Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Leather Breeches – drying green beans - A simple living method of preserving food from a small garden

Today I will hand on an heirloom way to preserve the harvest after the main crop has been picked and the plants are still producing but only sporadically. Bean plants do not just drop their harvest all at once.  They dwindle on.  They may not generate enough beans at one time to justify the effort of canning. However, that did not mean they had to go to waste. An ancient method of storing beans and other vegetables is to dry them. The method used for green beans is particularly interesting and ancient as the hills.

Well, this is another piece of useful information I picked up while listening to my nanny recount tales of life on her family farm. On the homestead, vegetable gardens where an essential element of self sufficiency. The very same” waste not” attitude can serve us today as we strive to grow our own vegetables, whether as part of a full backyard garden or a tiny strip of potted tomatoes. In high summer days, my nanny would spend many mornings out in the garden listening to the taskmaster tune of cicada while picking bushels of beans and squash and all the bounty that nature - and hard work, could provide.

This first harvest would be rich and full and a great quantity of the produce would be preserved in the coming days. Things would be canned, dried, stored in sand (another story), pickled, fermented or otherwise put aside for the leaner days ahead. This wild rush of picking and preserving could go one for many weeks. The vegetables stacked up on the back porch before supper, would soon be on the way to resting in brilliant display in the pantry. Gleaming mason jars of emerald green, dark rich reds, and pale gold would line the shelves in neat rows and remind all that work was rewarded and comfort them with the knowledge that their stomachs at least would not be poor, even in the height of the great depression. Seeing the pantry fill with those hard won gems can make even the most skeptical, straighten with pride and wonder a bit at the glories of the natural world.

But, eventually the pickings became leaner. Leaner- but did not stop all at once. For the harvest was not an on and off affair, one could always find a few more limas and a few late squash if you maintained a patient vigil on the garden. As a child, that was one of my nanny’s chores. After the main focus of the family had shifted from picking the first bountiful harvest, the children would be tasked with gleaning the tail end of the crop so that none was wasted. Her job was to walk the rows and collect any stray or late gift of the harvest. What the family had brought to the kitchen in bushels, she would bring in baskets, and baskets became wash pans, and by the end they came in tucked up apron skirts or simple handfuls. All was welcomed and none was wasted. Much of the late harvest of course was simply cooked into that night’s supper. But some was added to the winter stores.

It is here that I get to the heirloom skill lesson of this post. For, the methods they used then are still fully functional today and can be revived easily if we share the knowledge before tricks like this fade into cloudy memory and vanish into history. So here is a wonderful skill for the homesteader to learn. It is a simple living skill that can help you make the most of your home garden or even the large, cheap bundles of vegetables that flood the farmers markets in summer. Specifically, I refer to what was once called leather breeches. That is the colorful name for green beans that have been dried whole in the wholesome air of late summer.

The technique is simplicity itself. In fact, so simple that I would fear for all the window dressing I have placed upon this lesson. Fortunately, I have some controversies to throw in and add weight to what is really just the simplest thing. In brief, here is what leather breeches are:

1) You thread a large needle on some strong thread

2) Pierce the beans and string them on the thread

3) Hang the threaded beans out to dry

4) Store the strings in a dry place until needed

5) To use them, rehydrate with water

Now here are some of the variables and my advice on their use.

>1) can you use fishing line? – only if you plan on really long strings, mine were 3 feet and I used thread

>2) do you pierce near top or in the middle? – I chose ¼ way from top AND I cut off tops and bottom tips

>3) do you place in direct sun? – Nanny hung hers in a sunny kitchen, me too, I’d avoid direct sun

>4) how do you store? – leave then on their string, hang them in a clean dry place, and don’t crowd them

>5) Do I have to soak them to use? – not that I can tell but some people say soak overnight – of course they also said they will get all fresh green again – so trust them or trust me….

Now what could be simpler? It is easy to do and can be fun. The finished strings actually look kind of appealing to hang about the kitchen or pantries like people do with braided onions or peppers. Think of them as designer décor for the simple living crowd. They really do become quite tough like leather and fade to a grayish olive color. Alas, the color does not return with cooking but they do green back up a tiny bit. However, you get rewarded in more ways that frugality and self sustaining brownie points. The flavor is good and really intense in a smoky condensed way. The beans undergo some sort of transformation like that of tomatoes into sundried tomatoes. You can cook them as a whole batch of beans. But it is also an excellent way to add flavor to some canned beans or a lackluster soup.

Well, homesteader, simple lifers, and country dreamers, this is a little trick you can use whether you own that 5 acres of paradise or still just wander through the vegetable stands in search of fresh bargains. This is the story of leather breeches. It is an heirloom way to conserve the gifts of the garden and has been used by Native Americans, colonists, frontiersman, and my Nanny and that is some pretty good company. It is an awesome way to prevent waste. Whether you are saving the last pickings of your own home garden or the excess from that 50 cent a pound bag you bought at the market it is a very rewarding experiment.  So try the simple life, if only this once, it is easy, fun, great to show your friends and who knows it may be a little magic nudge to get you to live closer to the soil.  If nothing else it will be a story to tell your green friends.  You may not be able to afford a prius, but you can still enjoy the real deal.  Leather breeches - a great way to add flavor to meals and flavor to life.  

Thanks again Nanny

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