Slowly eating England: Firing up the runner bean revolution

The runner bean must surely be due a revival. Whilst kale and cauliflower now grace the most hipster of dinner tables, albeit often transformed into something quite other—crisps, say, or “couscous”—the humble runner never seems to quite make the cut. Perhaps that’s because, for many, runner beans conjure up memories of granny’s roast dinners, where the vegetables had all the flavour and colour boiled out of them. Which is a shame, because runner beans can taste fabulous, grow well in our cool British summers and look so pretty climbing up a cane wigwam.

I developed a taste for runners while living in Spain where judias verdes are ubiquitous. It is a rare menu del dia that doesn’t feature them as a first course, often confounding vegetarian friends who would think they had at last found a meat-free dish, only to find the beans adorned with slivers of ham. Although frankly, 10 years ago in Madrid, that was about as vegetarian as it got!

This recipe is inspired by the Spanish way of putting runner beans centre stage, but blends them with lighter, brighter flavours. The dish can be a starter, side dish or one of a selection of small plates in a tapas feast. More an assembly than a recipe, it can be adapted to suit your taste and what you have in the fridge or garden. I use feta because I love it, but it would work well with goat’s cheese too or perhaps some crumbly Lancashire. However you decide to pimp it up, it’ll banish any memories of grey runner beans on the Sunday dinner table, ensuring that these best of beans take their rightful place as the centrepiece.

Recipe: Runner bean, tomato and feta salad

runner bean250g runner beans
1 clove garlic
Oregano or marjoram
Olive oil
20 or so cherry tomatoes
Lemon juice
100g feta

First prepare your runner beans by removing the fibrous strings that run down the sides. I do this with an easy peeler. Now slice the beans on the diagonal as thinly as you can. Set aside.

Gently warm some good olive oil in a shallow pan, and add a crushed clove of garlic and some finely chopped oregano or marjoram if using. Be generous with the oil as this will form the basis of the salad’s dressing.

Slice the tomatoes in half (or quarters if they’re big) and add to the pan. Season and continue to warm through slowly. I’ve also made this dish with tomatoes that have been slowly roasted in a very low oven, which adds a lovely flavour. Add a generous squeeze of lemon juice and remove from the heat.

Now to the assembly. Add the runner beans to the pan and toss in the warm, herby oil. Tip onto a serving plate and add some torn basil leaves, so that they just begin to wilt. Scatter some feta over the top. Don’t be tempted to add too much—the cheese is more flavouring than ingredient and you don’t want it to overwhelm the beans. I have nasturtiums growing in the veg patch, so I added them for colour, but all you really need is crunchy beans, melting tomatoes and cool, salty feta. The perfect trio.

Serves 4.


Photo credit (header): Stephen Cole