Snap beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are one of the best fresh tastes of summer! Most years, my veggie garden plan includes space for at least a couple of 10 foot double rows of bush beans. If I'm feeling traditional, I plant a standard green snap bean such as Contender or Heavyweight II. If I'm feeling adventuresome, I plant a purple bush bean such as Royal Burgundy, whose richly colored pods show up against the green foliage for easy picking. Purple snap beans turn green when cooked, and it's fun for kids to watch them change color in the pan.

Planting successive crops of bush beans three or four weeks apart seems to work well for me. When the first row of plants starts to fade, I can pull them out and plant cucumbers, or I can sow another round of beans. I've had good results sowing seeds fairly close together, about 3 or 4 inches apart in a double row. My "double row" has 6 or 8 inches between the two rows of seeds and is at least 2 feet wide. I've also tried planting beans in a more space-intensive method, planting an entire 6 by 6 foot section with seeds spaced 5 or 6 inches apart. That works all right, but harvesting seems easier in the double rows.

Snap beans usually germinate in less than a week and many varieties are ready to harvest 50 to 60 days after sowing. Picking them young and tender is Green snap beans in a TupperwareTM vented containergood, but do give the beans a chance to reach their full length for a better harvest. The beans are ready to pick when the seeds inside the pods have just barely begun to swell and make little bumps.

Store fresh beans in the refrigerator. I like to use plastic bags with a few little holes for ventilation (stab a gallon zip-top bag with a fork about a dozen times). You can also keep produce fresh in special vented plastic storage containers. Try to cook or freeze them as soon as possible, of course, but freshly picked snap beans will keep for a week in the fridge.

If you're relying on the grocery store or peck baskets of snap beans and potatoes for salefarmers' market for your beans, you'll want to check for freshness and quality. Good snap beans should snap crisply when you bend them. If you can bend a bean in half, touching the tip and stem ends together without breaking the bean, you know those beans are not as fresh and tender as you'd like. Unless you're really desperate, pass on "tired" beans.

When you prepare snap beans for cooking, either cut or snap off the tough stem ends of the beans. The little green "tails" can also be removed or can be left on–as long as the beans are fresh, they're usually fine. Snap beans, unlike "string" beans or some pole beans, don't have a fibrous string running along the top of the pod that has to be removed. The entire pod is tender and delicious. Depending on how you're cooking the beans, you can either snap them further into bite sized pieces or leave them whole.Soup in a bowl on a straw placemat with a spoon set beside it

One of my favorite ways to fix garden-fresh snap beans is to make Green Bean and Potato Soup with Dumplings. The simple combination of ingredients in this soup really lets the fresh flavor of the snap beans shine through. It's quick-cooking, too, making it an easy meal for a busy summer day.

My mother remembers this soup from her childhood. She taught me to make the broth as her mother did, by dicing new potatoes and cooking them until they fall apart. My shortcut method uses instant mashed potato flakes for a broth that's ready by the time I've washed and snapped the beans. The potato flakes that I use are Idaho brand, which need 1 cup of liquid added to 1 cup of instant potatoes if you're making mashed potatoes. If your brand calls for a greater proportion of flakes to liquid in the box directions, adjust accordingly.

Grandma's Green Bean & Potato Soup with Dumplings

This is an inexact sort of recipe. Feel free to adjust the amount of broth, to add more potato flakes if you want it thicker, to toss in more snap beans if you have them, or to make another egg's worth of dumplings if you're feeding more people.

4 cups chicken broth
1 cup water or milk
1/2 cup instant mashed potato flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 quart fresh green beans, snapped into bite size pieces
2 eggs, well beaten
3 Tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
bowl of prepared green beans, couple of potatoes, box of potato flakes

In a large pot, bring the stock and water to a simmering boil. While waiting for it to heat up, start snapping the beans. Add the potato flakes and pepper. Stir occasionally as the potatoes dissolve to make a thickened soup base. Add the prepared snap beans and continue simmering the soup.

Making the dough for the dumplings
beaten eggs in bowl with cheese, flour, paprika added but not yet stirred in dumpling mixture in bowl with flour partly stirred inshows finished dough balled up around stirring fork

Meanwhile, make the dough for the dumplings. dumpling dough being scraped off one spoon with another, into pot of simmering soupBeat the eggs in a bowl with a fork, then stir in the cheese and the flour. You should have a sticky dough that's just solid enough to pull away from the edges of your bowl into a big lump as you stir. If in doubt, add a bit more flour. When the beans are tender-crisp (nearly done), it's time to add the dumplings. Use two spoons to dip up and scrape off lumps of dough into the bubbling soup. The dumplings cook quickly, in just a few minutes. When they bob back up to the surface, they need just another minute or two until they're cooked through.

Serve at once, and try to portion out the snap beans and dumplings as fairly as possible, or there may be trouble. Leftover soup (if any) can be stored in the refrigerator and reheats well.

For more suggestions on serving and preserving snap beans, stop by the Recipes and the Canning & Freezing forums . For more information on cultivation and cultivars, check out the Vegetable Gardening and Heirloom Vegetables forums. Nonsubscribing members can access the Beginners Vegetables forum. And don't miss an upcoming article from Darius next month on 'Kentucky Wonder' pole beans!

With loving appreciation for the many lessons passed along by my grandma, Esther Fellbaum. Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.

This article was originally published on August 8th, 2008. Please note that the author may not be immediately available to answer questions.