Look for alternatives to the traditional green bean this summer

Look for unusual bean varieties at Farmer's Markets

When shopping at markets and farm stands this season, most of us will come across a variety of bean that we’re not familiar with. Whether it’s the long scarlet runner, or its equally large but vibrantly hued relative, the purple peacock, it might seem easier to reach for the oh-so-familiar green bean. Before you do so, consider the fact that these different but colourful legumes can make a refreshing addition to any meal.

There are several varieties of beans that are grown on Vancouver Island and each has subtle features that complement different dishes. Pole beans, such as the scarlet runner, are a tasty choice for summer. As these fast-growing vines grow upwards, the pods mature at different rates. This results in a fresh, tasty product because growers can continuously pick what’s perfectly ripe. The growing season for pole beans is about double that of a bush bean, which tends to produce all at once for a short amount of time.

One of the most common (of the less common) varieties is the scarlet runner bean, which grows particularly well on Vancouver Island. Interestingly enough, some grow this legume for reasons other than consumption.  Its blooms, which are edible and have a subtle bean flavour, are typically bright orange, making them an attractive addition to any garden. Scarlet runners are also great pollinators because they attract hummingbirds and other insects.

Scarlet runners, which are long and broad, are a hearty bean that must be picked and eaten when young and fresh. Otherwise, the texture of the pod becomes tough and fibrous, which can be off-putting. The beans inside the pod are generally mottled purple and black. Serve scarlet runner beans alongside more toothsome dishes, such as roast beef. They can be prepared with or without the pod. However, keep in mind that scarlet runners should be cooked thoroughly before you chow down – they contain traces of lectin, which can be poisonous in high amounts.

The purple peacock pole bean is similar to the scarlet runner in terms of size and shape and also an attractive addition to any garden or meal. Its deep purple pods actually turn green when cooked. This variety is less common among growers, who have found that the purple peacock problematically cross-pollinates with other varieties, making the purple peacock a better choice for personal gardens. Scarlet runner beans are the purple peacock’s favourite cross-pollinating partner, resulting in runners that are mottled purple and green.

Also vibrantly purple in colour are the Royal Burgundy variety, a bush bean that is similar in size and shape to a green bean. Like the purple peacock, the royal burgundy’s pod ‘magically’ turns green when cooked. Buttery and flavourful, look for royal burgundy beans at the market when they are young and the pod is still soft to avoid chewiness.

French filet beans (haricot vert) also grow well locally. Available in either green or yellow, filet beans are thinner and more delicate than traditional green beans. Filet beans complement lighter dishes and hold their shape nicely when cooked. They are also one of the tenderest varieties and are generally preferred among chefs.

Also look for Romano beans at farm stands and markets this summer. There are several varieties available and make a fantastic addition to Italian or Greek-inspired meals. Romano beans are a hearty, flat bean and can be eaten whole or shelled.

When the supply of fresh beans runs out at the end of the season, look for orca beans, also known as calypso or yin yang beans. Orca beans are an heirloom variety with black and white patches that look remarkably like its namesake. The seeds are generally sold dried at the end of the season, allowing the orca bean to showcase its most visually attractive qualities without its green pod. When cooked, orca beans are creamy and delicious. They make a great addition to soups, or are tasty sautéed on their own.

Fresh local beans are available from late July through August, although greenhouse varieties can be found as early as the beginning of July. Like any other ingredient, eating locally and seasonally is the key to the best tasting meals. Imported beans tend to be tougher and more fibrous simply because they lack the freshness of a bean that was on the vine just hours ago.

Crisp, local legumes are a nutritious summer staple that can be enjoyed with a variety of meals or on its own. This season, look for these market favourites while tender, juicy and just-picked. There are an overwhelming variety of beans available, grown just beyond (or within) your backyard and worth a try. Take a break from the traditional green bean and add a new type of bean to your repertoire.

By Candice Shultz


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