Austrian-Style Bean Salad

I recently made my first trip to the southeastern corner of Austria – Arnold Schwarzenegger territory. The wonderful city of Graz is the main hub of this area, but it is the famous wine region of the Steiermark with its rolling green hills that are dotted with wineries, farms and forests that make this a must-visit destination.

Our hosts for the weekend took us on a short drive into the heart of this region that borders Slovenia. We were headed for our first Buschenschank experience.

The very loose translation of this word is Bush Bar – implying something you might find in the jungles of Belize. In the Austrian sense, it is a common practice found throughout the region, and usually only occurring from Friday-Sunday. Most are located at wineries or farms in the region, serving food and drinks to visitors in rustic settings. The food is always served cold and only includes food that is produced in the immediate location – often just the farm or winery. The drink selection is local wine or water – sometimes herbal tea and that’s it. No coffee or cola at these locations because they take regionalism seriously.

One of the most common servings is the bean salad made from a local bean called Käferbohnen (known in English as a scarlet runner bean…but with a much cooler German name that latterly means beetle bean). These are large, intensely-flavored beans with a soft and fatty interior. The beans are often served with sliced onions, some tomatoes, a hint of vinegar, pumpkin-seed oil and some freshly grated horseradish. It is meal in itself…and especially delicious with a glass of locally produced wine like a fragrant and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. Life and eating simply do not get much better than this experience!

Yield: makes about 4-6 servings

  • 500 grams dried scarlet runner beans (see tips)

  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds

  • 3 bay laurel leaves

  • 2 teaspoons sea salt

  • 2 large meaty tomatoes (see tips)

  • 2 green onions, washed and sliced thin

  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin seed oil (see tips for oil-free version)

  • 2-3 tablespoons grated horseradish (preferably fresh)

  • sea salt and freshly grated black pepper to season

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  • You need to start this recipe one day in advance by soaking your beans in plenty of cold water. Make sure the water tops the beans by at least 7-cm (3-inches). Cover the pot and refrigerate the beans overnight. The next morning, drain and rinse the beans, then place them in a large pot – use a large ceramic pot for even cooking on moderate heat (plus it looks cooler) or a stainless steel pot. Cover with water – just enough to cover the beans.
  • Heat a small non-stick pan over moderate heat. When it is hot, add the cumin seeds and roast them dry just long enough for you to begin smelling the aroma. Remove the pan from the heat and place the seeds on a chopping board. Roughly crush the seeds (a rolling pin works great) and add them to the beans with the whole bay leaves. Bring the water slowly to a boil, cover and reduce the temperature to a point where a light simmer is maintained – this will be somewhere in the medium-low vicinity. Cook for about one hour, then add the salt, stir the water and cover the pot again. Cook another 30-60 minutes – you want the beans to be soft in the middle…so go ahead and try one. When you are satisfied, turn off the heat, move the pot off the hot burner and allow the beans to cool a bit in the hot liquid…I usually allow about 2 hours. Cooling like this will help the beans maintain their shape – something I like in a bean salad.
  • Drain the beans (save the water to use as a base for a bean soup – it will keep refrigerated for about 5 days) and add to a large bowl.
  • Chop the tomatoes into 1-cm (1/2-inch) chunks and add to the beans. Add the sliced green onions next, then add the vinegar and pumpkin seed oil. Toss the salad well, adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and serve in a bowl topped with the freshly grated horseradish.

Jack’s Fresh Tip

You can replace the dried scarlet runner beans with any other large dried bean variety – even mixing several varieties to create an interesting contrast in flavor, texture and color. Adjust cooking time as necessary to accommodate for size differences.

The selection of fresh tomato is important in this salad. Try to find a very meaty variety that has little water and few seeds. I use a common variety found in farmer’s markets during the late summer months called ‘Ochsenherz’ (ox heart). This tomato is ribbed, large and has practically no seeds…and it has a lot of flavor.

I like to use the apple cider vinegar in this recipe because the acidity is a bit more pronounced than a white wine vinegar. Feel free to experiment and use what you have on hand. A stronger vinegar helps create balance in the meaty and somewhat fatty taste of the large beans.

The pumpkin seed oil must come from Austria! There are plenty of producers of pumpkin seed oil, including many from China. All of them pale in comparison to the Austrian oils that are superior in flavor and healthy properties. Don’t settle for less!

You can make this salad oil-free if that is something you prefer. Use roughly chopped pumpkin seeds to replace the oil. The seeds, when chopped, will provide a fatty substitute as well as the pumpkin flavor.

When it comes to horseradish…fresh is far superior to anything found in a jar. If you don’t have access to fresh, then use the jarred version, but make sure you reduce the amount as jarred horseradish will be much more pungent than fresh.

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