By Barbara Kobsar

This May, I decided I would test my gardening skills and plant a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash. The native peoples of North America revered these crops as the “sustainers of life,” and called them the Three Sisters not only for the human nourishment they provide, but also for the way the plants nourish each other when grown in a symbiotic arrangement.

I started by preparing a mound of fertile soil about 12 inches high and 10 feet in diameter and flattening the top so water would not run off too quickly. Then I planted seven or eight kernels of corn (the oldest of the sisters) in a small circle inside the mound with a surrounding circle of Kentucky Blue pole beans 6–8 inches away from the corn, and another circle of squash seeds outside the beans.

Now, as July approaches, the corn stalks are standing tall and the bean vines are climbing up the stalks while also fixing nitrogen (which corn loves and needs) into the soil. The squash plants are crawling all over the ground, stretching out their broad leaves to shade out weeds and inhibit evaporation of moisture from the soil, while the prickly leaves and stems of the squash plants are deterring garden pests. I’m already harvesting baby squash—corn and beans are on the way. All in all, the Three Sisters are getting along quite well.

Green Beans

Among home gardeners, beans rank only second to tomatoes in popularity. They can be divided into two types: bush beans and pole beans. The difference between the two is as simple as it sounds. Bush bean plants stand on their own without support and generally yield well. Pole beans climb on some sort of support—usually a trellis or pole (or perhaps a corn stalk, as in my Three Sisters garden).

In years past, green bush beans were commonly called “string” beans because of the fiber that developed along the seams of the pods. Since the 1950s, when plant breeders were able to reduce these fibers through selection, green beans have been more appropriately referred to as “snap” beans.

Fresh-picked beans are highly perishable, making farmers markets a good place to buy them: That way you know they have just been picked. Refrigerate as soon as you get them home so they’ll stay crisp and tasty. Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder remain my favorites, but when I find haricots verts (small green beans) or Romanos (broad, flat-podded green snap beans) I can’t pass them by. The Toms, farmers at Brookside Farm in Brentwood, grow an amazing heirloom Romano bean called Musica, which they first got as seed about five years ago from Peggy Kass, co-owner of Kassenhoff Growers. Now the Toms save the seeds each year to produce this long, sweet bean, which you can buy from them at the Montclair Farmers Market on Sundays while the beans are in season.

Shell Beans

“Shellies,” as they’re fondly referred to, are beans that are at an inbetween stage of maturity: large and developed enough that the pods are no longer edible, but young enough that the individual beans inside the pod are still tender. These same beans turn to dried beans when left to completely ripen and mature.

A shell bean whose popularity has been rising during the last decade is edamame. It roared into our markets from Asia touting its status as a complete protein source (like meat or eggs).

These immature green soybeans are a variation of the yellow and black field soybeans grown for making such products as soymilk and tofu. To prepare edamame simply boil the whole beans in the pod for about 5 minutes, then rinse under cool water. Precooking makes it easier to shell the bean. I like to saute the shelled beans in a little olive oil with garlic and chopped fresh tomato, or add them directly to salads and pastas after cooking.

Lima beans originated in Peru and are named after its capital, the city of Lima. They come in three sizes—large, small, and dwarf—and contain varying degrees of starch and flavor. I always choose the dwarf size when available since they are the least starchy and mildest tasting. To shell, pull down the string that runs along the pod’s seam. Press the pod at the ends or in between the seeds to split open the seam and pop out the beans. Very large lima beans may require individual peeling but most do not. You’ll want to cook lima beans, and boiling is the easiest way to do that. Boil small beans for 5–10 minutes and larger ones for 15–20 minutes.

One of the most eye-catching shell beans is the cranberry bean. It features a long red, mottled pod with plump, redand pink-streaked white beans inside. Borlotti, as it is known in Italy, loses much of its color in cooking but maintains a pleasant nutlike flavor. If you’re at the Walnut Creek Farmers Market on Sundays, look for Shirley Lea at her Cabrillo Farms stand selling baskets of fresh green snap beans and cranberry beans harvested from her third-generation family farm located at Half Moon Bay.

The Scarlet runner (Emperor variety) is still the most impressive bean in my garden. I marvel at each stage, from the beautiful red, sweet pea–like flowers and prolific climbing vines to the long, slender green beans. The vines can be made to climb on a fence, bamboo poles, or trellis, but I find that my retired wooden pear-picking ladder does the job nicely! After the blooming period, the pods grow quickly, so I faithfully pick the very young pods to cook them whole; letting scarlet runner beans grow for too long will yield tough and stringy beans. Also, continual picking promotes new flowers and more beans. If a few pods get missed and grow too large, I just treat them like shell beans.

Fresh garbanzo beans are one of the latest attractions at the farmers markets, but like fava beans, they love cool weather and are harvested early, so you’ll have to watch for them next spring. They’ll probably appear at market clinging to herb-like branches with two beans nestled tightly together in the fuzzy pods. The pods are easy to pop open, making the beans a nice snack or quick addition to salads. They’re also fabulous quickly steamed or sauteed with a bit of butter and served as a side dish or in pasta. Roasting garbanzo beans until the skin is slightly charred brings out the best flavor!

Another shell bean that might occasionally appear fresh at market is the black-eyed pea (or cowpea), which is somewhat bland and named for the black circular “eye” at its inner curve. You might also find the pale green French flageolet or the Italian cannellini, both of which deliver a rich taste and texture in their fresh form.

Enjoy, and see you at the markets!

Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional homecooked meals using local produce. She spends part of every week at the East Bay farmers markets scoping out fresh produce. When not roaming the produce aisles she is behind her market stand selling Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from produce from the farmers markets. Contact her at cotkitchen@aol.com

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