Beans and all about them

foodprod-sekersbeansTO say that my husband is fanatical about beans is an understatement. He collects them as a numismatist collects stamps. When abroad he seeks out shops which sell the seeds, a hobby which has taken us to some interesting back streets in major towns and cities abroad, while our friends spend time in galleries or buying handbags. Relations bring back packets from Japan and Spain and India.

Not all of them thrive in our Somerset climate, but this year they are all producing like mad, the garden is a cathedral of bean vines. Almost every meal at the moment in our household includes beans of various types. We have flat, striped Piedmont beans, and some that are just flat and yellow from Italy, long thin Aiguillon beans from France, runner beans whose only distinguishing feature is the colour of the flowers, anything from white to deepest purple, then there are curved beans with purple stripes, fleshy thick cylindrical beans, and the flageolet beans you have with roast lamb and the beautiful borlotti, both of which are drying beans but which we prefer to eat fresh.

Each bean has its own characteristic. We have them as salads, boiled until they are tender and then dressed before they have time to cool down, so they absorb the flavours of the dressing. We have them on their own, hot, with a little olive oil and lemon juice, or lots of butter and black pepper. We have them with pasta and pesto, the famous dish from Genoa, and we have them in thick soups of the minestrone type. But they all get the same treatment – all of them are cooked until they are properly tender. None of this crisp business – I share the Italian and French view that green beans should be cooked until they taste of bean, not so lightly cooked that they squeak against your teeth and taste simply of chlorophyll.

The smell changes as they cook – my friend and mentor, one of our best Italian cookery writers, Anna del Conte, stresses this continually. In one of her books, Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes, she quotes an article written by a friend, called An End to al Dente, which explains why green beans, more than any other vegetable, must be well (although not over) cooked: “Green beans are immature beans in their casings, bred to be edible … All these casings contain lignin, a substance found in wood, hemp and linen, but in few other green vegetables.” He goes on to explain that boiling is best at breaking down lignin, better than braising, steaming or microwaving. And I would agree – microwaving in particular does nothing to make green beans give off that delicious flavour, and leaves them hard and unappetising, and steaming is only a little better. Needless to say, the bigger the bean the tougher the lignin, and runner beans are particularly prone to becoming woody if allowed to grow to show bench size. Fine for winning visual prizes, but not so good for achieving gastronomic status.

So what do we do in this country? We shred them into finer strands of woody lignin rather than opt to pick them while they are young and tender. If you do grow your own you do at least have the option of picking them at their best moment, stringing their edges, if necessary (snap one in half to test first), then just cutting them diagonally into 2cm lengths. Then cook them until you can smell that lovely distinctive runner bean scent (very different from most of the other beans), in plenty of salty water.

Another of Anna del Conte’s maxims is that beans need plenty of salt in the cooking water, if they are not to be insipid, to use her word.

I don’t freeze beans as they lose their charm, nor do I preserve them in salt as my grandmother did during the war. I vividly remember having to sit there until I had eaten the nasty salty sludge on my plate. No, we just eat beans until they’re finished, and give them out to friends who aren’t quick enough to hide when they see us coming. Oh, and I always remove the tails as well as the tops – it’s not very much harder work and the end result is well worth it, who wants those whispy little spikes? There is a nice rhythm to it, while you wait for that pan of salty water to come to the boil.

Simone Sekers