I was filling baskets with French beans and Spanish magic beans last summer when I noticed that some of my Scarlet Runner beans were ready to eat. Why in the world had I planted so many beans?
I was growing runners for the first time in at least seven years. I’d stopped planting them when my children had stopped asking me to erect bean tepees, which had never seemed worth the trouble of building. For years I had imagined the kids sitting inside a lovely live, green tepee on a hot summer day, making fairy houses or reading a picture book, and they apparently shared this fantasy. But it rarely came true. Hoeing in the tepee was difficult, so before long the space would fill with tall weeds. Watering was always troublesome, too. I would wrap a soaker hose around the perimeter of the tepee, but the hose would leak, from a tear or from a faulty connection, and form a mud puddle. And then one day the wind would come up and bend the tepee to one side, and, despite my efforts at straightening, the tepee would lean ridiculously for the rest of the summer. Unless I let it collapse altogether, picking the highest bean pods was nearly impossible; a ladder wouldn’t fit inside the tepee, and when I set the ladder on the outside the peak of the tepee was too far away to reach.
But last winter I realized that I missed the Scarlet Runner bean’s bright red flowers and meaty pods. I thought of an easier trellising system: I would anchor a cattle panel with metal fence stakes and then tie tall bamboo poles to the cattle panel. Our bamboo grows to only about fifteen feet, and runner vines can run longer, but I figured they could hang from the top, dangling their pods to within my reach.
And so in early summer I planted a small handful of Scarlet Runner beans and set up my sturdy new trellis. Now the first meaty pods had to be picked, or else they would get tough and fibrous. At the moment, though, I had no appetite for them. They were too few to bother blanching and freezing, and the kitchen refrigerator was stuffed full of other vegetables. Could I do as so many other gardeners did—enjoy the flowers and let the beans go? I was too frugal for that.
There was an obvious alternative: I could leave the pods alone now and shell them later. I had always saved shelled runner beans for later planting, but only a handful or two, and only at the end of the season. I’d never thought to save the whole crop for drying and eating.
Growing your own beans for drying takes dedication, especially in the Pacific Northwest. You’ve got to put the seeds in the ground early enough for the pods to fill and start drying before the fall rains begin to rot them. Rotting is especially likely with bush beans, which often rest their pods directly on the wet ground. And, assuming you can collect enough full, healthy pods, you might need an hour to shell enough little beans by hand for one family dinner.
But runner beans are more amenable to drying than bush beans or any kidney beans. When provided with a trellis, runner beans hang their pods high, where they’re less prone to rot. The plants can survive a few light frosts. And because the seeds are big, about an inch long or longer, shelling goes fast.
Thanks to a dry September and a fairly warm October (during which the plants did indeed withstand light frosts), I was able to put off harvesting the runner beans until after Halloween. Then I tossed the pods, in various stages of drying, into a tray in the greenhouse. In mid-November I shelled some. With ten minutes’ work I had a pound. As you can see, the shelled beans were beautiful, violet speckled with black.
To fully appreciate the beans as food, I decided to serve them plain. I soaked them and boiled them as I would any beans, and then puréed them with a little olive oil, salt, and smoked paprika. With fresh, warm homemade tortillas, this was lunch. The bean purée was greyer than refried pinto beans but delicious, with a smooth, creamy texture and a mild flavor lacking in some beany element that, I realized, I really don’t like.
What was this unbean-like bean? I wanted to know its place in botany, history, and cookery.
Botanists, I learned, call runner beans Phaseolus coccineus. The species name refers to the color of the blossoms—red, like cochineal—although in some varieties the blossoms are white. Unlike Phaseolus vulgaris—regular kidney beans—runner beans are perennial, though outside of the tropics we can grow them only as annuals. In the highlands of southern Mexico and Central America, where the beans originated, the seeds come in many colors—white, pink, purple, and black—and go by frijoles botil, ayacotl, or ayacote (note the similarity of the last two words to the French haricot). The starchy roots get so big in Mesoamerica that they too are used as food, although mine looked too skinny to bother with.
Many American gardeners love the Scarlet Runner bean primarily as a hummingbird attractant, yet this particular variety was developed by the hummingbird-less English, who at first used the flowers in bouquets. John Tradescant the Younger, a botanist who traveled to Virginia between 1628 and 1637, gets credit for introducing the bean to England. I doubt he found it in Virginia at such an early date, although Thomas Jefferson probably grew it much later at Monticello; the French name haricot d’Espagne suggests a more likely path of transmission. A century after the Scarlet Runner came to England, Philip Miller, through his Gardener’s Dictionary, popularized it as food, although he didn’t make clear whether he liked the bean green or shelled.* In any case, when the English eat runner beans today, they are nearly always in the pod.
Phaseolus coccineus is popular in Spain as a dried bean, but usually in a form with white seeds. In Spain you can buy packages of big white runner beans labeled as el judión de La Granja or judión de El Barco for your olla.
Mexico and Central America grow runner beans less than they used to, since the vines don’t fit well with modern monoculture. And Mexican and Central American farmers don’t grow the Scarlet Runner at all, at least not commercially. But they have their own favorite runner-bean varieties. Best known are ayocote morado, with pale lavender flowers and purple seeds, and ayacote negro, with big orange-red flowers and seeds that dry purple-black. Both of these varieties are available for gardeners from a little Missouri company called Azure Dandelion. If you want to taste the beans before planting them, you can order them for $7.25 a pound from California’s Rancho Gordo, which sells not only ayocote morado and ayocote negro but also a yellow-seeded variety, Golden Yellow, and two white-seeded varieties, ayocote blanco and Runner Cannellini bean. The last scored highest of all varieties in a 2010 Seed Savers Exchange bean tasting.
If Americans are now paying $7.25 a pound for imported black, white, and purple runner beans, why aren’t we eating the speckled ones from our gardens? All runner beans, says the Rancho Gordo website, “are great with loads of garlic and wild mushrooms or just as part of a mixed salad. In Mexico, you find them served with a chile sauce or in a soup, but in Europe, you might see them drowned in good fruity olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice before dusting with sea salt.” Isn’t that inspiring?
In December I shelled some more of my runner beans and made this vegetable stew:
Stewed Runner Beans with Tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound onions, cut into wedges
½ cup diced red peppers, sweet or mildly hot
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 quart canned tomatoes, with their juice
3 fennel seeds
2 pinches ground saffron
½ cup chopped parsley
Ground black pepper
12 ounces (about 2 cups) dried Scarlet Runner beans, boiled until tender with a
sprig of sage and a garlic clove
In a large skillet, sauté the onions. Add the peppers and garlic, and sauté until the garlic releases its fragrance. Add the tomatoes, fennel, saffron, and parsley, and twist the pepper mill over the pan two or three times. Break up the tomatoes with a spoon or spatula. When the mixture is hot, add the beans. Boil the mixture about 10 minutes, until it’s suitably thick. Add salt to taste, and serve with bread or rice.
I wish I’d taken a picture of this dish, so you could see how the beans stayed intact and took on a handsome deep red color, somewhere between brick and burgundy. The dish would especially please vegetarians, although it would also be excellent with cooked bacon or sausage slices added toward the end of cooking. And you could vary the seasonings; for example, you might add oregano, cumin, or bay.
Scarlet Runner beans for planting are easy to find. If you prefer, you might choose a closely related cultivar, such as Scarlet Emperor, an English type selected for tasty pods and sold by Nichols, Botanical Interests, and Territorial. Painted Lady Runner bean, with bi-colored red and white blossoms, is available from Kitchen Garden Seeds, and you can buy Sunset Runner bean, with salmon-pink flowers, from Seed Savers Exchange, Pinetree, or Baker Creek.
*”Although this sort is chiefly cultivated for the beauty of its flowers at present, yet I would recommend it as the best sort for the table; and whoever will make trial of this, I dare say must prefer it to all the other kinds yet known.”