At 14, I worked on a pig farm for £1.50 an hour. Although my main role was mucking out the pig pens, I’d also tend to the farmer’s crops of potatoes, pumpkins and runner beans. The quantity of beans, in particular, that we harvested each season seemed almost magical.
Scarlet runner beans are one of the easiest and most productive vegetables to grow, and the whole plant is edible, including the leaves and red flowers (the nectar-sweet flowers taste similar to the beans themselves). Use the leaves and flowers raw in a salad or cook them like any leafy green. If you’re growing runner beans, remove the colourful beans from the pods of any oversized, stringy ones, dry them and store; soak and cook much as you would kidney or borlotti beans.
(or runner beans in tomatoes and olive oil)
I’m an avid follower of Middle Eastern cuisine, and this recipe is adapted from one in Anissa Helou’s book Lebanese Cuisine, which I have owned for all of 17 years. Anissa, who is one of my longest-standing heroes, serves her beans on pitta topped with spring onions, transforming a simple meze into a satiating meal.
Anissa peels the tomatoes in her version, but I don’t, because, so long as they’re chopped small enough and cooked down, the skins don’t bother me.
This might seem like a lot of garlic, but they are cooked in their skins, so the flavour is subtle; to eat the cloves, just suck the soft flesh from inside the skins. I often add whole garlic cloves to stews of all kinds, simply for the pleasure of popping the soft cloves into my mouth. When serving up, I take great care to ensure the cloves are divided evenly, so that everyone can experience the pleasure and health benefits.
Serves 4 as a side dish or 2 as a main
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
500g runner beans, plus 1 handful scarlet runner bean leaves, to finish (optional)
¼ tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
1 pinch ground nutmeg (optional)
500g very ripe tomatoes, finely chopped, skins and all (or use canned)
2 sprigs fresh mint
Sea salt, to taste
Flatbread, to serve (optional)
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, then add the onion and whole garlic cloves, and saute for five minutes, until the onion softens and takes on some colour.
Meanwhile, top and tail the beans, then remove and discard the strings from their outer edge and cut into 5cm pieces. Add to the pan with the cinnamon and nutmeg, if using, and saute for a few minutes, just to soften a little.
Stir in the tomatoes, cover the pan and leave to simmer for about 30 minutes, until the sauce has cooked down and thickened. (If you grow your own runners, finish by stirring in a handful of scarlet runner bean leaves.) Leave to cool, then transfer to a clean jar and top with olive oil – they’ll keep for up to two weeks. Serve scattered with mint and, if you have them, scarlet runner bean flowers.