I COULD NEVER quite figure out why I'd never found fresh lima beans. They'd show up from time to time in plastic bags in supermarket produce sections, already shelled and usually treated with preservatives, but beyond that, they were canned or frozen.
A few years ago, I started seeing fresh lima beans at farm stands in the Camarillo-Oxnard area (where limas grow in profusion) and at the weekly farmers markets in Santa Monica and other communities. "How come the supermarkets never carry these things?" I asked a grower in Camarillo one day. "Too hard to shell," he answered. "People won't buy 'em."
Limas do have flat, tough, dark green pods, but they aren't hard to shell at all--easier than fava beans and no more difficult than peas. But are the fresh ones worth the trouble? Are they ultimately all that much better than the frozen variety? In my opinion, no.
Lima beans survive the freezing process with a surprising amount of texture and flavor intact. Frozen limas do not need to be boiled or simmered in salted water for 15 to 25 minutes--no matter what Birds Eye or Springfield or the Jolly Green Giant may tell you. They just need to be heated through. Most people don't like them because they're mushy. Take my word for it: They're not mushy unless they're overdone.
The lima bean ( Phaseolus limensis ) takes its name from Lima, Peru, where it was widely grown, and was first mentioned in print in 1756. The "Larousse Gastronomique" adds that the lima is also called the Cape bean or pea, the Sieva bean, the sword bean, the jack bean and the Chad bean. Larousse does not, however, offer a recipe for the thing--possibly because the French consider the lima poisonous.
If Larousse had offered a lima-bean recipe, it almost certainly would have been for succotash--a dish which, with the possible exception of ham hocks and lima beans, is probably the highest gastronomic use to which the lima can be put. Succotash is said to be an Americanized form of the Narragansett Indian word for an ear of corn, usually rendered as misickquatash. And whether or not the Indians actually ate succotash, it has certainly been a part of American traditional cooking for at least a couple of hundred years.
I make a non-traditional version of succotash, with no butter and not very much cream but with the added flavorings of garlic, scallions and bacon. And I make it with frozen lima beans.
2 tablespoons olive oil 3 1/4-inch slices slab bacon, cut into cubes 6 scallions, trimmed and minced (use white and green parts) 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced 1 stalk celery, cut into 1/4-inch cubes 2 teaspoons mild paprika 2 red or yellow bell peppers (or one of each) 6 ears fresh white or yellow corn 1 10-ounce package frozen baby lima beans 1/4 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper
In large skillet or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-low heat; add bacon and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until brown and crisp. Remove with slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and set aside.
Add about 2/3 scallions, garlic, celery and paprika to oil and bacon fat, and saute slowly until vegetables are translucent.
While vegetables are cooking, char peppers quickly on all sides on barbecue, in preheated broiler or directly on gas burner. Allow to cool, then scrape off charred skin, halve peppers and scrape out seeds, ribs and stem. Cut peppers into pieces about 1/2 inch square; add to skillet.
Husk and rinse corn; cut kernels from cobs with sharp knife. Add to skillet, and cook for about 2 minutes. Add frozen limas and mix well, cooking until heated through but not mushy, about 5 to 8 minutes. Immediately stir in cream, and add salt and pepper to taste.
Just before serving, stir in remaining scallions. Makes 6 servings.
Food stylist: Stephanie Greenleigh