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Seasonal Pantry: The fleeting pleasure of shell beans

During a narrow window in late summer and early fall, those of us who shop at farmers markets enjoy a special seasonal treat, fresh shell beans. These are the beans that, left on the bush a week or two longer, become the dried beans that we know so well.

Fresh shell beans are, by nature, a fleeting pleasure, just as their cousins, fresh fava beans, are in mid-spring.

Several vendors currently have fresh shell beans. The ones I have seen have already been shelled and packaged in plastic bags but I am not going to name the vendors, as none have a big supply. You need to be your own detective this time.

Unlike their dry counterparts, fresh shell beans should not be soaked before they are cooked, they should be salted; they don't take as long to become fully tender. They have a lovely creamy texture that dried beans, no matter how good they are, lack.

One of the best ways to enjoy fresh shell beans is simply. All you need to do is cook them in salted water — add a bay leaf and half an onion if you like — until they are tender and then let them cool slightly, in their water. They are delicious just like this, absolutely unadorned. They are also delicious with a scoop of rice, polenta or small pasta; a splash of the best olive oil or good vinegar; chopped fresh tomatoes; a spoonful of creme fraiche or cheese and minced herbs - parsley, perhaps, or cilantro. A slice of crusty hearth bread is great for sopping up juices and if you like things spicy, add a few shakes of Tabasco, Crystal or your favorite Mexican hot sauce.

You can make a more substantial dish by adding cooked sliced sausage to the finished beans, with or without a scoop of rice.

With beans this delicious, all you need for a complete meal is a big green salad and, if you're really hungry, some sliced tomatoes. But don't wait; if you do, they'll be just a memory until this time next year.

This recipe combines an old California recipe from the ranchero days for Spanish rice with the fresh shell beans currently and briefly in season. The combination results in a dish not entirely unlike New Orleans-style red beans and rice, though it is lighter and creamier.

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