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Fresh Shell Bean Gratin

Anthony Boutard is a bean fanatic. He inspired me to grow fresh shelling beans by providing the seed from some of his favorite varieties.

Eaten in the fresh stage, shelling beans are one of the real pleasures of summer. Most people shy away from them because of the extra work of shelling, but, at this stage, they are melt-in-your-mouth wonderful, a completely different experience than eating the same varieties dried. If you can, seek out someone growing a range of European and American shelling beans, and experiment with different types.

This recipe was adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables, by Alice Waters, and it's a real crowd pleaser. This one is made with sage, but you can also use marjoram, oregano, basil, or rosemary (sparingly). This version doesn't call for any spice, but try adding a good pinch of hot pepper, or get out the preserved peppers and pass them at the table.

2 1/2 to 3 pounds fresh shell beans (about 3 cups shelled)
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
1 small onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 fresh sage leaves, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 cup fresh bread crumbs

Serves 4 to 6

Shell the beans and discard any discolored or shriveled beans. You should end up with about 3 cups shelled beans. (The yield will vary depending on the variety.) Rinse the beans in cold water and put them in a medium saucepan with water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring the water to a boil, skimming off any foam that floats to the surface, and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer the beans, stirring occasionally, until tender, 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the variety and maturity. If the beans start to peek through the liquid during the cooking process, add a splash more water. Remove from the heat and season the bean liquid with salt-the beans will absorb the salt gradually. Set the beans aside to cool slowly in the cooking liquid.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Warm a medium sauté pan over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the onion. Season with salt and cook until the onion is tender, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and sage and sauté just until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, season again with salt, and cook for 1 to 2 more minutes, until the tomatoes are softened.

Drain the cooled beans, reserving the liquid. Combine the beans in a gratin dish with the onion and tomato mixture and stir to combine. Add enough of the bean-cooking water to almost cover. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, if necessary. Combine the bread crumbs with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle them over the beans in an even layer. Bake until the juices are bubbling at the edges and the bread crumbs are evenly browned, about 45 minutes. Serve warm.


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