Cooking Beans

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Rattlesnake pole beans. Probably developed by ancient Hopi Indian tribes – good survival genetics.


I spent a good chunk of the day harvesting and cooking beans for the freezer. Beans are a multipurpose vegetable – perhaps the most multipurpose of all. Green beans, purple beans, yellow beans, streaked beans, snap beans, shell beans, wax beans, filet beans, French-cut beans, dried beans, flat beans, round beans, bush beans, pole beans, half runner beans – all have their place in the kitchen. And cooking beans is easy. The key is the use the right method for the bean’s stage of development.

Makings for minestrone soup – snap beans, shelled beans and chard, among other ingredients.


Let’s start with the summer-time classic – snap beans. Wax beans are just snap beans that are yellow – treat them the same way when cooking. Filet beans are the French version, smaller and more slender than ours. Favorite green varieties around here are Black Valentine, Rattlesnake and Blue Lake, all of which I’ve been growing for years. I’m also adding two new favorites, one of which is Monte Gusto, a wax pole variety. The second is Blauhilde, a German pole bean that is dark purple and very prolific. Snap beans are best when cooked crisp-tender in boiling water. Use the smallest amount of water possible, as you’re steaming rather than actually boiling. Cook three to four minutes and immediately lavish with butter, then add salt and eat. They also saute and stir-fry well.

Shell beans in the pod.


Once the snap beans get larger, or if you’re growing some of the really old-fashioned varieties with strings, like Macaslan, Old Homestead or Rattlesnake (you don’t have to string the smaller beans of Rattlesnake just the older ones). make southern green beans. These are best sliced on the diagonal in two- or three-inch lengths and cooked with chopped salt pork or bacon. Cook the bacon until slightly crisp, remove from the pot, pour in some water and/or chicken broth and add beans. Cook at the lowest possible setting for at least one hour, then stir in bacon and serve.
Lima and cannellini beans are the classic shell beans, but you can also shell snap beans that have gotten away from you. Remove the pods while bringing a pot of salted water to a boil. Dump in the shelled beans and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Drain. Eat hot with butter or make a quick vinaigrette while the beans are cooking. Mix in the dressing and allow to cool to room temperature. You can also add chopped fresh tomatoes, blanched corn kernels, diced celery or other embellishments.

Shelled beans, ready for cooking or freezing.


All beans can be cooked as dried beans. Whether it’s the black Mexican Turtle, creamy Mama’s Cannelllini (the only pole cannellini I know of), red kidney beans or speckled beans like Borlotto, cranberry or Pinto, the recipes for cooked dried beans are legion. They are best when soaked 12 hours in enough water to cover them by at least two inches. Drain the beans. Put on the stove, add enough water to cover by at least two inches, cover the pot and slowly bring to a simmer. Cook until they can be easily mashed against the side of the pot with a fork – eight to 10 hours in most cases. Don’t add salt until you’re at least halfway through the cooking process; early salting makes the skins tough. Hold off on the herbs and aromatics like onions until the last two or three hours, as you’ll have better flavor.

I sort these according to size as I prepare them for blanching.


Once you have your various beans cooked, you can combine them in:

Classic Three-Bean Salad
1 cup red wine vinegar (or my preference, half raw apple cider)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon table salt
Ground black pepper
8 ounces green beans, cut into 1-inch-long pieces
8 ounces yellow wax beans, cut into 1-inch-long pieces
16 ounces cooked red kidney beans, rinsed and drained (you can use canned beans, but home-cooked will have much better flavor and texture)
1/2 medium red onion, chopped medium
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves

1. Heat vinegar, sugar, oil, garlic, salt, and pepper to taste in small nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large nonreactive bowl and cool to room temperature.
2. Bring 3 quarts water to boil in large saucepan over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and green and yellow beans; cook until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, fill medium bowl with ice water. When beans are done, drain and immediately plunge into ice water to stop cooking process; let sit until chilled, about 2 minutes. Drain well.
3. Add green and yellow beans, kidney beans, onion, and parsley to vinegar mixture; toss well to coat. Cover and refrigerate overnight to let flavors meld. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before serving. (Salad can be covered and refrigerated up to 4 days.)
And don’t forget this classic rhyme, which you can chant while you’re cooking beans: Beans, beans, the musical fruit; the more you eat, the more you toot; the more you toot, the better you feel – so let’s have beans for every meal!

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When Jelly Won’t Jell

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Sound familiar?
Fired a with housewifely wish to see her storeroom stocked with homemade preserves, she undertook to put up her own currant jelly. John was requested to order home a dozen or so of little pots and an extra quantity of sugar, for their own currants were ripe and were to be attended to at once. As John firmly believed that `my wife’ was equal to anything, and took a natural pride in her skill, he resolved that she should be gratified, and their only crop of fruit laid by in a most pleasing form for winter use. Home came four dozen delightful little pots, half a barrel of sugar, and a small boy to pick the currants for her. With her pretty hair tucked into a little cap, arms bared to the elbow, and a checked apron which had a coquettish look in spite of the bib, the young housewife fell to work, feeling no doubts about her success, for hadn’t she seen Hannah do it hundreds of times? The array of pots rather amazed her at first, but John was so fond of jelly, and the nice little jars would look so well on the top shelf, that Meg resolved to fill them all, and spend a long day picking, boiling, straining, and fussing over her jelly. She did her best, she asked advice of Mrs. Cornelius, she racked her brain to remember what Hannah did that she left undone, she reboiled, resugared, and restrained, but that dreadful stuff wouldn’t `jell’.
She longed to run home, bib and all, and ask Mother to lend her a hand, but John and she had agreed that they would never annoy anyone with their private worries, experiments, or quarrels. They had laughed over that last word as if the idea it suggested was a most preposterous one, but they had held to their resolve, and whenever they could get on without help they did so, and no one interfered, for Mrs. March had advised the plan. So Meg wrestled alone with the refractory sweetmeats all that hot summer day, and at five o’clock sat down in her topsy-turvey kitchen, wrung her bedaubed hands, lifted up her voice and wept. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

It happens to all of us – our “nice little jars” wind up with something more like syrup than jelly. Meg didn’t have the advantage of commercial pectin. I suspect the key to her problem is found in the line “their own currants were ripe.” When making jelly without pectin – home made or commercial – if at least one-quarter of the fruit isn’t under-ripe, jelly won’t jell. If you’re a lazy cook like moi, you simply call it syrup and use it to top ice cream, cake or pudding. If you’re made of sterner stuff, however, you may be able to rescue it with the following strategies. Always give your jam or jelly plenty of time to set up before deciding you’ve got a recipe failure. It may take commercial pectin a solid 48 hours to set up completely. By the way, I’m assuming that the jars sealed properly – if not, and they’ve been sitting on the shelf for a while before you discover the problem, consider it a failed cooking experiment and toss it out.

The first suggestion comes from a 1910 recipe scrapbook kept by a young woman named Mildred Mudge. “When Jelly Won’t Jell – When your jelly will not jell, and that happens to every cook at times, do not turn it back into a saucepan to cook it over; that breaks the little **missing text** (I suspect the word is bonds or strands) that have formed even though not enough to make jell, and you will have at best a sticky, stringy mess; but take a large dripping pan, half fill it with water, set your undisturbed glasses of jelly in it, not close enough to touch, put into a hot oven, and let them bake till sufficiently jelled. It sometimes takes three-quarters of an hour, but the jelly will cut as smooth and clean as though stiff enough at first cooking. In making jellies, if they will not jell easily, add a pinch of powdered alum. The result is a fine, firm jelly.”

If you decide to rescue the recipe, remember you can’t remake more than 8 cups at a time – anything more than that is too large an amount to thoroughly heat the pectin. Pour the jam into a low, wide pan like a stainless steel skillet. Whisk ¼ cup of sugar and a tablespoon of commercial pectin together, then whisk it into the jelly. Stir until the sugar and pectin mix has dissolved. Let it sit while you prepare your jars and lids as you normally would when making jelly. We’re not going to water bath, so don’t worry about having a pot for that purpose. Bring the jam to a boil over high heat and boil for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir constantly. You should be able to see or feel the jelly becoming thicker. Once you feel it’s ready, pour into jars, apply new lids and fasten the rings. Give it 24 hours and test the seals.

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Pollinator Insects

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We have a problem with pollinator insects. By “we” I mean my family as well as the world in general. I’ve been a bit smug on the issue for the last few years. I don’t use pesticides. I plant a wide variety of flowers and vegetables, and we have lots of natives including annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and vines. There are untilled areas for ground-nesting bees, plenty of dead wood for the types that live in small holes and lots of water sources. I’ve never felt the need to keep bee hives as we’ve always had so many wild colonies. This year, I have been taken aback at how low our insect populations are. Well, except for mosquitoes and ants – I’m not sure anything can really make a dent in their populations.
The first clue was that despite plenty of blossoms – all the usual annual/perennial flowers in the garden and flowers on the vegetable plants – I was seeing very few bees. Most years, a squash plant would have two or three honey bees on every flower as well as a few mason or leaf cutter bees and the odd bumblebee. This year I might see one honey bee per plant and none of the others. I have not seen a single Monarch butterfly and we have fewer swallowtails, buckeyes and fritillaries. Next was a drop in the numbers of summer squash fruits. Not only were they fewer in number than usual, but they were smaller and in some cases not completely filled out – a sign of inadequate pollination. Yet we had lots of honey bees in the pennyroyal patches down in the pastures. Same thing with cucumbers. No problems with tomatoes, peppers and beans, but none of them depend on insects for pollination.
So, I resorted to hand pollination for the cucurbits. It’s an easy process. Take a clean Q-tip or fine bristled paintbrush with a pointed tip, poke it into a male flower, twist it around and then poke it into a female flower. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Since I’m not saving seeds, I didn’t worry about varieties. While hand pollination has probably solved the cucurbit problem, it’s very worrisome. Fruit trees are dependent on pollinator insects. Hand pollinating a fruit tree is a very different prospect. This year we had good crops of apples and pears, so there must have been insect pollinators around in the early spring. Friends about 15 miles away report the same problem with low numbers of pollinators. Have any of you readers noticed similar drops in pollinator insects?

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