“What is a shell bean?” a friend asked me the other day when I was describing succotash, a traditional New England dish of corn and shell beans that I often serve at Thanksgiving. We’d been talking about her dry bean crop and the varieties she’d just harvested. “A shell bean is the bean fully formed in the pod but not dry yet,” I said, adding that I often harvest beans at this stage, remove them from the pods, boil them to eat right away with just olive oil, salt and pepper, or blanch them and freeze them so I can have shell beans in the winter.
The idea of a shell bean was completely new to her and I realized that my answer wasn’t making sense. I’m so used to calling the plump, fresh bean harvested in mid-summer a shell bean and the smaller, hard, dried bean harvested in early fall a dry bean that it never occurred to me that this fresh shell bean stage could be so unfamiliar.
Later, wondering if I was trapped in my own bean universe, I turned to seed catalogs to see how others talk about these two bean stages. Territorial Seeds refers to shelling beans and Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Fedco refer to shell beans but the harvest stages are the same. Territorial advises: “For shelling beans, pick when the seeds are fully formed but still soft and green. For dry beans, maturity can take 3-4 more weeks depending on the weather. Harvest when 90% of the leaves have yellowed or fallen off.” Johnny’s advises picking shell beans “when beans are plump inside pods” and harvesting dry beans “when at least 90% of leaves have fallen and pods are dry.”
In the Fedco catalog, there’s a “Shell and Dry Beans” section with some introductory sentences advising gardeners to “Harvest shell beans when the beans are plump inside pods. For dry beans allow pods to dry on the vine until pressing the beans with your fingernail leaves no indentation.” In the descriptions of the beans that follow, Fedco’s catalog writers often characterize qualities of the shell stage and the dry stage. Silver Cloud Cannellini beans “make amazingly early and absolutely superb shell beans…When dried and cooked its smooth, meaty texture and dense meaty flavor are prized in minestrone.” Limelight is “excellent both as a shell and a dry bean.” Tiger Eye makes “superb fresh shell and delicious baked beans …Wide 4” pods fill with large flattened kidney-shaped seeds mostly white at the shell stage but taking on more yellow as they dry.” Jacob’s Cattle “if harvested earlier…make superb shellies.”
Any bean can be harvested at the shell or the dry stage; even green beans that have grown too tough to eat green can hold tasty shell or dry beans. In my years of harvesting beans at shell and dry stages, I’ve come to favor certain beans at the shell stage and others at the dry stage. Cranberry, the pole flageolet Soissons Verte, Good Mother Stallard and all runner beans taste best to me at the shell stage while cannellini and black beans taste better fully dried then rehydrated.
Good Mother Stallard
But if your intent is growing dry beans, even seed catalog descriptions might not encourage shell bean harvest. The phrase “shelling beans” might signal only the process of removing the beans from the pods. Yes, you do shell both shell beans and dry beans, along with peas, so the term is confusing. And if you didn’t grow up eating shell beans as I did, maybe you have to discover shell beans by chance as my friend Carol did, explaining: “I learned about them accidentally years ago when frost was threatening, the beans weren’t dry and I ate some. Get the word out there! They are wonderful.” It’s true. As a bean tasting we did a few years ago revealed, shell beans are rich and creamy, fresh tasting and nutty, needing nothing but a little olive oil and salt and pepper, or maybe a little corn, to make a meal.
Dry beans are very good, but they aren’t the same; they’re starchy and less sweet, wonderful at absorbing other flavors but not so good alone.
Or maybe you can discover shell beans at Thanksgiving dinner. As I do nearly every year, I’ll serve succotash at Thanksgiving, using a mix of Cranberry, Aunt Jean and Soissons Verte shell beans and sweet corn I’ve frozen in the summer in anticipation of this holiday meal. I’ll be sure that my friend tastes these shell beans and hope that my answer to her question: “What is a shell bean?” will finally make sense.
My favorite succotash recipe
1 ½ Cups fresh corn cut from the cob or frozen corn thawed
1 Cup fresh shell beans or frozen shell beans
1 Garlic clove, minced
2 Tablespoons Butter
1 Teaspoon Olive Oil
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and add fresh or frozen beans; simmer until soft, about 7-10 minutes but check often. When soft, drain and set aside.
Heat butter and olive oil, add garlic and cook 2-3 minutes
Add fresh or thawed corn and cook, stirring frequently, until hot
Add beans to corn, mix, heat through and serve
Easy to double or triple
For an interesting history of succotash, see this article from Yankee Magazine. And for more history and some tasty variations on the basic succotash recipe, see David Tanis’s New York Times City Kitchen column Yes, Succotash Has a Luxurious Side.