November 19, 2010

October in November

Several weeks ago, we had November in October.  This week it’s October in November.

I recently went to the 14&U farmers' market looking for the fresh lima beans I had seen at previous markets.  They didn’t have any lima beans, but they did have another fresh bean, which the seller at Garner's Produce told us were called “October beans” and extolled the virtues of  their rich, earthy flavor and meaty texture.  At $5 for a 1-pound bag, they were a bit pricey, but we thought it might be worth it to give them a try.  (And considering that they can replace the meat in a meal and last the two of us two meals apiece, it wasn’t a bad investment.)  Our friend at Garner wasn’t kidding about how delicious they are.  We went back for two more bags this past Saturday.

Their more complex flavor and meaty texture notwithstanding, cooking with fresh beans was such a pleasure.  It was so easy just to come home from work, throw a few ingredients in a pot and have dinner an hour later. 

I was curious to know more about these so-called October beans, so I did a little looking around on the internet.  As it turns out, they are the very same beans my grandmother used to grow in her garden!  They’re the ones I wrote about last year when I made my grandmother’s soup.  My mother vaguely remembered that they were called “horticulture beans,” but neither of us knew where to find them.

They answer to many names, including October beans, horticulture beans, horticultural beans, French horticultural beans, cranberry beans, speckled cranberry beans, shelly beans, shell beans, and wren’s egg beans, to name a few.

Mystery solved!  I thought.    When I looked at pictures, I realized that they may not be quite the same thing – but they did seem to be called by the same set of names. 

Back at the market this past Saturday, I asked the producer about this apparent discrepancy and he explained that, when fully mature, his beans would also be speckled like the ones I had seen online.  He was having to pick them before fully mature this year because they were late to ripen because of the weather.  (Or something to that effect. I don’t remember his exact words.)  Second mystery solved.

Then I remembered a image from our recent trip to Italy:  Could these also be the same beans we had seen at the market in Venice? 
There, they were simply called “beans,” but their shells look awfully similar to those of October beans…

It makes me so happy to have discovered these beans again.  When I spoke to my mother this evening and told her I had found horticulture beans, she was equally thrilled (which also makes me happy).

For our first taste of October beans, I wanted try something simple, so that the flavor of the beans would shine through.

October Bean Soup
printable recipe

5 oz. center-cut bacon, cut into small pieces
1 small or ½ large onion (yellow or red), chopped
2 small carrots, chopped
14 oz. fresh October Beans*
2 cups chicken broth
6 cups water
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 oz. short pasta, whole wheat or homemade**
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

*If you can’t find October beans, you may substitute another white bean, such as cannellini. If beans are dried, they should be soaked overnight.  If they’re canned, reduce water by about half and reduce cooking time to about 20 minutes.
**Whenever possible, I prefer to use homemade egg pasta like my grandmother did.  If I have homemade spaghetti or fettucine on hand, I break it into smaller (2- to 3-inch) pieces before adding it to the soup. This is also a great place to use the small scraps from a batch of longer pasta.

In a large pot (I use a Dutch oven), cook the bacon over medium heat until mostly cooked.  Add the chopped vegetables and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent. 

Add the beans, broth, and water and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until beans reach the desired consistency.  Stir frequently and add additional water, as needed.  When the beans are almost cooked, season with salt and pepper.

Increase heat slightly to bring the soup make to a full boil.  Add the pasta and cook just until al dente. Do not overcook because the pasta will continue to soften in the hot soup.  (Homemade, dried fettuccine will cook in about 3 minutes, while the whole wheat pasta we used takes 10-11 minutes.)

Variation: The second time around, I made variation similar to my grandma’s soup. (These are the same beans she used, after all.) I added 2-3 teaspoons of tomato paste and a couple dashes of white wine vinegar just before adding the pasta.  This was intended to mimic her addition of ketchup to the broth.  It came very close.  Next time I might try adding a teaspoon of brown sugar (since ketchup is basically tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar).

The first time around, we used whole wheat pasta: DSC_0096

The second batch, made with homemade fettuccine: DSC_0358

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