Fresh Legumes

Two of the most popular groups in the legume family are pod legumes and shell legumes, commonly known as beans and peas. Early spring delivers these gifts from the garden in vivid splashes of sweet-smelling green to your farmers' market. Fun to nibble on straight out of the garden, these springtime delicacies often appear in soups and salads or can be the star of your favorite stir-fry dish.

Fresh legumes are harvested when young and tender—in most cases, the younger, the better. When shell legumes are grown to full maturity, their fully developed inner seeds can be dried and are often sold this way.

Long a garden staple, pod legumes, such as green beans, are consumed whole, including the outer pod and inner seeds. Only the inner seeds of shell legumes can be eaten; the pod is discarded. Popular varieties of fresh shell legumes include fava beans and lima beans.

Choose legumes with crisp, smooth, glossy, bright green pods. Avoid any that are wilted, dried, puffy or blemished.

For the sweetest-flavored peas and the crispest beans, purchase fresh legumes from a farmers' market. Often canned legumes have a tinny taste and a soft, mushy texture. Frozen legumes are a better alternative to canned ones, especially if they will be cooked with other ingredients.

Because their natural sugar begins converting to starch immediately after they are picked, peas should be prepared and eaten as soon as possible, preferably the day of purchase. They will stay crisp for 3 to 4 days if stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator but are likely to lose their characteristic sweetness after a day.

Fresh beans will keep for up to 5 days if refrigerated in a perforated plastic bag. They are best, however, when eaten within 2 days of purchase, as their "snap" diminishes with time.

Legumes can be boiled, steamed, or added to soups and stews. Pod legumes are often sautéed or stir-fried. Whatever recipe you choose, it is important not to overcook legumes.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)