If you guessed that Lima beans are so called because they came from Lima, Peru, and Navy beans because they were important to the navy, then you would be in pretty close agreement with the folk who think deeply about these things. I will get to navy beans another day, in this post I want to focus on the Lima.
Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus) did not come exactly, specifically, from the capital city of Peru, but they certainly originated in the South American subcontinent, where they had been cultivated for millennia before citizens of the Old World turned up in the closing decade of the fifteenth century. Close enough was good enough for Europeans a couple of centuries later, who associated it with the city of Lima - and so the name stuck.
There are two main types of Phaseolus lunatus, a small seeded type called Sieva, and a large seeded type, generally called the Lima – or in some places, the butter bean or chad bean. In many areas, the beans are known only, or mostly, in their dried or canned form. This is reassuring, in a way, as raw Lima beans contain a compound called linamarin, which, under the influence of digestive enzymes, results in the production of cyanide, which we all know from watching old spy movies, is highly poisonous. Thorough boiling (as with the dried beans, or during the canning process) inactivates this compound, making the beans safe to eat. I have no idea how significant this is in real life – if anyone has actually died from eating too many raw beans – but will endeavour to find out and will let you know. In the meanwhile, I give you a few Lima bean gleanings from nineteenth century newspapers.
Salad of Lima Beans.
Put some lima beans, potatoes and beans (all boiled tender) on ice, and a short time before serving, cut the potatoes and beets into rather thin slices, add the beans, and dress with oil, pepper, salt, and vinegar. Garnish with a few watercresses.
Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye of October 16, 1880.
The following recipe appears to use the beans as a thickener, which is interesting, and indicates that dried, pre-cooked beans are used:
Asparagus and Beans.
Cut the tender parts of asparagus in ½ [?] inch lengths, boil in an equal quantity of water, adding about an equal amount of well-cooked Lima beans. Cook until the asparagus is tender, and serve warm. Instead of the beans, the asparagus may be thickened with flour or with cracker crumbs.
The Decatur Local Review July 8, 1875
And here we have a very minimalist recipe for lima bean soup.
Dried Lima Bean Soup.
Soak one quart Lima beans overnight; the following day boil them until tender; drain and press them through a colander; put them over the fire with a pint of veal stock; put a pint of milk on the fire, and when it boils, thicken it with two tablespoonfuls of flour rubbed into one of butter; stir until it thickens, and then add it to the stock, and season with salt and pepper; let it boil up once; add the beaten yolks of two eggs and serve.
The Weekly Wisconsin, May 17, 1890
Quotation for the Day.
I like refried beans. That's why I wanna try fried beans, because maybe they're just as good and we're just wasting time. You don't have to fry them again after all.
I did not know about the problem with eating raw lima beans! As a child, about 7 or 8 years old, I was given lima beans to shell - and I started eating the shelled beans, one after the other. I don't know how many never reached the dinner table, but I do know that I can't abide lima beans now as an adult!
I once gave myself food poisoning but not cooking red kidney beans properly. I seriously do not recommend this! The pain came on a couple of hours after I'd eaten and was excruciating. Fortunately there was no lasting damage and I felt better the following day, but since then I have always pressure cooked beans!
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