Ah, the butter bean. Strange blue creature from my neck of the woods. Wait, blue? Yes. What we in the south call “butter beans” (phaseolus lunatus) are actually a variant of the lima bean (phaseolus limensis). Francine did a lovely cassoulet with lima beans last winter and it reminded me of the chest freezer full of Jackson’s Wonder and Dixie Lee crowder peas back home. So, is it a lima, or a butter bean? It’s both, actually. The terms are interchangable. A dwarf phaseolus lunatus is a limensis or a lima bean. The larger limas have a different taste and are the kind we grew up hating. The butter bean is very creamy and almost buttery tasting and although it’s higher in calories than the lima, it has just as much iron, soluble fiber and protein (14g in one cup!) as its larger cousin.
The Jackson’s Wonder is whats grown all over the south–it’s a dwarf bush bean. Developed by an Atlanta farmer in 1888 in response to folks who were tired of climbing a ladder to harvest pole beans, it makes massive bushes that clump close together. The backs of farm workers everywhere groan together as they bend over and pluck the pods from the low bushes while working their way down rows. If you’re lucky, you only have 10 acres to pick.
I’ve picked my share of beans from our family’s one acre plot of land many times. As a child, I was frequently given the shallow mustard-yellow plastic bowl by my grandmother and told to shell beans. She used this bowl and its green brother for everything from shelling peas to hand washing a shirt. “But you have fingernails,” I protested, noting how she’d slip a fingernail in the seam and rip the pod open, spilling its light green bounty into the bowl. “You’ll figure it out,” she replied, and I did, tearing off a bit of the end and fishing the pod open. I have a distinct memory of doing this with her in June of 1995 while watching the news on her giant RCA console TV to see the unfolding events surrounding the “trial of the century.” It’s funny what food can bring back.
Sometimes, we got lazy and decided to out source the shelling and took them to what’s known as a “packing shed.” This is a warehouse where there’s a special machine that will do the hard work for you. You pay the folks operating it by the bushel. The machine also does pecans. An entire season’s worth of pecans used to run around $125 to be shelled. My memory fails me as to the price of beans and peas, although I’m sure it wasn’t much more.
These beans turn out light green – when blanched for freezing, they become darker. When properly stewed for eating, they turn a deep slate color. Often, my grandmother stewed them with salt pork and then long grain rice was stirred in – a one pot meal. If you can’t find salt pork or fat back, you can use bacon, but the results won’t quite be the same.
First we start with salt pork. This is what my local store carries. My grandmother used something called “butt meat which was all fat. This stuff is fried to become cracklins and pork rinds. Slice off a bit or two and throw it in the pot. Crank the heat to medium high and render it down until you have a nice sheen of fat in the pot. Once it perfumes the entire house and turns crispy, remove it.
Feed this to the dog, or you can eat it. It’s salty but good. This is a 1970s’ Mikasa pattern china that we inherited from a set of grandparents–nice enough for everyday use, unlike some of the avocado/orange patterns you find.
These are our butter beans – from 2006, frozen in the deep freeze and thawed on the counter for a few hours. Yes, I’m preparing five year old beans. They aren’t frost bitten at all and are just fine. This is one quart.
Throw these in the pot with the fat drippings and pour in enough water to cover by an inch. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for one hour.
After an hour, they’re slate grey and very delish. At this point, we add our rice–a cup and a half or so, bring the pot back to a boil, reduce to the lowest heat setting and simmer again for 30 minutes, covered. Cooking rice is about ratios and I know that for fluffy white rice the way I like it, I need 1 cup per every 1 3/4 cup of liquid. So, you have to guesstimate the amount of liquid in your beans in order to add the correct amount of rice. If you discover you’ve added too much, adding water will solve the problem. Too little and you’ll need to add more rice.
Delicious! Best served with lots of black pepper.
Butter Beans and Rice
by Jason Osborne
1 quart butter beans (about 3 cups)
2 pieces salt pork, sliced
1 1/2 cups long grain white rice
Fry salt pork in the pot where the beans will be cooked. Render fat down until crispy. Remove and discard. Add beans to pot and cover with one inch of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for one hour. Remove lid and stir in rice. Bring back to a boil, reduce heat to the lowest setting and cook, covered, for 30 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork and serve with lots of black pepper.
*For a vegeterian or vegan version, replace the salt pork with a seasoning or spice blend of your choice