Did you know that beans and grain together form a complete protein? Combined, they contain all the amino acids necessary for human health, just like meat or dairy products. The huge Fabaceae, formerly Leguminosae, family (legumes) contains over 16,000 varieties. Common edible legumes include peas, beans, peanuts, lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans.
Peas are believed to have originated in Asia, and were grown by Neolithic farmers as far back as the Bronze Age. Primitive pea seeds have been found in archeological sites of Swiss lake‐dwellers, who appear to have grown them 5,000 years ago.
Modern garden peas were rare until the eighteenth century, and were considered gourmet fare in the late 1700s, at times fetching exorbitant prices. If you’ve ever tasted peas fresh from the garden, you know why: fresh peas, like fresh sweet corn, taste little like their store‐bought counterparts.
Peas can either be shelling peas (which are removed from the pod, or shelled) or edible pod peas (which are eaten pod and all). Within the edible pod category are snap peas and snow peas. Snap peas are harvested when the pods are plump with peas, which are the mature seeds of the plant. Snow peas are harvested when the peas are immature, when they’re still “flat”. Snow peas are used in Chinese cooking and stir‐fries. Snap peas are the most versatile: they can be eaten with the pod or shelled. Another favorite in the American South are black‐eyed peas, or cowpeas, which are light colored peas with a distinctive dark “eye”.
Garden peas are often called green peas, but they may come in other colors: ‘Blue Pod Capucijners’, originally grown by Capuchin monks, have dark purple pods with brownish‐grey peas.
Gardeners in northern climates are eager to plant peas as soon as the snow melts, as a first rite of spring. Peas are usually the first crop planted in spring gardens.
The common bean ‐ the botanical name Phaseolus vulgaris means just that ‐ was unknown to the Old World before Columbus brought them back from the Americas over five hundred years ago. String beans got their name from a string‐like fiber that runs the length of the bean which had to be removed before cooking. Modern varieties have been bred to eliminate this problem.
The common bean includes fresh snap beans, so called because they are snapped into pieces before cooking. Snap beans are usually green, but can also be yellow (wax beans) or purple (which surprisingly turn bright green when cooked). Purple and yellow varieties have the added bonus of being easy to spot against the green foliage at harvest time. Beans can be grown as either bush beans or pole beans. Bush beans grow in compact plants up to about two feet high. Pole beans have twining stems that require five‐ to eight‐foot‐tall supports. Some pole beans can grow as high as fifteen feet. The beans you buy in the supermarket are usually bush beans because they are better adapted to factory farming. The best reason to plant pole beans: the taste. Many people think pole beans have a better flavor.
Varieties of string beans include Italian or Romano beans, which have wide, flat pods and may be bush or pole types. French beans, also called filet beans or haricot verts, are a pencil‐thin, sweet green bean prized by gourmet cooks. Asparagus or yard‐long beans have a unique nutty flavour. Despite the name, yard‐longs are usually harvested when they are twelve to eighteen inches (30‐45 cm) long. Runner beans are valued for their beautiful red, pink, white, or multi‐colored flowers.
Shell or Dried Beans
Shell beans are beans removed from their shell or pod and usually dried. Examples of shell beans include soy beans, lentils, chick peas, and broad beans.
Soybeans can be eaten green (boiled and salted) as edamame, or made into soy milk, tofu, or tempeh. Soybeans are a complete protein: they supply significant amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
Lentils can be green, brown, red, yellow, and even black. Split lentils, used in Indian cooking, are called dal. Lima beans are also called butter beans because of their creamy, buttery texture. Limas may be fresh, frozen, or dried. Chickpeas, also known as garbanzos, ceci, and Bengal gram, are used in many Middle Eastern and Indian dishes. Broad beans or fava beans can be cooked like string beans when young or shelled when larger.
Other varieties of dried beans include navy (or pea beans) and kidney beans, both popular baked. From cranberry‐specked “Jacob’s Cattle’ to black, yellow, red, and pinto beans, dried beans can be found in an almost endless variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.
For low cost and high nutrition, make legumes a staple of your family’s diet.