My grandfather was in charge of making shell bean soup in my house. My sister, brother and I would sit outside our family camp on Taylor Pond in Maine and shell cranberry beans as the late summer sun dried our bathing suits. Grandpa would grab a gallon of Oakhurst milk, and soon after we'd have sweet corn, shell bean soup and grilled fish for supper.
The soup was quick and simple, but I vividly remember the taste of the peppery, creamy mix 20 years after that summer house changed hands. I realize now the secret was the beans.
Beans are a marvel. They come in all colors and sizes and are high in protein, low in fat, and rich in fiber, folic acid and iron. Beans are most commonly used in the dried or canned form found on grocery shelves. The dried beans must be soaked to spring back to life, and the canned beans rinsed to wash away excess sodium. In late summer/early fall and in spring, though, you can buy legumes at markets across the U.S. while they are still nestled in their protective shells.
Don't be put off by the ugly outward appearance of some shell beans. They're different from their green bean cousins because the seeds are removed from the shells before eating. While fava and lima beans are harvested in the springtime, legumes such as cranberry beans, cannellini beans, purple or scarlet runners and cowpeas -- which are known by many names, but all sport bumpy seedpods -- are inexpensive and ready to star in soups, dips and main dishes in the later summer and fall. Many of them cook the same and are interchangeable in recipes.
Jessica Strelitz is a fiercely proud Maine native living in Arlington, Va. A food and spirits freelance writer and news geek, she is obsessed with Virginia wines, where to find the best dumpling, and spreading the gospel of New England lobster across the world. Find updates on her food work and other favorite things on Twitter.
Shelling beans is a communal act because you'll go through several pounds. One pound of unshelled beans yields about two cups of shelled beans, and they aren't all perfect. Some pods are overly dry or have cracked open to reveal hard, shriveled beans, while others are spotted with mildew and need to be discarded. A family or group of friends can fill a bowl with several cups of color-splashed beans in less than 20 minutes, and the compost pile will happily receive the husks left behind. You can twist the pods to pop out the beans, or split them open and run your finger down the back to free them from the shells. A bit of membrane may come with them, but that can easily be wiped away. If you buy beans and don't want to cook them right away, you should still shell them within a day and freeze them for later.
With canned and dried beans easily available, why bother? Flavor, for one thing. Fresh beans have a nuttier, herbier taste that is amplified when they are cooked with sage, thyme and other aromatics, and have a firmer bite than dried or canned options. Visually, fresh legumes come striped, spotted and splashed with color, often with different patterns and hues in the same pod, though that changes during cooking. Beans are often prettier just out of the shell than after cooking.
When I went to re-create Grandpa's shell bean soup, I kept wondering what else he added that made the dish so satisfying. So I called him in Florida, where he now lives year-round, and asked him to confirm the ingredients.
"Toad," he bellowed -- all grandchildren are toads -- "it's shell beans, milk and salt and pepper."
"No butter? No onions? Nothing green?"
"What about bacon?" I ventured.
He paused. "Well, it wouldn't hurt. But as it is, if you eat enough of it, you'll be fat in a hurry."
After the call, I knew. The beans are the magic. Shelled alongside people you love, often grown in your town or your yard, fresh and firm beans are a good way to say goodbye to summer.