A Brief Primer On Cranberry Beans
Popular, But Scarce
Have you ever heard of cranberry beans? Perhaps not, but they are not a new, exotic variety of bean. And, they are not related to the cranberry plant. Cranberry beans are quite popular in some places. Still, in many other places, they are not readily available. Many, perhaps most grocers, don’t know anything about the beans. Part of the reason for this is they often go under other names, the term shell beans probably being the most widely used.
There does not seem to be a problem finding the beans in the marketplace in the northeast, but in some other parts of the country, finding cranberry beans in stores can be a challenge. Exceptions to this would be in parts of the country having large Italian communities. Cranberry beans have been a part of the Italian diet for hundreds of years. On the West coast, for example, the beans are readily available in the San Francisco area.
It’s In The Skin
Cranberry beans get their name from the markings on their skin. The bean itself is a cream color, but there are cranberry-colored markings on the skin. The cranberry bean closely resembles the more widely-known pinto bean, but the two do not taste alike. Unfortunately, when cooked, the interesting cranberry-colored speckles disappear, and the outer skin of the bean assumes a less-than-interesting brown color. The beans are mostly sold when dried, but it is sometimes possible to find fresh beans, still in their pods. Those who enjoy cranberry beans fresh say the meat tastes something like chestnuts. The cranberry bean is, like most other beans, highly nutritious. It is high in fiber, low in calories, and a good source of vegetable protein.
Fun And Easy To Grow
Cranberry beans are not difficult to grow. They are neither climbing beans nor bush beans, but grow on a stalk, which can grow to a height of 6 feet. Like a climbing, or pole bean, a cranberry bean plant will need some support. The plant lends itself to being planted in containers, such as a half-barrel. The plants are often started in smaller pots and then transplanted into a larger container. Some growers will transplant the bean seedlings into individual 1-gallon pots and grow them that way.
Whichever method you try, just remember the plant is eventually going to have to be staked or otherwise supported. Container plants are popular, since it is easier to support several plants using a single pole. The beans can also be planted beside a trellis. Given the shape of the trellis, they can be planted in a row or in a circle. You can even plant them around a tepee-shaped trellis. The cranberry bean is a warmer weather plant than most other bean varieties. The soil temperature has to be at least 60 degrees or more, and the plants will not survive even a light frost.
For some vegetables, especially peas and beans, it is sometimes recommended that you soak the seeds for a while before planting. To grow cranberry beans, follow the steps below:
1. Thoroughly soak some good potting soil and stir it up until it approaches the consistency of mud.
2. Stir in a few dried cranberry beans and let the mixture dry a bit. If it’s good potting soil, it won’t dry hard like mud often does.
3. Put the still very moist combination of soil and beans into small pots.
4. Seal the pots with transparent plastic wrap.
5. Place the pots in a warm place, or in the sun, and await germination.
Germination usually takes about a week, as long as the soil is kept warm. After the beans sprout, the leaves look like most any other bean. What is different is the stalk. When the first leaves open, the stalk is already several inches high. If you do grow your own, save a few in the pods for next year’s planting.
Cooking The Beans
The beans, known in Italy as borlotti beans, can be cooked a number of ways.
They should first be simmered in water for about 10 minutes, dried on a towel, and finally placed with some olive oil in a hot pan. Cook until the outer skins have become crisp and, especially if you’ve added a little salt or a seasoning of your choice, you’ll end up with a very tasty munching snack.
The beans also make a delicious soup when mixed with small cubes of carrots, chopped tomatoes, and a few pieces of bacon. All of the ingredients are cooked in chicken broth to which macaroni or pasta is added.
Cranberry beans can also, not surprisingly, be prepared by simply boiling them. The beans, when boiled, can be eaten as-is or added to a salad. If you are adding them to a salad, it’s a good idea to first toss them in a little olive oil.
If they taste as good as many claim, why isn’t the cranberry bean more popular than it is? The answer may well be that the beans are only available fresh in their pods for a relatively short time. Most people see them in their dried form, where they look like any other bean with a mottled or speckled appearance.