Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

1,001 Arabian Bites: Beans should never be taken for granted

I didn't know how much I missed beans until I moved away from home.

Beautiful beans are like the girl or boy next door: friendly, familiar and often taken for granted.

Available to almost everyone, beans are easy enough to ignore, but life just isn’t as good or as simple in their absence. I didn’t know how much I loved beans until I moved away from home and had the chance to miss them. And then they were right there, waiting for me to discover them again.

There are fresh beans you can eat whole – think string beans such as haricots verts and their more conventionally full-figured cousins – and then there are shell beans, which must first be freed from their leathery husks, such as fava (broad) and lima (butter) beans.

If favas are very young, you can trim the tops and tails and sauté, grill or fry them whole, but most are too mature to eat this way by the time they hit the market.

Other fresh beans you might be tempted to shell are actually perfectly edible once you’ve deveined them of the fibrous floss that runs up their spines.

The United States and France are held captive by the irrational conviction that favas can only be enjoyed after the tedious process of popping each bean from its skin after it has been plucked from the pod it shares with seven siblings. More hot-blooded cultures – Italian, Spanish, Lebanese, Greek and British – don’t bother and that is to the beans’ advantage, as well as the cook’s.

In June, I will happily shuck fava beans tableside, dropping those plump little pearls into bowls of the greenest olive oil, then spooning them straight into my mouth.

In the Middle East, most fava beans are dried and then canned or sold in bulk as the base for ful medames, the Arab world’s best-loved breakfast dish.

Typically, the cooked beans are partially mashed and then served on a platter showered with olive oil, onions, garlic, lemon juice, parsley and cumin, and sometimes accompanied by eggs, cucumber, rocket and pickled vegetables. Lots of bread is the key here – ful is the beaniest of bean preparations and a little goes a long way.

“Fasolia” is a broad Greek term borrowed by Arabs, Turks and Ethiopians for bean dishes that are usually stewed well beyond the point of tenderness and coated in a savoury stew of aromatics. In Ethiopian cuisine, fasolia is a mild mash-up of beans, carrots and caramelised onions. In the Levant, Italian flat or Romano beans are used in loubia b’zeit – or “green beans with oil” – a rich side dish of floppy green beans that grow deep olive as they simmer with tomatoes and herbs until they collapse under the weight of their own magnificence.

String beans with some snap have equal merits, whether as a pickle or a bean salad. Nut and seed oils whisked into vinaigrettes are especially good as a dressing on these and they are as tasty warm as they are cold.

Last week, friends who grow their own beans brought me a tangle of Dragon Tongues – yellow and violet-speckled wax beans. I blanched them in salted boiling water, drained them and shocked them in ice-water before a quick sauté with lemon zest, shallots and crushed red peppers.

Off the heat, they were drizzled with butternut squash-seed oil and white balsamic vinegar to make the ultimate summery-snack alternative to French fries.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico

Updated: September 3, 2014 04:00 AM

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