I don’t think I could tire of runner beans. I have half a 4×4 foot bed dedicated to growing them. I direct sow them in spring, enjoy their heavenward growth and then cook them every other day through August and into September until they are well and truly over (they often ‘run’ for two months). Half a well-prepared bed, with twelve plants, is plenty to produce lots of long green tasty pods.
Even so, we sometimes have too many. If you leave them on the plant a day past their prime they turn less sweet. Two days, and the colour starts to drain out of them, three and they’re stringy, lumpen and unpleasant. Once the plant senses it has grown a few matured seed pods it will stop producing flowers. No more flowers means no more beans.
You could let this happen, of course, leave them on the plants to swell and dry, and then pod the beans to fully dry and store for winter soups and casseroles (NB. to break down nasty toxins, always boil dried beans rapidly for 10 minutes before adding to any dishes, even slow cooking ones). I’m going to try that for the first time this year, driven by the fact I’ve grown a mixed packet (‘Relay’) for their pretty pastel coloured flowers. The beans inside are different colours too. Not just yet, though… Because first I’m …
A separate post on my Runner Bean chutney to follow… So next I’m…
An alternative to drying is to freeze young runners, to enjoy ‘fresh’ in the winter. The secret of keeping their flavour and texture intact is to blanch them in boiling water (kills surface bacteria and preserves the colour) and then freeze them as fast as possible (before the cells start to break down) . Choose your best, young, undamaged beans. Don’t waste your time, and fill your freezer, with anything less.
I find that preparing runners ‘Julienne’ style (cut into ribbons) allows the beans to be most evenly blanched (in seconds rather than minutes), and quicker to cool (I plunge them immediately into a large bowl of iced water). If you don’t have ice, keep changing the water until they are thoroughly chilled. Drain and tip onto a clean tea towel and gently pat them dry with kitchen roll to remove as much water from the freezing process as possible.
They are much quicker to freeze through when cut thinly. Spreading them on a metal (non-stick) baking tray, that has already been in the freezer for half an hour, speeds this up. Once they are frozen solid they can be quickly decanted into freezer bags using a spatula (the non-stick helps do this faster). Avoid using your hands too much as this will start to defrost them.
Remember that the secret is speed… From the moment of picking to being frozen solid. By preparing everything in advance … big pan of boiling water, cold water bowl, lots of ice, non-stick tray in freezer, spatula and bags at the ready… By picking in small batches, nothing is hanging around for too long. Fresh, fresh, fresh.
How to slice beans ‘Julienne’ style
This might look tricky to achieve without chef skills and a super-sharp knife, and you’d be right! But when thinking speed, don’t dilly dally… cheat!
I’ve had this little Julienne gadget for years (a couple of quid from a kitchen shop) and it’s the speediest, least bruising way I know to prepare runners (bar tossing them in whole). It takes a few attempts to master but, once you’ve got the gist of pushing the bean in one end and pulling it out the other, it’s the best thing since sliced bread. I mean, beans.
Another bonus of Julienne beans is they are super-quick to heat through from frozen, keeping that flavour and texture intact… You could toss them into a hot stir-fry, or simply plunge the frozen beans into rapidly boiling salted water, bring back to the boil as quick as possible (a minute). Try one quickly to check (hot but still firm). Strain immediately, knob of butter, serve. Smell, taste…
Close your eyes and it could be August.