They come in three sizes, almost like people -- baby, medium and big and tough. That's the lima bean, born in the Andes of South America at least 8,000 years ago, packed with nutrition and sometimes neglected in favor of more glamorous legumes.
I think that's sad, because late summer and early fall are the heyday of this bean. Limas from the great York-Lancaster fields in Pennsylvania are shipped out to Middle Atlantic custom-type greengrocers and supermarket chains, and they are wonderful eating, indeed.
Expensive, but worth the price, for it will take about 3 pounds of limas in the shell to feed four people. That's about a $3 investment in a vegetable that many cooks pass up, or serve only packaged, frozen or dried.
The fresh bean is a different animal. Limas
will average about $2 a pint shelled but they are worth it in hearty but mildly spiced dishes that go along with the first cold snaps of fall.
The favorite accompaniment for fresh limas in cookbooks of the experts has traditionally been dill. I also sometimes favor whispers of thyme and oregano with the mature bean. The lima has an affinity for being served with fresh fruit and for being bedded down in chilled salads, among its trendier notes in the more mod cuisines. And it also can be a stand-in for anything that its cousin beans can do.
Many cooks are fans only of the pre-shelled, frozen baby lima. These are fine and delicate and cook almost as fast as an egg, but they are like a young wine that is going places eventually -- fine for the salad or the bland dinner plate, but only a hint of the mature item. The dried bean is also a pet of knowing and economical cooks who, however, tend to overdo these bargain protein givers in soup preparation and neglect its role in dips and baked preparations. (A can of limas, to me, is a bean graveyard -- but it can be given a delicious turn. See below.)
Nothing is easier than freezing fresh limas. All you need is salt water, a pot, a cookie sheet and something in which to store these luscious things. Bring a big pot to full boil, add the fresh beans slowly and blanch at full boil for 2 to 3 minutes, depending on the size of the beans. Drain and dump into ice water. Dry on towels or in the air and freeze on flat pans or cookie sheets. Store in tight containers or zippered storage bags. Some home gardeners skip the blanching, which seems to work fine if you are freezing them for use in the near future.
By a mile, the most popular use of limas in American cuisine is with the making of succotash, the New England specialty that spread through the northern tier of states in the 19th century and everywhere else in the 20th. For a quickie version of this overworked classic, simple pre-cook 10 ounce packages of corn and baby limas, blending them in a pan with a top with some sauteed onions, 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter, some heavy cream and some diced pimiento. Slowly heat with the top on; simmer about two or three minutes and serve.
John Thorne, the culinary master of "Simple Cooking" (Penguin Books, 1987, $9.95) believes succotash should be escorted with "dead ripe" tomatoes. (For his succotash version see below.) It's an adaptation of succotash as it is in Molly Finn's "Summer Feasts," Mr. Thorne reports and it's made with the north country's cranberry bean (a medium-sized legume) or limas. For limas I would increase the weight of beans bought by 50 percent, since lima shells are notoriously thick and heavy. One of the traditional north country versions of limas calls for cooking the beans with corn or alone in molasses or dark sugar syrups. In French cuisine, the lima's European equivalent, the flageolet, is served with gutsy lamb gravies and cuts of meat.
I steam fresh limas in the top layer of a big three-decker steamer of oriental type, dusting them at the start with about three pinches each of oregano and thyme and a little garlic salt. For frozen, either from the store or home freezer, I simmer the rascals about six or seven minutes in a large frying pan with water to cover. I also make a sort of lima bean hoppin' John by blending rice boiled in salty chicken stock and drained with limas, cooked in unsalted water.
A final hint: Do not salt lima bean water; it toughens the skins. Some high-falutin' chefs actually peel limas after blanching, but this seems to me to be overkill.
The following are some novel ways to use both the seasonal delicacy and the year-round processed lima:
The handy touch of molasses is the secret ingredient in this formula from "Mrs. Chard's Almanac Cookbook Hollyhocks and Radishes," by Bonnie Stewart Michelson (Pickle Point Publishing Company, $13.95). Michigan's idyllic Upper Peninsula is where the sweet lima makes a home. This version can be made a day ahead and reheated.
Bess's butter beans
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
-- of salt
4 15-ounce cans butter or lima beans, drained