I BRAKE FOR BUTTER BEANS
Butter beans are suave—there is no other word that sums up their flavor, their texture, and their effortless ability to swing from down-home to haute. At roadside stands in the South, you’ll find coolers full of them—hand-picked, shucked, bagged, and ready for the pot.
No such luck here in New York City. Still, a recent heap of the unshucked beans at the Union Square Greenmarket was enough to make me screech to a halt. The fact that I just happened to be toting a stylish “bean bag” from Paris—a present from my friend and former colleague Paul Grimes—was pure serendipity. After all, even though I’ll happily pay a surcharge for shucked beans, the prep work can be done anywhere—on a bench by the river, for instance, on a train ride out to Long Island, or even in a hospital waiting room. No matter how impatiently I begin the task, breaking open the leathery pods and flicking out the smooth, shiny buttonlike beans becomes a meditative act, a culinary rosary.
My butter bean is another person’s lima (Phaseolus lunatus), and both common names are appropriate. Aside from its prized creamy texture when cooked, the bean was cultivated in the Andes as early as 5000 B.C.E. Eventually, the Spanish exported it from Lima, Peru, throughout the Americas and beyond. The pale, small-seeded type called sivvy (sieva) beans*, grown in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia since 1700 and exalted for its delicate flavor, probably got there by way of the Caribbean.
Fresh butter beans are simple to cook**. Combine them with water to cover by no more than an inch or so. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat until the water hovers at a steady barely-there simmer. Cook the beans until they are tender inside, about 30 minutes, and (pay attention to this part) let them cool, off the heat, in the cooking liquid, so they stay plump and smooth. Any harried weeknight cook will appreciate the fact that they’ll keep well in the fridge for a few days.
A number of embellishments come to mind. If you are in the mood to simmer a ham hock in the cooking water first to season it, or to fry up some bacon to crumble on top before serving, then by all means go for it. Butter beans are often paired with corn in a succotash, and Little Jimmy Dickens can attest to the fact that a bowl of butter beans can always use a side of cornbread.
In the Lowcountry, butter beans are served over rice, juiced with a little pot liquor and topped with a pat of butter, placed just so. It’s difficult to improve upon that, but for a change of pace, I might add the beans to a skillet of sautéed onion, along with some chopped fresh herbs—marjoram, summer savory, or rosemary work especially well—then toss with one of those curvy pasta shapes like campanelle or orecchiette. That sounds especially soothing tonight, after the earthquake wobblies.
Butter beans have a very great affinity for cream. Add some to the cooking liquid and then reheat the beans in a little more, spiked with the barest trace of freshly grated nutmeg. Or whiz up them in a food processor with a bit of milk for a silky-smooth purée that is wonderful with panfried trout or sautéed summer flounder.
When they are very fresh and small, butter beans also make a fine first course, a tactic that comes in handy when you don’t have quite enough to go around as a side. I’ve spooned them into my grandmother’s thin porcelain cups or small terra-cotta saucers from Mexico. They look perfectly at home in anything. Even people who profess to loathe butter beans are struck by how rarefied and beautiful they look this way, and then they eat them right up.
* According to a recent genetic diversity study, sieva beans arose independently in central-western Mexico. Other aliases include Sewee (after a South Carolina Indian tribe), civet, siveau, saba, West Indian, and Carolina lima.
** And cook them you must, to destroy a naturally occurring toxic compound called linamarin. Don’t let that caveat stop you; butter beans are a fabulous, almost fat-free source of protein and soluble fiber (key for the regulation of blood sugar and cholesterol levels) as well as the insoluble (good-for-you-in-general) sort.