Monday, February 24, 2014

Raw Peas and Purple Beans

            I love growing peas and beans.  Peas straight from the garden are such a treat.  Every spring, we plant a small patch of them just to eat fresh.  My sons and I will go out and gather a huge pile of them, and then sit on the yard swing and eat peas to our hearts’ content.  In the couple years that I’ve been growing them, they’ve never made it to the cooking pan.  But I don’t mind.  Because watching my children delight in raw peas right out of the garden is one of spring’s true delights.  We look forward to this highlight every year. 

            Just as the ground gets warm enough to kneel on comfortably (mid-April in my zone 5), it’s pea planting time.  I know it says to plant peas “as soon as the soil can be worked,” but I don’t like to rush it because the peas germinate erratically and more slowly when it’s too cool and wet.  But they pop up just fine if I wait until the ground is warm enough to sit on without chilling my backside. 
            Peas are big enough for the kids to handle easily.  So I let them each plant some.  We like to grow Super Sugar Snap (the kind you eat pod and all; Super Sugar Snap is more productive than Sugar Snap) and a kind that you shell and eat only the peas.  A few of us prefer the snap kind and a few prefer the shelling kind.  We plant them only an inch deep, not 2 inches like the package says.  Much less germinated for me one year when I planted them deeper.  And we plant them thickly, a couple inches apart in a small block with some support for them to grow up.    
            Pea plants are pretty to look at.  They are a beautiful shade of bright green with interesting, twining tendrils and delicate flowers.  So while we wait for the peas to form, we enjoy watching the plants climb.  And then for several weeks, we get to pick and eat fresh peas, raw right from the garden.  It really is a delight.  They have a fresh-green sweetness that you have to experience some time in your life.  Kids who don’t like canned or frozen peas will love fresh ones from the garden.  And they are a lot sweeter than the store-bought snap peas because peas begin to lose their sweetness soon after being picked. 
            Just don’t let them get too big and old.  Once the peas are bulging from their pods, they lose sweetness and are tough and starchy.  Get them when they are just big enough but not too big.  The best way to tell how big the peas are inside the pods is to hold it up to the sunlight and look through.  The pods are deceptive.  They will be big and bulging and you’ll think the peas must be huge, but when you open it, they are tiny, tiny, tiny.  Check them in the light first to get a good view, and pick them when they fill the pod comfortably without pressing too much on each other or forcing the pod to burst open.      
            And if there are too many to eat them all right away, store them in the fridge for up to a couple days.  And during the day, put some in a bowl on the table where people can walk by and grab a few as a snack.  Or take them to a get-together with friends.  Nothing says “Hey man, you’re special” more than a big bowl of fresh, raw snap peas.   
            Since peas are finished early, there is still time to plant something in its place.  I’ve tried to start peas for a fall planting like I’ve read about, but I’ve had no luck.  And I considered chard, kale, or lettuce, all of which would grow good after peas.  But I already have a bunch of kale and chard (forget the lettuce).  So I’ve decided to plant marigolds and nasturtium when they’re done.  This way, I can have some beautiful fall color.  Marigolds have the most brilliant orange glow in the fading sunlight.  I never liked orange much until I saw how beautiful the dwindling vegetable garden looked when it was bathed in patches of vibrant orange all fall.
            Plus, these flowers are good for the soil and are recommended for vegetable gardens anyway, especially marigolds.  So I plant them all around the garden, at the edges of each bed, except by the beans and peas.  From what I’ve read, they might have some sort of herbicide effect on legumes.  So I plant them in the other beds at the beginning of the season, but I wait until the peas and bush beans are gone to plant them in those beds.    
            Beans . . . Ah, one of my favorites to grow.  I love being able to go out and gather enough beans for a dinner every couple days.  I love having extra to blanch and freeze.  I love gathering the old, dried pods that hang on till the end of the season, collecting the dried beans inside to plant next year (or to use in soups, if I have enough and want to try).  There is almost nothing prettier than a jar of mixed dried beans.  I have a jar of dried pole bean seeds in my kitchen right now.  And it’s like a work of art.
            Scarlet Runner Beans have the most beautiful huge seeds, black splashes on a pale purple background.  I have some tan seeds with darker patches that came from a green bean that has purple stripes all over it (Rattlesnake).  There are white seeds from green beans.  And pale tan ones from the purple-podded beans.  If the light and heat didn’t hurt dried seeds, I would leave this jar on my counter to look at.  To me, it shows God’s creativity and the delight He takes in the details.  Delight that I am trying to learn.  But unfortunately, to preserve the quality, I store them in a dark cool cabinet instead, out of sight.  But I do take it out every so often just to look at.  I’ve been known to hover over that jar and whisper, “Gorgeous!  Just gorgeous!” 
            Come mid-May, I will bring out that jar again and sift through the little gems, pulling out a selection of pole beans to plant this year.  My preference is pole beans over bush beans.  I love the statuesque look of a tower of beans rising tall over the garden.  I love the hummingbirds that come for the bean flowers.  And I love that the same plants produce all season, as long as you keep picking.  And boy, can they produce a lot.  Now that I think about it, I still have many zip-lock bags of blanched beans in my freezer in the basement.  I really need to start using them up or all that work will be wasted. 
            (That’s my only real problem with storing garden surplus.  I forget about it.  And then when our electricity goes out for days because of a storm and I have to clean out the freezers, I find all the sad packages of uneaten food that I lovingly worked hard to store for winter’s use.  I really need a better system than “put produce in bag, wrap in foil, shove in freezer unmarked, and keep piling more food in until it’s buried way in the back.”  Poor beans!  And rhubarb!  And zucchini!  And currants!  Wow, I really need a better system.)
            My favorite of the pole beans are the purple-podded ones and the purple-streaked ones.  It’s not that they taste any better than the green kind, it’s just that they are so much easier to find among all the green leaves.  And I am currently looking for a yellow pole bean, too. 
            I love the look of the Runner beans (and their hummingbird-attracting flowers), but they are only good for eating when they are small.  And they get big quickly.  And once they do, they get tough and have a velcro-feel to them so that when you pick them and throw them in a bucket, they are still there clinging to your glove or sleeve.  So we eat the smaller ones, but I leave the too big ones on the vine to collect as dried beans later.  (But once you start to leave them on the vine, the plants stop producing.  So I don’t do this until later in the season.  If I have to, I pick and compost the ones that get too big early in the season so that the plants keep producing longer.)
            You have to be diligent about picking beans every other day.  Or they will get big on you before you know it.  And it’s so easy to miss the green ones.  That’s why I like the colored ones.  (Don’t worry, the purple turns to green when you cook them.)  But if you want to feel like a success with any plant, try beans.  They won’t disappoint you.  You could go out there every couple days and gather enough for a meal, and then some. 
            But if deer and bunnies are a problem by you, protect your plants with netting.  Deer and bunnies love beans.  I surround my whole garden with deer netting held up by inexpensive bamboo stakes.  It’s not ideal, but I’m working my way to something more permanent.  And I have to cover the newly planted bean seeds with chicken wire to keep the squirrels (who always get past the deer netting somehow) from digging up the seeds.  I just lay the wire right on the ground where I put the beans and take it up when they start to sprout.  But even if you leave it down, the plants will grow right up through it.
            Other than that, beans are pretty carefree plants.  I don’t feed them because peas and beans make their own nitrogen.  This is why they are good for the soil.  So they are a part of my crop rotation, right before heavy feeders.  All I really have to do is make sure they have enough water when it gets dry.  And fortunately, my beans produce well in the shadier part of my garden, which gets only half-sun.  They don’t mind less-than-ideal conditions. 
            Well, now that I’ve sung the praises of beans and peas, I’m going down to the freezer to get out a package of our frozen beans for tomorrow’s dinner.  They have such a wonderful texture compared to canned beans or even some store-bought frozen ones that are tougher.  If you can, plant a small patch of these.  You won’t regret it.

Recipe for great peas:
            Get package of Super Sugar Snap, plant an inch deep, two inches apart in ground in mid-April.  Add support such as twigs stuck in the ground, and protect from garden pests.  Wait for a while for peas to develop, enjoying the beautiful plants as they grow.  Then pick and eat, shell and all.  (You can eat the Super Sugar Snap before the peas fill in since you eat the shell, too.  But wait until peas fill in to eat the shelling kind.)  Repeat for weeks!  Then pull up plants and replace with marigolds.  Enjoy!

My favorite way to cook and store beans:
            To eat fresh, collect beans before the seeds get large.  You should just see the seeds starting to develop inside, but they will be too tough once the seeds begin to fill in and bulge.  Cut in pieces, simmer or steam till you can poke with a fork but before they get limp and soft, about 7-8 minutes.  (Or just after the purple color turns to deep green.)  Then butter and salt and serve as a side dish.  Or add a little chopped garlic and butter the last few minutes you are cooking the beans and let it cook a bit.  Then drizzle a little olive oil on.  Simple but wonderful.
            To freeze:  Cut uncooked beans, submerge in a pot of boiling water for 1 minute.  Remove and cool quickly in cold water.  Let drip dry for a few minutes then pack into freezer bags (one meal’s worth per quart-sized zip-lock).  Wrap in foil, label, put in freezer in a place you will remember to use them.  I’m going to have a list on my fridge next year which details what I have stored and where.  If not, it’s out of sight, out of mind.  And when it's time to cook them, it just takes a few minutes.  Blanched beans only take a short time to cook.  Keep that in mind! 

            Hope you discover the delight of fresh peas and beans.  And if you can, save the extra dried seeds in a jar to look at every now and then.  Just gorgeous!  God is good!