Unglamorous vegetables: runner beans

Unglamorous vegetables: runner beans

by Anna Tobias 13 August 2019

Runner beans are unquestionably a bit of a faff, but they're sweeter and more delicate than most beans – 'a darling of British summer,' says Anna Tobias. Read on for three of her favourite runner bean recipes.

Previously guest head chef at East London favourite P. Franco, Anna Tobias has built a career on simple but effective cookery.

Anna was a relative latecomer to the industry – she studied modern languages at Oxford University before becoming a chef – but in the end, the allure of the kitchen proved too much. After joining Jeremy Lee at the Blueprint Café, Anna's career took her to The River Café and then to Margot Henderson's Rochelle Canteen, where she spent a number of years as head chef.

Anna is a recognisable face in London's restaurant circuit – she held a three-month residency at P. Franco and has hosted supper clubs in and out of the city, going as far as Berlin's Michelberger Hotel.

Anna will be opening Cafe Deco – her first permanent solo restaurant – in 2020 in London.

I’ve always considered runner beans to be a darling of British summer vegetables, but I understand why they’ve fallen a little out of favour in more recent years. For sure, one of their disadvantages is that they do require more work compared to their other bean counterparts; not only do you have to top and tail them but you also have to peel off the stringy sides. They may be a bit of a palaver, but their flavour is different to other beans – sweeter and more delicate – and they have a beautiful pale green colour. I think the other reason they are overlooked is because there has often been a lack of creativity around runner beans, usually just served buttered as a side dish.

In the following recipes, I have used runner beans in quite different ways to show their potential. I think, when embarking on cooking with runner beans, you have to accept that there is some slightly mundane labour required in its preparation. My advice is to decide to enjoy it – this is often my tactic with time-consuming and tedious kitchen jobs. Decide that this is actually a therapeutic job; find a sunny spot outside if you can, put on some soothing music and try not to peel off a fingernail whilst losing yourself in the rhythmic action!

Runner bean and ricotta pie

This recipe was initially inspired by Greek feta and vegetable pies. I imagined that sweet, garlicky runner beans must be delicious surrounded by pastry (most things surrounded by pastry tend to be delicious in my opinion!). Their slightly wet and sloppy texture means that you won’t be left with a dry and claggy pie, but an unctuous and silky one. I swapped out feta with ricotta because my mood dictated that I wanted a more soothing pie with more mellow flavours, and this was the delicious result.

Runner bean, coco blanc bean and tomato stew

Most European countries have some form of dish that involves beans in tomato sauce; it’s a delicious combination, be it with basil in Italy or with paprika in Serbia. This recipe certainly has Mediterranean roots – I’ve used coco blanc beans which are at their best in the summer. These plump beans look like beautiful pearls when they’re cooked and have a smooth, creamy texture. Adding them to the tomatoey beans creates a more substantial (but definitely still elegant) dish. They aren't the easiest ingredient to get hold of but good greengrocers will be able to order them for you. If you can’t find them, use the dried version or alternatively, use haricot or cannellini beans.

Runner bean and pesto trofie

This is a classic Italian dish typically made in Liguria, albeit with fine beans as opposed to runners. It is elegant and perfect in every way.