We all have those foods we turn to, without elaborate planning or complex execution, when we want to feel taken care of. We don’t worry that they won’t turn out, because they always do. Time and time again, they fill us with warmth. For me, it is a pot of lima beans.
Whether you find this prospect delightful or horrifying, you have company. Among polarizing foods, lima beans top the list: People respond to them with total glee or pure vitriol, with some uncommon ambivalence in between.
What’s interesting to me about this is that along with chickpeas, limas are some of the least beany tasting of beans, with a flavor that fans describe as nutty and sweet. But overcook them, and they can turn bitter and sulfurous, not unlike other oft-maligned foods, such as Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Their texture, too, can pose a challenge. As I surveyed lima bean preferences recently, texture surfaced as the common thread, regardless of preparation or source, and one person’s love (“so mushy and yummy”) was another’s aversion (“starchy and smushy”).
I’ve known plenty of lima bean converts won over by fresh beans shucked from flat, fuzzy, jade-colored pods. Cooked just until tender, they are not unlike fresh fava beans: smooth and creamy in texture, without the graininess or mealy dryness that sometimes plagues frozen or canned beans.
But fresh limas, with their precious short season, are not the regular on my stove. It’s dried limas — perennially available no matter where you live, bearing more in common with a dried gigante (popular in Greek cooking) or great northern bean (a white bean that’s plumper than a navy). And I’ve wondered if, for the lima bean averse, they might actually offer some reconciliation. The reason is starch, the same characteristic that seems to put so many people off from frozen, canned and even fresh limas. As the dried beans cook, that starch goes from chalky to creamy, yielding tender, velvety beans in a creamy, buttery-tasting suspension.
Mexico was where the small-seeded limas many Southern cooks call butterbeans were born. But in Peru, birthplace of the larger limas, cooks harness this starchy quality in two reverential treatments: in one, soaking the beans in water overnight, then peeling the thin skin before cooking them into a velvety puree; in another, cooking the skinned limas with milk and sugar into a version of the caramel sauce dulce de leche.
All the same, I would insist that limas don’t really need coddling. My own approach is to cook them lazily and minimally, with just a little salt, a bay leaf and some olive oil, until they begin to break down and the cooking liquid is thick and rich. I make a huge batch, because one meal is never enough.
The first night, we serve them in their broth in small bowls, sprinkled with chopped onion and fresh black pepper, corn bread at the ready. The next night, I may thin them with a little water for soup, stirring in whatever is most compelling at the moment: ribbons of escarole or chopped turnip greens, or slivered green onions and fistfuls of parsley and dill. Another day later, when the beans have thickened just enough, I’ll warm them over low heat, spread them over a slice of broiled crusty bread, drizzle them with olive oil and spoon on a heap of braised greens.
In the recipe variations that follow, I’ve offered a few additional turns. One is for an earthy, smoky ancho chile pesto edged with garlic, pumpkin seeds and marjoram, to be whorled into the beans upon serving. Two more versions elevate the beans to soup, both streaked with emerald green: one leaning toward Tunisia, with chard and cilantro, sharpened with fiery harissa; another toward Iran, with a bouquet’s worth of chopped parsley, dill and slivered scallions, tinged gold with a turmeric bloom.
Cooking the basic beans involves some commitment, if only to be present for a couple of hours while they bubble on the stove. Beyond a stir every now and then, they take care of themselves. Better, they don’t suffer a nick for being made in advance, becoming thicker and creamier with time. You can thin them with a little water if you like, but some folks prefer them this way, the better for sopping with one edible utensil or another.
Although I suggest using dried baby lima beans for their quicker cooking time, the preparation is flexible. Larger limas and beans with a little age on them will still yield delicious results; they just may take a little longer to cook. Likewise, heirloom varieties (and there are many — speckled and splotched and mottled with color) certainly won’t disappoint, but neither will basic commodity beans. I have made equally delicious pots with limas from the bulk bins and from bags squirreled away in the back of my mother’s pantry, age and provenance unknown.
They are there for me every time.