Beans: An American Staple That Altered The World

By Shirley Barker Special to the Planet
Friday May 28, 2004

Legumes are such an important partner of grains as a source of complete protein that one wonders how Europeans managed before the advent of foods from America. Although every continent seems to have indigenous legumes and pulses, Europe has only one bean, the fava or broad bean, Vicia faba. Historians have documented an increase in human populations in Europe after the arrival of beans from the Americas. These beans are often called French, having been introduced into Europe by French explorers in Canada. 

Whether called American, French, string, snap or green, beans in the genus Phaseolus require the warmer months for growing. Sown too early, they will not germinate. Once the earth warms up in May, timing in Berkeley is not critical. From now until July they will produce a lavish crop. 

Starting beans in little pots makes it easier to keep watch and re-sow if germination fails. Pre-soaking the seeds speeds germination. The soil is dampened and never watered until the beans fully emerge. They bend their stalks to force their way through the earth. Give shade in extremely hot spells. Transplant to the ground when true leaves appear. Pole beans require wire support to climb up. Although they are said to be less prolific than bush beans, they are productive for longer, and a healthy plant will be bountiful. 

Bush beans can give a quick fill-in crop after early potatoes have been dug and before fava beans go in, because favas need cool weather, fittingly for their origins. In Berkeley they are sown in mid-October and start to produce edible pods in April. By May the pods fill out and must be shelled. Favas must be cooked, and are delicious as a side dish, in sauces, and in salads. They do well in soups, purees and stews. They can cause a troublesome blood disorder in people of Mediterranean heritage. Everyone else can enjoy their sweet, nutty taste safely. 

Legumes are also an important component of crop rotation because of their ability to fix nitrogen from the air by nodules on their roots, clearly visible on an uprooted fava bean plant. For early farmers this meant an increase in crops to the acre, allowing more frequent intercropping and fewer fallow seasons. Not just better food, but more of it, was apparently the reason for the population increase. We can do the same in our vegetable gardens by planting legumes in a different spot each growing season. Dried beans of all kinds store well, so plant extra for winter nutrition. 

Peas, in the same Fabaceae family (formerly Leguminosae), may have been the source of a “pease pudding” jingle, but the bean is the stuff of legends. Kentucky Wonder is just one of many good candidates for Jack’s beanstalk and the downfall of a giant. Local nurseries carry a wide variety of seeds and seedlings. Farmers’ markets often sell unusual kinds ready to plant. The Scarlet Runner, a perennial, is spectacular in flower, coarse and hairy in the pod. In fact most varieties of green bean need a little help to be appetizing, even if only a few drops of tamari or some toasted cashews. The tiny narrow French haricot vert is perhaps the exception, with a naturally delicate flavor. The French serve it alone as a separate course where, along with their incomparable butter, it can be appreciated without distraction. As with all things French, this is the bean at its most exquisite.  

For those who benefit from the health-giving properties of spices, Monisha Bharadwaj has a worthwhile recipe for “string bean stir-fry,” Farasbean Bhaji, in her book The Indian Spice Kitchen. This beautiful book is packed with information about the exotic spice plants and delectable dishes of India. It is available from Cody’s on Fourth Street. The following has been adapted from that recipe. It seems that even a continent well supplied with indigenous legumes just loves those American beans.