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GARDEN FRESH : Beans at an Awkward Stage

September 16, 1993|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Shelly beans are some of nature's adolescents. Their skin is supple and smooth, and where once the line of the pods was flat, there are dear little bulges. They even have a pet name--shellies (and sometimes shuckies in the South).

Every bean you grow, if you don't pick it at the green-bean-snap-stage, will pass through the shelly stage on its way to maturity or the dry stage. It usually takes a couple of weeks from snap to fresh-shelling stage, then another couple of weeks to the dry.

Over time, some beans have developed into superior sorts for shelling. In the same way, some beans that are scrumptious as shellies can be delicious as snap beans too. One such is Tongues of Fire. The flat, stringless, green-with-red-striped pods can be simmered briefly and served drizzled with butter.

The best shellies are rich and plush with a sweet-bean flavor. They can take lots of fresh herbs, garlic, shallots and onions without losing their identity.

Perfect examples of shellies are fresh lima and butter beans (also called "sievas" in the South). Cranberry beans for fresh-shelling are special to northern parts of the country. Green pods and cream seeds of cranberry beans are marbled crimson. However, few things in life are perfect, and most of these sensuous colors fade in cooking.

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Horticulturals are especially beautiful beans intended for harvesting at this stage. They are splashy--pods and often beans are dashed with some color of a sunset. Most often there are large beans in the pod, oval or rounded. Horticultural beans are the most decorative shellies in the border, and the one to grow where summers are cool.

Flageolets are what we regard as the generic French shelly beans--which the French often call chevriers. Flageolets are small and kidney-shaped, green when fresh and white when dried. I find them the most delicately flavored shellies. Meaty fava beans, which we'll talk about another time, are immensely popular in Europe and the Middle East--they're the shellies of early summer.

Southern peas, or cow peas, are another classic fresh-shelling bean. These are the delectable black-eyes, cream peas and crowders that come in silvers, pinks, buffs, browns, creams and lots of purples. The other day, I found shelly black-eyed peas at a roadside stand.

One cultivar of the Southern pea is called Zipper Cream because a seam unzips for shelling. Which brings up the point that--adolescents that they are--shellies can be a nuisance. Typical of their age, they want to make a big deal of it when they give up their precious beans.

To shell shelly beans, slit along a seam with a thumb nail, then usually you can pull the pod open and pop out the beans. If this doesn't work, snap the pods open and push the beans out. If the pod is too leathery for that, slice a thin piece off the seam.

It's too late to start them now, but to grow shellies come spring, most everyone agrees that pole cultivars have the best flavor, and certainly you can harvest them over a longer season than bush cultivars. However, if you sow a mixture of pole and bush shelling beans once a week for the first month of bean-sowing season, you'll have shelly beans straight through late summer and fall.

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The way to raise good fresh shelling beans is the same as other beans: Ask a gardening neighbor about any diseases nearby and choose cultivars with natural resistance. Inoculate your seeds for greatest yield (the catalogue will explain). Sow in fertile soil that's warm--bean-sowing season is usually March through August for most of Southern California, but May through July in the high desert, and just June in the mountain ranges. When blossoms form, mulch the plants with shredded newspaper or ground bark or such. Give full or half-day sun and keep the soil moist, particularly after the plants bloom. Support pole beans. And move the crop around the garden so three or four years pass before you return them to the same place (keeps disease at bay).

Harvest pods (or choose them at the market) crisp and plump with distinctive little bumps along the way.

Any recipe specifically calling for limas or fava beans will work with other shellies. And you can usually adapt recipes for cooked dried beans to shellies too, since both sorts of beans end up cooked in the dish.

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