If you think you don't like butter beans, I challenge you to try this: pick up a package of fresh or frozen South Carolina-grown butter beans from a grocery store or farmers market, put them in a heavy pot, cover them with water, and toss in a ham hock or smoked turkey leg (or not) along with a sprig or two of any fresh herb and a pinch of salt and pepper. Then gently simmer the butter beans until they're just tender. When they are, reach in with a spoon and have a taste. If you don't enjoy those savory, hearty, buttery beans straight out of the pot — or even tossed with a little olive oil and vinegar and served over rice — well, I can't help you.
Native to the Americas, lima beans (phaseolus lunatas) were first encountered by Europeans in Lima, Peru (hence, of course, the name). From then on, mostly influenced by African-American slaves in the kitchens of Carolina rice plantations, limas became a quintessentially Southern ingredient. Even today, their identity is distinctly Southern.
Whether you call them butter beans, lima beans, or shell beans, these protein and fiber-rich legumes make for some seriously good eating. Lima beans are versatile and can be cooked in an infinite variety of ways: stirred into soups and stews, tossed into salads and made into dips, even worked into burritos and quesadillas in the same way other beans can be.
Lucky for us, limas love heat and are grown here throughout much of the year. When they're not available fresh, they freeze and dry well, making them available year-round.
Joseph Fields of Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island has been reliably growing limas for years and offers both the green and speckled varieties at the farmers markets from early spring until late fall. I like to stock up on Fields' limas in the summer. To freeze, rinse them well, dry by rolling them up in a big kitchen towel, put in a freezer bag, and freeze so you can enjoy them in the winter, too.
St. George farmer Stanly Gruber of Gruber Farms is offering local butter beans as part of his CSA this fall. Gruber is a family CSA farm that's been in operation for 60 years. He planted a crop in the middle of August and they started producing in late September and early October.
"What we do is we hand pick them and have a machine that shells them. Then we bag them and put them on ice. When we get to the drop sites we put them in the CSA baskets," Gruber says. "They can be a little bit tricky to grow, but it's worth it. I grew up on them. We freeze them and eat them year round. As far as I'm concerned, the speckled ones just have a little bit stronger taste. Unlike the green butter beans, the speckled ones turn brown when you cook them."
Charleston chefs love to take advantage of the abundant lima and have a long history of cooking with them. Josh Keeler, owner and chef at Two Boroughs Larder, will be working them into different dishes all season long.
"We use them because they're versatile," Keeler offers. "They're kind of like a canvas that we shape however we want. I like butter beans in our pickled shrimp salad recipe because they give good color and good textural contrast. You have the crunch from the apple and the radish, and the butter beans give their own smooth texture to the dish. And, of course, the flavor is great."
Cookbook author Holly Herrick loves to cook with them, too. "Butter beans have a mild flavor and a meaty texture, so they play with a virtually endless combination of flavors, from goat cheese to bacon," she says in her popular Southern Farmers Market Cookbook. Herrick's recipe for Butter Bean and Grape Tomato Bruschetta exemplifies that versatility — and it's just plain good.
Alluette Jones-Smalls, owner and chef at Alluette's Café on Reid Street downtown, is a lima bean aficionado. A native of Old Mt. Pleasant, Jones was local and organic before it was fashionable. "We grew up on the land," she says. Unlike traditional lima bean cookery in the Gullah tradition, which requires lots of pork flavoring, Jones likes to cook her limas vegetarian style. "I think pork deters the true bean taste," she says. Her lima bean soup is a local favorite. "I just eliminated the pork and continued on with the seasonings my grandmother used." The soup's flavor is clean and savory, a celebration of the lima and of the Lowcountry.
Pickled Shrimp Salad
From Josh Keeler at Two Boroughs Larder
4 lemons, juiced and zested
1 lb. 16/20 wild-caught S.C. shrimp
1 c. rice wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
4 whole cloves
4 whole star anise
6 c. water
1 c. white wine
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of fresh thyme
1 Asian pear, julienned
1 Golden Delicious apple, julienned
½ Palmetto sweet onion, julienned
1½ c. cooked green butter beans
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. minced chives
1 Tbs. minced tarragon
Zest and juice four lemons into medium-sized mixing bowl. Add rice wine vinegar, garlic, shallots, cloves, and star anise. Let rest in refrigerator, and peel the shrimp. Bring six cups of water with white wine, black peppercorns, bay leaf, and thyme to a boil in a medium pot. When mixture is boiling, blanch peeled and de-veined shrimp for 40 seconds. You are not cooking the shrimp — just setting the color. Remove the shrimp from boiling liquid and immediately submerge them in ice water to stop the cooking. Remove the shrimp from the ice water and slice in half lengthwise. Add cut shrimp to lemon and rice wine vinegar mixture. Let sit at least four hours, but preferably overnight. The acid in the lemon juice and vinegar will finish cooking the shrimp. Bring four cups of seasoned water to a boil in a medium pot and cook butter beans until tender but not mushy. Remove butter beans from water and cool until salad assembly. Thinly julienne the pear, apple, and sweet onion and mix with butter beans, chives, tarragon, olive oil, shrimp, and 3 Tbs. of marinade. (Serves 4.)
Butter Bean and Grape Tomato Bruschetta
From Southern Farmers Market Cookbook (Gibbs Smith, June 2009) by Holly Herrick
For the Salad:
2 c. water
3 Tbs. salt
1 c. fresh butter beans
¼ c. good quality extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ medium red onion, finely chopped
½ c. quartered (lengthwise) grape tomatoes, or finely chopped regular tomato
2 Tbs. red wine vinegar
2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbs. chopped fresh basil
1 tsp. finely grated lemon, orange, or lime zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper
For the Toast:
1 country-style baguette
3 Tbs. good-quality extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
Bring the water and salt to a boil in a medium pot. Add the beans, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until crisp-tender, about 25 minutes depending on freshness. Drain in a colander, rinsing thoroughly with cold water. In a large bowl, combine the cooked beans with remaining salad ingredients. Season carefully and taste to verify seasoning. Cover and allow to marinate at room temperature up to four hours or refrigerate overnight and bring back to room temperature before serving.
To prepare the toast, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut the baguette into ¼-inch-thick slices at a diagonal angle. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with half of the oil, season generously with salt and pepper, turn over, and repeat on the other side. Place in the center rack of the oven. Bake until golden brown, about five to eight minutes, turn over, and repeat, being careful not to burn the toast. Remove from the oven. While still warm, rub both sides of each toast with the smashed garlic.
To serve, spoon about two tablespoons of the butter bean salad on each warm toast. Arrange on a large platter and garnish with fresh parsley or basil points. Serve immediately. (Makes about 16-20 servings.)
NOTE: The bruschetta toast can be prepared up to one day in advance, cooked and stored in an airtight container. To "crisp" the toasts, reheat in a 450-degree oven for just a few minutes and serve as outlined above.