Last week, I picked up some old fashion heirloom beans to make some Leather Britches. Most folks would just call them dry beans. Those of you who think of them as dry beans have never had the pleasure of tasting old fashioned air-dried beans on a cold November day.
I was looking for some speckled pole beans to dry for a later fall meal. The best time to cook these special treat is for Thanksgiving dinner, with warm turkey and steaming mash potatoes. A bowl of homemade gravy from the turkey drippings and rolls served hot right out of the oven. Even the pilgrims never had it this good. If the Indians had tasted this they would have never gone home.
Dry beans go back to the very first settlers in our country. With no refrigeration available, the only way to preserve food was to salt or pickle it. But, one of the better ways was to dry the food. It was easy to store and, once dried, would last for months.
The good people of West Virginia often hung long strings of beans on their front porch where air could move across them, allowing them to dry. It is important to have good air flow to prevent molding of the beans as they dry. Some believe that if you finish the drying process in the bright sun it would pasteurize the beans, killing bugs and germs before storing.
Over the years, I have heard this style of beans called by different names. Fodder beans, shucky beans, leather britches, and greasy beans. My wife's mother was from the old school of growing and raising food for the family table. I heard her speak of leather britches many times over the years. I never knew what greasy beans were until she explained them to me. She was raised in Tennessee and in that part of the country they raise a bean with a fine shiny skin and no fuzz on the skin of the pods. They are shiny in appearance, thus they were called greasy beans. They are grown in three colors: black, tan, and white.
If you are of a hankering to try your hand at making some leather britches for Thanksgiving dinner, here are my suggestions to help with the process. I would recommend a good heirloom variety. They have a larger bean and thicker skin, in my opinion. The newer varieties that are crossbred have more tender skins with no strings and smaller beans for eating. I tried a few years ago to dry some of that type and the they looked like pine needles when dry. Needless to say, I was disappointed when I looked in the attic for beans for the holiday meal and found strung pine needles.
Once you have found your beans, make sure they are clean and have not been damaged by insects while still on the vines. They should be firm and green and a little past maturity. You can tell this when the beans inside the pod show through boldly. Next, wash and break off the ends. Now, the next step is up to you, break the beans in half or string them whole. I prefer them to be strung whole. The size and type of beans makes a difference as to whether you should break them in half.
After stringing, you need a place to dry them. On the internet when searching how to dry beans, you find some people say a warm dark place and others say in a dry sunlit place. I am of a notion that any place the air can move around them, they will dry. Years ago it was not uncommon to see dry beans hanging on a porch in the air. Air movement is the most important part of the process.
When you first string a half bushel of beans it will look like a lot of beans. But, as they dry they will lose over half their volume. That half bushel of beans is now only a peck and still shrinking. Some people wrap their drying beans in cheese cloth to keep dust and bugs from getting on them.
Drying time can vary, but usually a few weeks and the process is nearly complete. When done they can be left to hang in place or place in dry storage containers for future use.
If you are in a big hurry, beans can be dried in your oven or dehydrator. This hurries the process along, but they don't have the flavor of the air-dried bean. I think they age slowly as the moisture is removed by the air. It is almost like the bean cures as it dries. Like good wine, the aging process makes a difference in the final quality.
After all your hard work and the leaves of summer have all fallen off the trees, it is time to try your leather britches beans. Wash them and let them soak overnight in fresh water. The next day wash them once again just in case a few bugs and dust may have settled in the beans. But a little fine earth dust and dried bugs will not hurt you. In fact, I would guess some purchased store food may be harboring some unwanted protein also.
After soaking and washing once again, begin slowly cooking the beans with a piece of side meat or ham. No matter what you call them-dried, leather britches, fodder, or shucky beans-they have a unique flavor unlike anything you can buy in a store. You will understand after tasting them and why the aging process and curing of the bean is so important. Oven dried or dehydrated beans don't have the time to gain that cured flavor.
Why write about dried beans? Well, it is my way to encourage you to try this old fashioned way of preserving them-a method that most likely your mother or grandmother used to store beans for later use. Also, it is an opportunity for you to sit on your porch and rock as you string them. You will feel the pressures of the world fade for a few minutes as you enjoy this forgotten art of preserving beans.
If you like this old fashioned idea, pick up a half bushel of pickling cucumbers and make a few pints of lime pickles. I'll bet you haven't had any of them in a long time. Mary's calling and telling me the speckled beans are ready for pickin' as I look Through the Lens.