Green beans and peas are a seasonal summer treat, starting with broad beans in April and continuing with peas, French and runner beans all through the summer until the first frosts in October.
You might be wondering why we’re calling these a summer treat when beans are available all year round in the supermarkets. If you look a little closer, you’ll see that most of our supermarket beans have been air freighted 3,600 miles from Kenya. Food miles aside, Kenyan beans are often grown with artificial fertilizers and pesticides and require plentiful water in a country where water is often scarce.
For these reasons and more we recommend you enjoy beans when they’re in season in your country so that you can buy locally and eat them at their freshest. Better still, grow them yourself. Here in Britain the summer climate is perfectly suited to growing beans and peas. The plants are beautiful, particularly runner beans with their bright red flowers. It’s enormously gratifying to pick fresh beans and peas when they are crisp and naturally sweet.
When buying beans at the shop, be sure to choose bright green pods. As soon as peas have been picked, the sugars start turning to starch, so if you want your peas sweet they must be freshly picked. Alternatively buy frozen peas that they say are frozen within 2 hours of picking!
So which beans to choose? Here's a guide to our favourite summer beans and peas…
In French ‘mangetout’ means to eat it all. They are one of the easiest pea varieties to grow, but do need to be supported with canes. Pick them just as the peas are beginning to develop and keep on picking - the more you pick the more they will produce. Lovely to eat raw in salads or lightly steamed.
Sugar snaps are a cross between a snow pea and a mutant shell pea. The size is between that of pea pods and mangetout and are eaten whole. As they are eaten whole make sure they are crisp and young. When cooking, remove the top and string if necessary. I like to treat them like asparagus, when the asparagus season is finished, and lightly steam them and dip them in home-made mayonnaise.
Broad beans are the traditional European bean. Prior to the conquest of the Americas broad beans were the only green beans grown in Europe.
Broad beans can be planted out in the autumn and are ready by April a good two months before runner and French beans. Alternatively, plant in March and crop in May.
Young broad beans can make a tasty and unusual tapas - serve pods of baby broad beans for your guests to pod themselves along with an aperitif. Fresh baby broad beans are so sweet and vibrantly green, but the season is short, so it’s not long before the broad beans become tough and starchy and you have to peel them. One kilo of fresh broad beans in the pod, when podded will end up at about 350g. If they need peeling, you are down to only 250g.
French beans come in different colours: green, yellow and purple (though the purple ones lose their colour in cooking and annoyingly turn green, too!). French beans are easy to grow - I like the bush varieties for small gardens. You will need a few plants for a generous crop and if you are organized with succession planting you can be picking up to the first frosts.
Runner beans were originally grown for their flowers. From the common red flowers to beautiful white flowers as pretty as sweet peas. Runner beans must be fresh enough to snap rather than bend, so pick them when they are small and then you can eat them raw or blanched with no need to string them. As they get older they need stringing, take the string out with a knife and top them, but no need to tail them. You can buy hand held bean slicers where you just pull the beans through. Runner bean chutney is surprisingly good!
Popular in China, Japan and Korea, edamame are basically immature soya beans. In Japan, whole pods are boiled and then served with salt - you suck the beans out of the pods. Here you can buy frozen pods in Asian stores and supermarkets sell podded edamame. Edamame contain around 12% protein and provides all the amino acids so it’s a great protein source for vegetarians.
Either steam or boil edamame and use them in Asian recipes or treat them like peas.
Read on for our favourite recipes using beans and peas.
Delicious food photography by Rob Wicks of Eat Pictures.
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