulted after I discovered poor germination. This last planting meant I was stuck with some yellow beans from a packet found at my local grocery store. The beans grow too big and round, and while they have fine flavour, they bleach to an awful off-white colour if I don’t get to them right away. Whichever beans are chosen, they are very easy to grow. I overcrowd them in a well composted and manure- enriched raised bed, and they seem quite happy to grow in a tumble together as long as they are well watered. As a result we have had endless rounds of beans to enjoy. I love picking runner beans. It takes a small degree of patience to untangle the fragile stems and to let your eyes adjust to what must be an intrinsic defense mechanism for them. They seem to turn invisible right before your eyes and you have to gently search around for them and approach each plant from different angles. I gently snap off each bean, or tug it from its stem. The more frequently beans are picked, the more they produce.
Dropped briefly in very well salted boiling water, until they are just past squeaky but still vibrant in colour, they turn into endless salads, often tossed in a strong mustardy vinaigrette and a mountain of generously chopped herbs. We like them tossed with cheeses. One variation is with feta and a lemony dressing, the other is with a young and fresh sheep’s milk farmtoon that we buy at the market.
The other day I added to our usual vinaigrette a quarter tablespoon of sweet paprika and a small scraping of garlic. The beans were dressed while still warm and all was tossed with fresh herbs, and some warm salty and olive oil enrichened rye bread croutons.
Runner beans should be picked young when they are small and tender. As the season progresses they grow quickly and toughen slightly. They also rush towards producing their beans and deepening in flavour. As the season progresses we move from light and fresh salads to dressing them more strongly, as with my paprika and garlic dressing. We also like to stew them with the woodier herbs, tomato, garlic, and red wine vinegar. This results in a robust and fresh green bean dish that we like to eat with grilled Italian sausages and good crusty bread.
A Salad of Runner Beans, Sheep’s milk Cheese and a Piquant Dressing
This salad made a celebratory dinner as our summer holiday started. Served with a ruby red wine and eaten outdoors, it was much more satisfying than an expensive steak or piece of salmon.
I made a strongly flavoured dressing of dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, a half spoonful of sweet paprika, olive oil, and chopped tarragon.
The beans were boiled in heavily salted water until just past being chewy and squeaky. Run quickly under cold water to stop their cooking, and to hold their vibrant colour, they were then immediately tossed into the dressing. Farmtoon cheese was crumbled in, as well as some warm toasted rye bread, which was cubed and tossed with olive oil and salt, and toasted in the oven for about 10 minutes.
And Another Salad with Feta
This one was tossed with the addition of peas simmered just long enough to be firm, but no longer raw. A standard french dressing was used, but a good amount of mustard and red wine vinegar was mixed in as the beans can stand up to a strong vinaigrette. The herbs used here were mint, parsley and dill. Lively and fresh with the addition of a good sheep’s milk feta.
Beans Stewed with Tomato and Italian Sausage
Normally we stew our beans with tomato, garlic, thyme, rosemary, and bay, and we serve it with grilled sausage. This time I started by frying Italian sausage, and adding the tomato and seasonings from there. Rather than serving with garlic toast, this was served with boiled new fingerling potatoes.
This year I also grew a rattlesnake pole bean. I have decided to leave them grow on the vine until the bean fills out so that I can use them as a shell bean. These will be purple streaked and flavourful and offer completely different options for dinner than when used as a snap bean.