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June/July 2008

Getting to Know: Fresh Beans and Peas

Fresh beans and peas, also known as legumes, can be divided into two categories: those with edible pods and those from which only the seeds (the beans and peas) are eaten. Here are our tasting notes and serving suggestions for 12 varieties.

Haricots Verts

These beans, sometimes called French filet beans, are smaller, slimmer, and more delicate cousins of American string beans. They have a “light, crunchy texture” and a flavor that is “sweet and not at all bitter.” Look for dark green, slender beans with taut skin and intact stems. Remove stem ends and serve raw, blanched, or steamed.

Fava Beans

Also called broad or horse beans, favas grow in large, fuzzy pods that hold three to six large beans. Each bean is covered with a thin, tough skin that should be loosened by quickly blanching and then peeling by hand. While young fava beans are “tender and sweet,” larger beans can be “woody and sulfurous.” Favas can be gently sautéed in butter, cooked and pureed into dips, or ground into falafel.

Sugar Snap Peas

These are a hybrid of English peas and snow peas, and they combine the best of both worlds—crisp, edible pods stuffed with plump, sweet peas. Properly cooked, sugar snaps are “crunchy and juicy,” with a “delicate sweetness,” but if even slightly overcooked they become wrinkled, mushy, and bland. Snap off the stem end and remove the string before eating raw, stir-frying, or quickly boiling and then tossing with butter or olive oil.

String Beans

Also known as pole, snap, or just green beans, these large, hearty, edible-pod beans are a garden favorite. Although their long shelf life makes them ideal for the supermarket, these “slightly bitter” beans can become “tough and fibrous” as they age. Despite their name, most string beans have been bred to not have a string. Older, thicker beans are best braised or roasted, and thinner beans should be blanched or steamed.

Yellow Wax Beans

These are green beans that have been bred to display a pale yellow color. Their name comes from the slightly waxy appearance and feel of their skin. Their flavor is similar to that of standard green beans, though our tasters found them to be “slightly more mild,” with a “sweeter finish.” Wax beans can be substituted for green beans in any dish.

Snow Peas

These edible-pod peas are recognizable for their flat, almost translucent pods. Their flavor is “mildly vegetal and sweet,” but the real appeal is their crunchy texture (which disappears with even slight overcooking). To check freshness, pick up a snow pea and try to bend it until it breaks—fresh peas will snap cleanly, but older peas will bend rather than break. Snap off the stem end and remove the string before eating raw or quickly stir-frying.

English Peas

Freshly picked peas are “as sweet as candy,” but within hours they begin to turn “starchy and stale.” Because it is difficult to buy freshly picked peas, we recommend using the bagged frozen variety, which are picked, blanched, and quick-frozen at the height of their sweetness. Peas are best quickly steamed, boiled, or sautéed in butter.

Flat Runner Beans

Also known as Kentucky wonder beans, these long, flat beans are sometimes grown for their brilliant flowering blossoms. The young pods are edible, but as they mature they become very fibrous and only the beans should be eaten. Runner beans are “meaty and dense,” with a “grassy” flavor “reminiscent of broccoli.” Runner beans can grow to 10 inches in length, but smaller beans are more tender and sweet. Boil or steam whole beans, or cut into lengths and stir-fry.

Purple Wax Beans

Once these beans are cooked, they lose their namesake color and turn a deep, muddy green. Tasters felt that these beans, which are rare and relatively expensive, were “slightly tough,” with an “unpleasantly bitter” and “wheaty” aftertaste. We do not recommend purchasing these beans.

Dragon Tongue Beans

Though not often found in grocery stores, these string beans’ violet streaks make them a farmers market favorite. They have an “herbal, peppery” flavor balanced by a “fruity” aftertaste. Boil or steam these beans, but be aware that cooking will cause the brightly colored beans to fade to light beige. Dragon tongue beans are best eaten within a day or two of being picked, as the pods will quickly dry out and become tough and fibrous.

Soybeans

Often referred to by their Japanese moniker, edamame, protein-rich soybeans are “savory and nutty,” with a “firm, dense texture.” The thin, fuzzy, and fibrous shell is inedible. Immature soybeans (either fresh or frozen) are typically boiled in their pods, then salted and eaten out of hand. Frozen shelled beans can be cooked and served like shelled peas. Mature soybeans are used to make products like tofu and soy sauce.

Long Beans

These thin beans can grow to nearly three feet in length and have a list of names almost as long: yard-long beans, asparagus beans, snake beans, and so on. They are deep green, more pliable than string beans, and pack a “mellow earthiness” to go along with their “meaty, slightly chewy” texture. Cut into lengths, long beans are a traditional choice in Chinese stir-fries, but they can also be blanched or steamed just like a typical green bean.