Shell beans are becoming increasingly popular with home gardeners, but because of the many varieties, uses and harvesting stages, they may seem confusing at first. It's really quite simple, though, to get them straight.
There are three harvesting stages for most shell beans:
1. You can eat many shell beans, young pods and all, just as you would snap beans.
2. You can let them grow, so the beans inside mature, and shell them green when the beans are tender. You just eat the green beans and not the pods. Lima beans are the most popular example of green shell beans.
3. You can let the shell bean plants mature fully until the end of the season. The pods and plants dry up, and the beans become hard. After soaking, use these shell beans in dishes such as chili and baked beans.
Though there are some climbing varieties, most shell beans grow on short, bushy plants.
Fresh, homegrown lima or butter beans, as they're called in the South, are favorite shell beans among many home gardeners. Once you eat some, you'll know what makes them so popular. Harvested at peak freshness, they have a much livelier taste than the processed limas you find in the store. One nice thing about growing and freezing your own limas is that they lose very little flavor.
There are large-seeded and small-seeded or "baby" lima beans. If the conditions are right, large-seeded ones such as 'Fordhook 242' give you more beans, and they're easier to shell. The baby limas grow on short, bushy plants and produce smaller beans, but they are very productive for the small space they take up, especially if you plant them in a wide row. 'Thorogreen' is a newer baby lima variety.
If you don't have much space for bush limas, try a pole variety. 'King of the Garden' has been the standard pole lima for years; 'Christmas' produces large seeds and pods; and 'Large-Speckled Christmas' produces white beans with crimson splotches.
Next to limas, other favorite shell beans include 'French Horticultural', 'Red Kidney' and 'Vermont Cranberry'. These can be harvested all three ways, but are generally harvested when they're fully mature and stored dry. They're fine as baked beans, and in chowders and chilis, and they're also wonderful harvested in the "green shell" stage and served as succotash. Other popular shell beans include 'Black Turtle', 'Cannellini', 'Great Northern', 'Soldier', Yellow Eye', and 'Pinto'.
Dried beans are a very good source of protein. Proteins are composed of 22 amino acids, eight of which are essential for us because our bodies cannot produce them. Beans contain only some of the essential eight, which is why beans are often eaten in combination with corn, rice and other vegetables.
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