A good mess of butterbeans will please

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 20, 2012

Butterbeans are my favorite bean but they are not readily available in the grocery. We grow ours, and they are still producing in the late fall. We grow the large speckled calico, a pole lima. We are fortunate enough to have some permanent metal poles with fencing, and they work great for these prolific vines.

The vines would make a good arbor cover. Nice cover and edible, too. Some people prefer the smaller white limas and Henderson bush (1889) is a popular bush lima and comes in earlier.

At one time, hundreds of different shell beans grew in the South. Perhaps the most lauded are the butterbeans. They can be speckled, green or white. The name “butterbean” is relatively recent. “When properly cooked the beans melt in your mouth into creamy, buttery goodness – thus the name butterbeans,” says Sheri Castle in the New Southern Garden Cookbook.

I recently obtained a copy of A Rich Spot of Earth about Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary garden at Monticello by Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds at Monticello since 1977. He discusses the vegetables grown and provides a great history of the different vegetables in early America and cultivation techniques as well. The title of the lima bean section is “The New Southern Cuisine.” Lima beans were a hot weather favorite of Jefferson and among the most conspicuous vegetables in the garden during the steamy, late-summer months. Lima beans are native to South America but were grown by Virginia Indians. They were known as bushel, sugar or butter beans and Jefferson even called them honey beans. Jefferson grew a smaller and more tender lima, the Carolina White. A larger sort was obtained from a Capt. Hilton of Jamaica and was the chief type planted in his retirement garden. Mary Randolph recommended boiling young lima beans until tender, then serving them in a “boat” of melted butter. A frequently mentioned Monticello recipe was for Spanish olla, a spicy version of Brunswick stew, which called for lima beans blended with other vegetables and chicken, pork, or beef.

Lima beans are a distinctly American product, suited to the warmth of the Southern summer and difficult to successfully grow in the north.

Frank Stitt in his Southern Table notes that butter beans are highly prized in the South. He says the speckled butter beans may look prettier at the market but their flavor is not nearly as fine as that of the green ones. “When picked young and cooked soon afterward, butter beans have a delicacy to be treasured.”

From Frank Stitt’s cookbook, Southern Table


Serves 8-10 as a side dish

6 cups water

1 onion, quartered

1 bay leaf

4 thyme sprigs, plus a scattering for garnish

4 savory sprigs, plus a scattering of leaves for garnish

Kosher salt

1 pound small green butter beans, picked over and rinsed

2 tablespoons fruity extra virgin olive oil, bacon fat, or unsalted butter, melted


Freshly cracked black pepper

Combine the water, onion, herbs, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook gently for 15 minutes. Add the beans, adjust the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook until the beans are just tender, 15-20 minutes. Taste for seasoning, and add salt if necessary.

Remove the pan from the heat and let the beans rest in their liquid for 10 minutes.

Serve sprinkled with the herbs and drizzled with olive oil. Finish with cracked black pepper.

Sheri Castle in her cookbook, The New Southern Garden Cookbook, has a recipe for creamed butter beans. She tells in her comments that if she falls seriously ill she wants her loved ones to bring her a bowl of these divine butter beans and lift them to her lips in a silver spoon. They are her favorite bean also.


Creamed Butterbeans

Makes 6 servings

3 cups freshly shelled butter beans

Kosher salt, to taste

1 cup crème fraîche

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

Thoroughly rinse the beans in several changes of water until the water stays clear, discarding any bits of leaves, hulls, or vine. Place the beans in a large, heavy saucepan and cover with cold water to a depth of 1 inch. Add ½ teaspoon kosher salt per cup of water. Bring to a boil and skim off the foam. (You might need to skim once or twice more during cooking. The foam comes from the natural sugars and proteins in the beans.) Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the beans are tender but not mushy or breaking apart, 15-30 minutes, depending on their freshness.

Remove from the heat and taste one of the beans. If needed, stir in more salt. Set the beans aside for at least 15 minutes to give them time to absorb the salt. Drain and return the beans to the pan.

Add the crème fraîche and stir until it melts, enrobing the beans and creating a wonderful sauce.

Generously season the beans with lots of black pepper and more salt, if needed. Stir in the thyme and serve warm.