In the June issue, I wrote about planting beans with your kids. If all's gone well, the beans are now fully grown and hanging on the bushes, starting to dry down. The next step — separating all those beans from their shells — is fun and fast, but first let's review the all-important drying process.
The beans need to mature on the bushes until their shells feel leathery or crispy and look brown, probably until around mid-September. If a long spell of rain is in the forecast, harvest them beforehand by cutting the whole plant at the stem close to the ground. Then bring the plant inside and let the beans dry for about a week.
When the shell crumbles easily in your hands and the beans inside are rock hard, it's time to thresh them, or remove them from the shell. This is when things get exciting. Find a bucket wide enough to step in, or an old pillowcase, and enlist your children to pick the bean pods off the dried plants. (Toss the picked-over plants in your compost; they're a great source of nitrogen.)
When all of the beans have been placed in the bucket or pillowcase, have your kids put on a pair of shoes with relatively clean soles. If you're using a bucket, they can climb right in and stomp on the beans. Have them do the twist or the boogie-woogie, periodically stepping out of the bucket to shake it up.
If you're using a pillowcase, close the top with a rubber band and do the same thing. Fully dried beans can withstand a remarkable amount of pressure, so kids can freely jump up and down on them. I have a friend who gathered his beans in big canvas bags, turned up heavy-metal music on his car stereo and drove over them repeatedly.
When your kids have stomped their hearts out, you'll have a pile of beans and shredded shells. To separate out the beans, you'll need a bucket or large bowl and an electric fan. Go outside, turn the fan up to high and place the container on the ground. Have your child slowly pour the bean/shell mixture past the fan's airflow, into the container. The shredded shells will blow away while the heavier beans drop into the container. This is called winnowing. Repeat several times to remove as much dust and shells as possible. My kids love stomping and winnowing; there are always arguments over who gets to do what.
Now you'll have a lovely bowl of homegrown dry beans. Put them in a container and store them in your pantry until you're ready to use them. Be sure to include kids in the last step: cooking them. If they were there through the whole process — planting, tending, threshing and winnowing — they'll likely be very proud of whatever dish you create. One of my family's favorites is a flavorful bean dip that pairs nicely with tortilla or pita chips.
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