What's in Season

Turn String Beans to Leather Britches

This Appalachian tradition is the ultimate way to preserve a late-summer green-bean haul

photo: John Burgoyne


Katie Button first stumbled upon the words leather britches three years ago when she was researching the history of regional food around her Asheville, North Carolina, home. “I was like, okay, that is the funniest food name I’ve ever heard—I’ve got to know what that is,” says the executive chef and co-owner of Cúrate Bar de Tapas, Nightbell, and the forthcoming Button & Co. Bagels. She learned that the term referred to an old Appalachian way of preserving greasy beans (a family of heirloom green beans with smooth, shiny pods) by stringing them with a needle and thread, hanging them to dry on a porch, and then sealing them in jars until you were ready to rehydrate and cook them months later. “Story goes that they call them leather britches because the dried beans look like leather that’s gotten wet, then dried out,” Button says. “It’s an incredible piece of history—from a time when people thought, ‘How do we make it through winter with what we’ve got?’” Turns out, once you’ve dried the beans, you’ve got something pretty delicious—the drying process deepens their flavor almost to the point of meatiness. If you find greasy beans, or any other sturdy green beans without fuzzy pods, at the farmers’ market in late summer, buy enough to eat some now and preserve some for later. Button recommends cooking them just as you would collards—low and slow, with a ham hock and a hunk of salt pork or bacon (if you just can’t wait for them to dry, the cooked fresh beans will have a traditionally vegetal flavor, whereas the dried ones will yield a darker potlikker and a rich, beefy taste). Bring to a simmer and wait several hours until the beans are starting to come out of the pods. Really—don’t skimp on the simmer time: “To me,” Button says, “greasy beans are not meant to be an al dente dish.”


THE CHEF RECOMMENDS:

Slow-Cooked Greasy Beans
Yield: Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

10 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. olive oil
4 cups dried leather britches or 8 cups fresh greasy beans (strings removed)
2 oz. salt pork (optional)
1 ham hock
2 quarts water (enough to just cover beans)
2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
¼ tsp. Spanish paprika (optional)
Salt, to taste

PREPARATION

In a Dutch oven, sauté garlic and onion in olive oil over medium heat. Once they’re soft, add beans, salt pork, and ham hock, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer—adding water as necessary so the beans don’t dry out—at least one hour for fresh beans or three for leather britches. The pods should be splitting open and look silky and soft. Strain, reserving cooking liquid. Set beans aside. Reheat cooking liquid with salt pork and ham hock. Reduce for about 20 minutes. Stir ½ cup of cooking liquid back into the beans (along with some pulled meat from the ham hock, if you like), and rewarm over low heat. Season with vinegar, paprika, and salt.


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