Thursday, October 9, 2014

Secrets of the scarlet runner bean

During a trip to Salzburg in the summer of 2012, I acquired a taste for an Austrian delicacy known as Käferbohnensalat: boiled scarlet runner beans with fresh onion served with a dressing made of salt, pepper, apple cider vinegar, and oil made from the the seeds of naked-seeded pumpkins (Kürbiskernöl). What a treat!

While Austrians may call these delicious legumes Käferbohnen (literally "beetle beans"), Germans call them either Feuerbohnen ("fire beans") or bunte Riesenbohnen ("colorful giant beans"). The Latin name is Phaseolus coccineus.

The English term, scarlet runner bean, describes both the unforgettable color of the blossoms—favored by hummingbirds—and the plant's penchant for climbing up high.

For recipes that call for scarlet runner beans, this ingredient can't be easily replaced by other varieties as the flavorful beans themselves impart a unique taste of chestnut to whatever dish they're added to.
Unfortunately, though, these beans are hard to get in large quantities in the United States. Most are sold in small packages for planting but in Germany and Austria they're plentiful. My last time in Germany I brought back some packages of dried beans bought at a Reformhaus and an organic grocery store (Bioladen).

Austrian purists swear by the pre-cooked canned variety, but by soaking the dried beans for a full day  and cooking them with a little salt in a pressure cooker, you can achieve an even more delicious result.

You can eliminate some of the complex sugars with…um…odor-producing effects by such a long soak and changing the water afterwards. The Austrians may be famous for their music, but let's make sure it's for the likes of Mozart and Haydn.
 This summer I decided to grow some myself. The beans came from Thomas Jefferson's estate Monticello. (Check out their fantastic seed options while you're there). The picture at the top of this post shows the fantastic variation in colors that the beans go through as they mature.

Next time you or someone you know decides to grow scarlet runner beans, remember that these plants aren't only valuable as ornaments but also offer a delectable fall treat!

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