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Falling in Love with Limas

Lima beans were a staple in my mother's New England kitchen, bridging the span between autumn's bounty and the harvest of spring vegetables.

They were, however, on my childhood list of despised foods. They were bulbous, starchy and bland. And who can forget those cold, green lumps staring back from the school cafeteria tray?

Then a few years ago, a friend took me to a local Mayan café and pushed one dish: lima beans with roasted pumpkin seeds. I gave in. She was right. Tender, succulent and nutty-tasting, with a kiss of the fire over which they'd been cooked, these were not the lima beans I remembered. I fell, and I fell hard.

Now limas are not only a staple of my diet but often, the star of a meal. They're easy to fix with just a bit of olive oil, margarine or butter, salt and pepper. Or I can dress them up with other vegetables and seasonings. As a vegetarian, I like their heft as a side dish, meaty little bundles that complement lighter fare.

Lima beans were named for the capital of Peru, where they have been growing for at least 7,500 years. Cultivation spread northward, probably through Mexico into the American Southwest, then eastward. Food historians believe Spanish ships took dried beans to Europe and the Portuguese took them to Africa. Today, limas are popular worldwide.

These little beans are nutrition powerhouses, packing protein, fiber, iron, manganese, folate, thiamin, potassium and other nutrients into a modest calorie count, with just a speck of fat and no cholesterol.

But a note of caution: Lima beans should not be eaten raw. They contain a cyanide compound, a natural part of the plant's defense mechanism. The U.S. restricts commercially grown limas to varieties with very low levels of the compound, but all should be handled with care. Cooking the beans uncovered allows the poison to escape as a gas. To be perfectly safe, drain the cooking water.

Limas are always available dried or canned, but I like the taste of frozen ones best. And this is the time of year to find fresh lima beans at farmer's markets, where knowing shoppers grab them up, hurry home and shell the pods right before throwing the tender beans into boiling water.

Keep in mind that a lima by any other name will taste as sweet. In some places, they are called chad beans or Madagascar beans. In the American South, they go by the general moniker "butter beans." Some in the region refer to tiny lima beans as butter peas or sieve, Carolina or "sivvy" beans, and speckled beans are sometimes called rattlesnake beans.

Ask for butter beans up North and you're likely to get a beige-colored bean stew made from dried limas that are soaked, drained then simmered with seasonings.

There are two principal types of lima beans. Fordhooks are the larger and pale green. Baby limas are not immature Fordhooks but a separate variety that are smaller, less starchy and more delicate tasting.

Other varieties come in many shades besides the common cream or green color, including red, purple, brown, black and the speckled ones. Many of these, like the festive Christmas lima, are heirloom varieties. That bean is cream-colored with maroon mottling and has a flavor reminiscent of chestnuts.

But I'm taking things slow. So far, I've stayed mainly with Fordhooks and baby limas. Who knows, though, where this love affair may go?

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D. Cameron Lawrence