This is what you start with, a vegetable Barbie would like, pretty in its flourescent pink jacket.
And, this is what you get after a good, long simmer in a bath of tomatoes and spices, tender, creamy comfort, stripped of its pink hue but hearty and charming in its own rustic way.
It is quite wonderful how plump and tender these fresh beans are, much different than dried beans, with a softness and sweetness that is deeply endearing. The season for these cranberry beans is short, so I buy them whenever and wherever I find them, adding them to soups, simmering them into fragrant Mediterranean themed stews scented with garlic and fresh thyme. I never tire of their endless charms. You could call me a cranberry bean freak, for the two weeks of the year they are available. I mourn their loss briefly and then quickly become enamoured with other market goods - bright, meaty tomatoes, crisp new crop apples, delicate purple Italian plums for kuchen and jam. That's the good part of falling in love at the produce stand - you can be fickle and change your allegiances every few weeks.
But this week was cranberry bean week and I enlisted my husband to sit at the table with me and shell my bag of beans. Soon enough, my large bag was reduced to the contents of the pods, a few cups of mottled fuscia beans ready for some heat. First task: boil about 3 cups of these babies with a bay leaf and a whole head of garlic. No salt, as it toughens uncooked beans. As the pot simmered, I went to the garden for some sage, foraging 8 large, velvety leaves for the next step in this process. I opened a large can of diced tomatoes and sliced lots more garlic, readying for the cooked beans and what they would do next. When the beans had morphed into gentle tenderness, I reserved a cup of their cooking liquid and drained them, reserving the garlic head, discarding the bay leaf. In a medium sized pot, I warmed up some olive oil and sauteed the sliced garlic, 5 healthy cloves of it, just until aromatic. I added in the cooked beans and their reserved liquid, as well as the tomatoes and their liquid, plus another bay leaf, my garden sage, chopped, and some salt and pepper. I took the whole head of garlic I just rescued from the cooking beans and squeezed out the soft paste inside each papery clove. Mashed it with a knife and added this highly flavoured goodness into the pot of stewing beans. The goal at this stage is to cook down the tomatoes and let them nestle into a soft blanket that surrounds the beans, a thick and savoury sauce. This takes about 25 minutes during which the beans take on loads of flavour. I like to finish off the dish with a long squirt of fresh lemon juice as well as the lemon's finely grated zest, a tart surprise that gets some attention from your tongue. A handful of tiny little fresh thyme leaves works wonder here too, complimenting every element you have included, the sunny lemon scent, the aromatic cooked tomatoes, the generous dose of garlic and the tender beans.
I serve this bean stew as an accompaniment to fried eggs and corn tortillas, next to grilled chicken breasts, on a plate with smoky ribs and crunchy cole slaw. For the brief time the beans are available, this dish is an everyday comfort food. Shelled beans freeze well as does the cooked stew, so make a pilgrimage to your local farmers' market and treat yourself to a seasonal specialty you will fall in love with every summer.
Who knew beans could be so wonderful?