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Bean salads for your end-of-summer cookout

Bush beans can be yellow, green or purple. (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Though there are still three weeks of summer left, Labor Day marks the end of the summer season in our North Country. Schools and colleges begin classes, the weather cools down, tourists leave, and summer residents return home.

Labor Day began in 1882 as a day for political organizing by union workers in New York City. In 1894, Congress passed a law recognizing Labor Day as a national holiday dedicated to the contributions of American workers to the strength and prosperity of our country. Since then, unions have played an important role in ending child labor, closing sweatshops, bringing a 40-hour work week, guaranteeing a fair wage and protecting workers’ rights. Union contracts protect wages, benefits and working conditions. Without them, workers are at the mercy of corporations.

Today, however, Labor Day weekend is a time to gather together and share food and drink for one last summer hurrah before the start of school. Such events require bringing a dish to pass — often, some type of salad. A salad of fresh summer beans is a great choice.

Fortunately, summers’ end also marks an abundant harvest. The farmers’ market and farm stands are loaded with seasonal veggies — corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini … and beans. The popular bush beans come in three colors: green, yellow and purple. Bush beans produce a crop of beans quickly, allowing for mechanical harvesting, so they’re more popular than pole beans, which grow on tall vines, need to climb, and ripen gradually. Bush beans are more common and are the sold fresh or frozen in supermarkets. Pole beans (think of Jack and the beanstalk) are grown in home gardens and are sometimes available at farmers’ markets.

Like many of our popular vegetables, beans are native to the American continent and were brought back to Europe by ­ century Spanish explorers returning from their travels in the New World. Today, they’re a popular vegetable on both sides of the Atlantic.

At the farmers market, choose beans with vibrant color. Whether green, light yellow or purple, bush beans should be slender and straight sided, firm and velvety to the touch, free from blemishes or brown spots, and snap when broken to reveal a moist center. Pole beans may be long and flat, with visible bumps (the beans). Beans that are soft and limp are not fresh; bush beans with obvious bumps may be overly mature and tough.

Just before using, wash under cool running water and snip off the stem ends. Many recipes call for blanching the beans before proceeding further; this is done by heating water with one teaspoon of salt per quart, adding the beans when it comes to a boil, and draining them a minute or two after they resume boiling. The fewer beans in the pan, the quicker they will cook and the better they will taste. Beans prepared this way are good in salads.

If you’re squeezing in the last picnic of summer on this long weekend, you need some good salads to accompany the barbecue. Many salads include beans–and all are a good way to get your veggies. For example, Salade Nicoise is a classic French dish that combines steamed green beans with potatoes and tuna. All fresh veggies are loaded with important antioxidants and phytochemicals, not to mention vitamins and minerals. Antioxidants are plant compounds that slow the aging process and ward off disease. Vegetables have the best taste and most nutrition when they are fresh and unprocessed. Then they are true nutritional powerhouses.

Beans are a good source of antioxidants, the minerals potassium, magnesium, iron and manganese, as well as folate and vitamins A, C and K. They also contain antioxidants and fiber, and are a good diuretic. While one cup of green beans contains a scant 40 calories, it provides more than the daily requirement for vitamin K at 120%. Vitamin K is important for bone health because it activates osteocalcin, a protein which helps to anchor calcium molecules inside the bone.

How you dress the salad is also important. Drizzling some olive or nut oil (which is rich in monounsaturated fat) over the veggies helps your body to absorb important, fat-soluble nutrients from the veggies — like carotenoids (such as lutein, lycopene, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin) that slash your risk for heart disease, cancer and vision loss. Fresh lemon juice adds vitamin C, and raw vinegars also have health benefits. And this time of year, fresh herbs and garlic add both flavor and nutrition.

Here are three bean salads to choose from as you celebrate the end of summer and commemorate the role of labor unions in our democracy.

Greek Style Fresh Bean Salad

Ingredients:

1 pound fresh summer beans (color combination is enticing if you can use yellow, purple and green. One pound of beans yields 5 – 6 cups.)

2 medium cloves garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon prepared mustard, such as honey mustard or Dijon

2 – 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 sweet onions

2 sweet bell peppers (1 orange, 1 red)

1/2 cup black olives

Optional: 1 or 2 cups cooked black beans or cooked kidney beans

2 tomatoes

1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese

Directions:

Rinse green and wax beans. Remove stem ends.

If you like them raw just cut them into 2 inch lengths. Or you can blanch or steam the fresh beans. To steam, place beans in steamer basket; fill pot with water and 1 teaspoon salt. Cover, and cook until crisp-tender, or to your desired tenderness (2 – 5 minutes).

While beans cook, fill a medium bowl with ice water. Remove steamer basket and plunge beans into ice water to stop the cooking process, then drain.

While beans cook, crush or mash garlic. In bowl, combine garlic, salt, cider vinegar, olive oil and black pepper. Stir with a fork.

Stir beans into the dressing, and toss.

Peel onion, slice thin, and stir in. Wash peppers, remove seeds, slice and stir in. Slice olives and add. Add cooked beans, if using.

This salad is best made early in the day to let flavors blend. If you do this and leave it in the fridge, add the tomatoes and feta just 10 – 15 minutes before serving (they should not be chilled).

Makes about 6 or 8 1-cup servings.

Three Bean Grain Salad for a crowd

Ingredients:

1 cup grain like millet, quinoa, or long grain rice

3 cups fresh green or wax beans, washed and sliced (about 1/2 pound)

1 1/2 cups cooked kidney beans or black beans (1 can)

1 can garbanzo beans

1 large green pepper, washed, seeded, and diced

1 large red pepper, washed, seeded, and diced

1 hot pepper like serrano or jalapeno, washed, seeded, and diced (optional)

1 large sweet onion, peeled and diced

1/2 cup finely minced parsley

Dressing:

1/4 cup olive oil

1/3 cup wine vinegar

1/4 cup honey or maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon each ground turmeric and black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions:

Cook grain according to package directions. Combine dressing ingredients and stir into hot rice. Stir in remaining ingredients.

Serves 6 – 10.

Mexican 3-bean Veggie Pasta Salad

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds whole grain pasta

10 oz. tri-colored pasta

1/2 cup dry or 1 1/2 cups (1 can) cooked red kidney beans

1/2 cup dry or 1 1/2 cups (1 can) cooked black beans

1 1/2 cups corn kernels (about 3 ears of corn)

10 ounces green beans

1 bunch celery, sliced

2 cups diced zucchini

2 cups diced summer squash

1 head Napa cabbage

1 bunch arugula

1 or 2 colorful bell peppers, or hot peppers if you wish

2 green peppers, diced (or red or yellow bell peppers)

jalapeno peppers (optional)

8 oz. grated cheddar cheese

Directions:

Soak and cook beans. Set aside. This can be done the day before.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain. Combine with Herbed Vinaigrette Dressing.

Stir in beans, corn, celery, zucchini and squash. Shred lettuce or chop cabbage and stir in. Seed and chop peppers and stir in. Top with shredded cheese and stir in. Taste and add more dressing, if needed.

Herbed Vinaigrette Dressing:

Ingredients:

1/2 cup olive oil

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons crushed garlic

2 teaspoons minced onion

2 teaspoons basil

1 Tablespoon parsley

Directions:

Combine all ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake well before using

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.