The season for shellies is fairly short, starting in late July and running through late October. Between green beans and dried beans there is a short but magical time where the pod we normally eat has thinned and dried and the seeds have enlarged but are not yet dry. These beans are often referred to as shelling beans, or simply “shellies.” They cook up easily and have a flavor all their own but easily take on other flavors.Beans are another crop native to the Americas and are part of the trinity Native Americans refer to as “the Three Sisters” that helped sustain tribes through the year. Corn was grown first, then beans were sown and the vines climbed the corn stalks, while squash was planted between the cornrows and grew on the ground. All of these plants had things in common; they could all be eaten fresh, but more importantly, they could all be dried and used through the rest of the year.
Just as various dried beans have different flavors and textures, so do shellies. Shellies have a lighter flavor and feel less dense than dried beans in a dish. Some shellies have a creamy texture, while others have a slightly denser texture sometimes described as meaty. Some beans are very tender on the outside, while others have a firmer outside and almost “pop” when bitten. Flavors range from lightly sweet to “beany” to a hard-to-describe, umami-laden cross between mushrooms and meat. No matter what the bean flavor profile, it is never really loud. If you want to make the beans the star, keep other flavors simpler and milder. On the other hand, shellies are a great foil to robust or spicy flavors with their low key flavors and dense and soothing texture.
How to Select
When selecting shellies, look for beans where the beans inside the pod show definition — they should be plump, without a lot of blanks or “rat tails’ to the ends. Avoid any limp pods, pods showing decay, or pods that are very yellow. A little yellow is okay, but the colors of the pod should have good definition. If the colors are a little muted, these are good, as it means they are probably sweeter and tender when it comes to cranberry or Dragon Tongue beans. The pods should feel leathery or tough, never slimy or tacky. Look for beans that dense, or heavy for their size.
How to Store
Shellies have a short lifespan in the refrigerator since they are prone to mildew. Store them in a brown bag or wrap in paper towels and then a loose plastic bag so they do not “sweat.” Good air circulation is important, so give them room. You can also shuck them and freeze them raw, or some chefs will cook them until almost done in light broth, then drain, cool, and freeze them in zip-top freezer bags.
When cooking, if adding to something as foil, season the cooking liquid lightly. If the beans are the “star” of the dish, cook in a well-flavored liquid until tender, then season with salt and pepper later in the cooking process. Remove beans from heat before they are completely soft or you may over cook them. And be sure to never boil them, as this can render the beans mushy and will muffle the flavor. All beans will turn duller with cooking, so keep that in mind if you are buying beans for their spectacular colors.
A word of caution — do not eat raw shellies as they contain linamarin, which interferes with digestion and can be fatal to children.
Look for cranberry beans, Dragons Tongues, borlotti, and others at Webb’s, Mello-Dy Ranch, Pinnacle, T & L Coke Farm, and enjoy this short seasoned produce.