BABY, IT'S BEAN GRAND Paired with corn or herb-tossed, limas are fall favorites

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They come in three sizes, almost like people -- baby, medium and big and tough. That's the lima bean, born in the Andes of South America at least 8,000 years ago, packed with nutrition and sometimes neglected in favor of more glamorous legumes.

I think that's sad, because late summer and early fall are the heyday of this bean. Limas from the great York-Lancaster fields in Pennsylvania are shipped out to Middle Atlantic custom-type greengrocers and supermarket chains, and they are wonderful eating, indeed.

Expensive, but worth the price, for it will take about 3 pounds of limas in the shell to feed four people. That's about a $3 investment in a vegetable that many cooks pass up, or serve only packaged, frozen or dried.

The fresh bean is a different animal. Limas

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will average about $2 a pint shelled but they are worth it in hearty but mildly spiced dishes that go along with the first cold snaps of fall.

The favorite accompaniment for fresh limas in cookbooks of the experts has traditionally been dill. I also sometimes favor whispers of thyme and oregano with the mature bean. The lima has an affinity for being served with fresh fruit and for being bedded down in chilled salads, among its trendier notes in the more mod cuisines. And it also can be a stand-in for anything that its cousin beans can do.

Many cooks are fans only of the pre-shelled, frozen baby lima. These are fine and delicate and cook almost as fast as an egg, but they are like a young wine that is going places eventually -- fine for the salad or the bland dinner plate, but only a hint of the mature item. The dried bean is also a pet of knowing and economical cooks who, however, tend to overdo these bargain protein givers in soup preparation and neglect its role in dips and baked preparations. (A can of limas, to me, is a bean graveyard -- but it can be given a delicious turn. See below.)

Nothing is easier than freezing fresh limas. All you need is salt water, a pot, a cookie sheet and something in which to store these luscious things. Bring a big pot to full boil, add the fresh beans slowly and blanch at full boil for 2 to 3 minutes, depending on the size of the beans. Drain and dump into ice water. Dry on towels or in the air and freeze on flat pans or cookie sheets. Store in tight containers or zippered storage bags. Some home gardeners skip the blanching, which seems to work fine if you are freezing them for use in the near future.

By a mile, the most popular use of limas in American cuisine is with the making of succotash, the New England specialty that spread through the northern tier of states in the 19th century and everywhere else in the 20th. For a quickie version of this overworked classic, simple pre-cook 10 ounce packages of corn and baby limas, blending them in a pan with a top with some sauteed onions, 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter, some heavy cream and some diced pimiento. Slowly heat with the top on; simmer about two or three minutes and serve.

John Thorne, the culinary master of "Simple Cooking" (Penguin Books, 1987, $9.95) believes succotash should be escorted with "dead ripe" tomatoes. (For his succotash version see below.) It's an adaptation of succotash as it is in Molly Finn's "Summer Feasts," Mr. Thorne reports and it's made with the north country's cranberry bean (a medium-sized legume) or limas. For limas I would increase the weight of beans bought by 50 percent, since lima shells are notoriously thick and heavy. One of the traditional north country versions of limas calls for cooking the beans with corn or alone in molasses or dark sugar syrups. In French cuisine, the lima's European equivalent, the flageolet, is served with gutsy lamb gravies and cuts of meat.

I steam fresh limas in the top layer of a big three-decker steamer of oriental type, dusting them at the start with about three pinches each of oregano and thyme and a little garlic salt. For frozen, either from the store or home freezer, I simmer the rascals about six or seven minutes in a large frying pan with water to cover. I also make a sort of lima bean hoppin' John by blending rice boiled in salty chicken stock and drained with limas, cooked in unsalted water.

A final hint: Do not salt lima bean water; it toughens the skins. Some high-falutin' chefs actually peel limas after blanching, but this seems to me to be overkill.

The following are some novel ways to use both the seasonal delicacy and the year-round processed lima:

The handy touch of molasses is the secret ingredient in this formula from "Mrs. Chard's Almanac Cookbook Hollyhocks and Radishes," by Bonnie Stewart Michelson (Pickle Point Publishing Company, $13.95). Michigan's idyllic Upper Peninsula is where the sweet lima makes a home. This version can be made a day ahead and reheated.

Bess's butter beans

Serves eight.

1/4 cup melted butter

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons molasses

1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard

-- of salt

4 15-ounce cans butter or lima beans, drained

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together butter, sour cream, brown sugar, molasses, dry mustard and salt. Combine with beans and turn into a buttered 3-quart casserole.

Cover and bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 to 50 minutes, until liquid begins to cook away but not until dry.

Pork, apple flavorings and mustard accents combine in this hearty recipe. Pork tenderloins trimmed could easily (and economically) be substituted for the chops without major alterations. The dish is detailed in Judy Gorman's "Vegetable Cookbook" Yankee Publishing, Inc., 1986, $19.95).

Baked fresh lima beans

with pork chops

Serves six.

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

6 rib pork chops, trimmed of excess fat

1 large onion, sliced and separated into rings

1 garlic clove, minced or pressed

1 cup apple juice

3 tablespoons molasses

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper

3 pounds lima beans, shelled

2 tart green apples, cored and sliced into rings

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the pork chops and cook over medium heat until browned on both sides. Transfer the pork chops to the prepared baking dish. To the oil that remains in the skillet, add the onion and garlic and stir over medium heat until the onion is limp. Blend in the apple juice, molasses, brown sugar, mustard, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and add the lima beans. Cover the pan and reduce the heat. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Pour the mixture over the pork chops and cover the baking dish with aluminum foil. Bake for 30 minutes. Uncover the dish and arrange the apple slices over the lima beans. Continue baking, uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes more or until the beans are tender and the pork is no longer pink when cut near the bone.

Here's a quick, simple way to fix fresh or frozen limas that will produce one of the endless varieties of succotash in soup form. Anybody with chicken stock and a few vegetables can make it. Jeanette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer include it in "The California-American Cookbook" (Simon & Schuster Fireside Books, 1985, $12.95).

Real succotash soup

Serves six.

1/2 pound Smithfield or country ham, diced

1 onion chopped

1 cup fresh or frozen green peas

1 cup cooked lima beans

1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup milk

3 tablespoons fresh parsley

salt and pepper

In a 4-quart saucepan, saute ham until fat is rendered. Add onion and cook until soft. Add peas, beans, corn and stock and bring to a boil. With a slotted spoon remove about 1 cup of the vegetables and half the ham and set aside. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. In a food processor or blender, puree soup until smooth, return to the pot and add milk, parsley, salt and pepper and reserved ham and vegetables. Reheat gently.

Succotash with fresh

tomatoes and basil butter

Serves four as a side dish or two or three for a feast

1 1/2 cups freshly shelled cranberry beans or other shell beans, about 2 pounds in the pod

1/4 cup minced fresh basil

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) sweet butter

1 medium red salad onion, chopped

2 cups sweet corn kernels (cut from about 5 or 6 ears) liquid reserved with kernels and cobs reserved

3 or 4 dead-ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped

salt and freshly ground pepper

Simmer the shelled beans in unsalted water with the corncobs until soft but not mushy, checking often so they do not overcook (depending on the youth and kind of bean, this will take from 3 to 15 minutes or more.) While the beans cook, use a knife to work and scrape the basil into the butter until it is nicely amalgamated. Place the onion in a small serving bowl. When the beans are just soft, they are done. Quickly drain off the cooking water and discardthe corncobs. Combine the corn kernels and their liquid with the beans, add the basil butter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Return to the heat and cook just until the corn is done and the basil butter barely melted. Pour into 4 bowls, strew the tomatoes over and serve at once with the chopped onions passed for diners to add as they wish.

"The Benevolent Bean," a vest pocket masterpiece by Margaret and Ancel Keys (Noonday Press division of Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1972, $2.45) gives you simple ways to treat dried beans. You can substitute fresh or frozen limas in any of these two basic recipes, using about one fourth to a half more than the dried amounts.

Baked lima beans

Serves eight.

2 cups dried lima beans

2 onions, sliced

5 carrots chopped

1/4 pound ham, cut into small pieces

salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Soak beans overnight if dried. Then simmer until done. Or simmer beans for a few minutes in 3 quarts water. Then turn off heat and soak for one to two hours. Simmer beans until done, reserving water when you drain the beans. Transfer beans to a 2-quart bean pot or casserole. Add onion, carrot and ham; mix well. Add bean liquor to cover beans, season with salt and pepper and bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. Stir in chopped parsley just before serving.

Lima bean soup

Serves eight.

1 cup dried lima beans

2 carrots, sliced

2 onions, sliced

2 tablespoons minced parsley

1 teaspoon peppercorns or to taste

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups skim milk

2-3 drops Tabasco sauce (optional)

Soak beans as described above. Add all other ingredients except the flour and milk and simmer for two hours or more until the beans are very soft. Make a paste of the flour and a little of the cold milk. Heat the rest of the milk to scalding. Stir in flour paste and cook and stir until thick. Rub the bean soup through a strainer or put it through a food mill and combine with the milk mixture just before serving, adjusting seasoning to taste.

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