Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food (1st Ed., 1999) writes that when the scarlet runner bean was introduced from the Americas to England in the 1600s it was first prized by the court of Charles I for its brilliant flowers. Over the centuries the runner bean became a mainstay of the British garden, running teepees of bamboo sticks and growing pods of considerable size.
At maturity the seeds of the runner bean are sometimes known in North America as ‘butter beans’. When very young they resemble French (‘haricot’) beans, that are ubiquitous in the US and Canada. But it’s at the point in between when runner beans are, in this humble scribe’s opinion, the best. And it’s at this medium size that they fit into a standard runner bean shredder (see picture at right).
The shredded beans transform the tough pod into a light and elegant vegetable and, I think, some how enhance the runners’ ‘beaniness’. They also become the perfect foil for a sauce, especially one made from the fresh tomatoes that are now coming off the field. The beans cook quickly in boiling water or a steamer, so I usually do them last. First I make the simplest tomato sauce I can: olive oil, garlic and chopped up tomatoes – torn basil leaves come later when I am just about to serve. The shredded runners become a sort of vegetable pasta to the sauce and the natural sweetness and tartness of the tomatoes balances so well with the grassy-greeness of the beans. Summer on a plate.
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the not-for-profit corporation which publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley