Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Edamame

I have a huge bumper crop of edamame this year in my garden. I grew them because they are a great late-season veggie (they can be planted as late as July or August in my area) and because my almost three-year-old son loves them. Or rather, I should say, usedto love them. After harvesting pounds of the pods (a rather labor-intensive task, I must tell you), I cooked some of them up and served them to him for dinner, at which he proclaimed, “These are the best edamame I ever ate!” Fast-forward to dinner two (two!) days later, and my little rosy-cheeked angel freaked out over the bowlful of edamame pods in front of him. “I don’t like edamame!” he forcefully howled. Fortunately, the nutty little green beans are easily popped into a multitude of dishes, from rice to eggs to soups, so I won’t have a problem eating them up, even without the help of my mercurial three year old!  

A Brief History

Just to get this out of the way, in case you didn’t know: edamame are immature soybeans (aka, “soya beans”), the very same soybeans that produce so-called “vegetable” oil, tofu, soy sauce, tempeh and a myriad of other culinary and industrial products. Soybeans are thought to be native to China, where they have been cultivated for millennia, but recent data shows that there may have been several points of domestication in East Asia (including Northern China, Japan and Korea), some dating back as far as 5,500 years ago. According to researchers at Washington State University, the first written record of edamame comes from China, around 200 BCE; the beans were apparently used medicinally. It is thought that the Chinese introduced edamame to Japan, where the vegetable became, and remains, quite popular. 

Although soybean cultivation was documented as early as the late 18th century in the US, University of Illinois researchers note that the type of soybean first grown here was probably for grain; it wasn’t until 1856 that the use of edamame (“green vegetable soybean”) was first documented in the US.

Factual Nibbles

Cultivation

Sometimes called “green” or “vegetable” soybeans (Glycine max), edamame are in the Fabaceae (legume) family, along with peas, beans, alfalfa and peanuts. Soybeans grown for edamame are harvested while still immature. (Most other soy products, including tofu, soy milk, tempeh and soy sauce require mature soybeans – this basically means that the beans are allowed to mature and dry in their pods.) Soybean cultivars grown for harvesting as edamame are more tender and generally milder in flavor, and have larger seeds than “field” or “grain” soybean varieties. Edamame plants grow similarly to bush beans – they require warm soil and produce fairly bushy, upright plants that can grow as large as three to four feet tall. The US, Brazil, Argentina and China are the top worldwide producers of soybeans.

Seasonality

Fresh edamame are typically available in late summer through early fall.

Environmental Impact

While there is limited negative environmental impact for green soybeans (edamame), soy in general has major issues. According to the USDA, in 2012, 93 percent of all soy acreage planted in the US was genetically engineered (GE) to be herbicide-tolerant (HT), up from only 17 percent in 1997. HT soybean plants, developed by the agricultural giant Monsanto, are resistant to herbicides that are used to control weeds – namely Roundup (glyphosate), an herbicide originally developed by…you guessed it: Monsanto. Unfortunately, the increased use of glyphosate has resulted in “superweeds” resistant to the herbicide, in some cases necessitating the use of different herbicides and mechanical tilling.

Soy, following corn, is the second largest cash crop grown in the US, with almost 74 million acres planted in 2011. What happens to all of this soy, you ask? A whole lot of soybeans are pressed into oil (according to the US EPA, soybean oil represents 65 percent of the oil consumed in the US), much of which is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated (read: loaded with heart unhealthy transfat) and used in processed foods and for frying. Much non-organic soybean oil is extracted using hexane, a chemical that has been linked to neurological effects. The remaining “soy meal” – what is left after pressing the beans for oil – is frequently used for industrial livestock feed in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

Fortunately, according to the National Soybean Research Laboratory, there are no GE edamame! Good news for us edamame lovers. The bulk of fresh edamame are grown on small farms in the US, to be sold at farmers’ markets and through CSAs. If you’re concerned about pesticides on your fresh edamame, just ask your local farmer about his or her growing practices. (*See our Real Food Rule of Thumb.)

Characteristics

Edamame pods are large, containing between two and four beans each, with a hairy exterior. The seeds inside the pod range from an almost neon-green, to deep forest green, to black-green (so-called “black” edamame).

What to look for

Fresh edamame pods should be firm, plump and bright green. Yellowing or browning pods are a sign that the beans inside have started to mature; at this point, the seeds become starchy and much less sweet, so take a pass. Also pass on limp, mushy or bean pods with black spots.

Nutrition

Edamame are loaded with nutritional goodness. One cup of the veggie provides a whopping 34 percent of your daily protein needs. The beans are also exceptionally high in folate, manganese and Vitamin K, and are a great source of iron, magnesium, thiamin, phosphorous, potassium and copper. They are even decent sources of calcium and Vitamin C, and are positively packed with fiber. Edamame are also rich in plant sterols, which can help lower cholesterol.

What to Do with It

Edamame are crazy versatile – cook them up and eat them as-is, with a little salt, or toss them into just about any savory dish. Sub them for any recipe that calls for lima beans; the nutty, sweet flavor of edamame is far more complex (and they are far more nutritious) and delicious.

Cooking

You’ve probably been to a sushi joint where edamame are served up whole, in the pod, with a sprinkling of course salt over top, and maybe a lemon wedge. This is my favorite way of eating them – simple and unadorned. In Japan, edamame steamed or boiled in their pods are commonly served at izakayas, as a snack to go with beer. I usually toss the whole pods in the microwave, with a little water and salt, to steam them until the seeds can be easily popped out of the pods. (Compost the pods; they are too tough and fibrous to eat.) Here’s how to do it without the microwave, and here are ideas from Mark Bittman about how to jazz up boiled edamame, including drizzling the pods with sriracha (yes please!).

I add cooked edamame seeds into just about everything – they are fantastic added to stir fries and fried rice (and add extra protein, to boot), tossed into frittatas and pasta dishes and combined with grains like quinoa and faro. Last night I had steamed jasmine rice with edamame and a tiny drizzle of soy sauce and sriracha for dinner, a surprisingly satisfying, simple vegetarian meal. I also like to sub edamame for lima beans in succotash to use up all of that late season corn. Edamame seeds can also be roasted and wok-charred.

In Japan, edamame are even made into a sweetened paste for a dessert called zunda mochi. Or make edamame ice cream to cool off before summer ends!

Storage

Try to cook fresh edamame within a day or two of purchase; the longer they are stored, the starchier they tend to become. I often cook up a big batch and store them in the fridge for snacking and to use in recipes – they will keep for up to a week this way.  

Pro Tips

Here’s a quick little video that shows you how to shell fresh edamame – rip it, zip it and open it!

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Edamame freeze beautifully, either shelled or whole in their pods. Here’s how you do it. You can also pickle edamame seeds, which sounds delightful. 

Recipe

Edamame “Guacamole”

If you’re like me, you often have a glut of tomatoes and chile peppers hanging around your kitchen in the late summer. This year, I also had an abundance of edamame, so I wanted to make a spicy dip that had all of the flavors of guacamole. The nutty sweetness of the edamame meshes deliciously with spicy jalapeño, red onion and tomato. I served it on top of fresh tuna tacos, but it is also great with corn chips or dolloped on top of eggs, pork or chicken. De-seed and remove the ribs from the jalapeño if you want to reduce the spice. A little chopped cilantro would also be nice mixed into the dip. If you want to use frozen, shelled edamame instead of fresh, you’ll need about 2 cups.

1 lb. fresh edamame in their shells
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon water
Juice of 1 lime
1 medium jalapeño, minced
½ ; small red onion, finely diced
1 ripe plum tomato, finely diced
1 clove garlic, pressed or very finely minced
Kosher salt

Special equipment: food processor


Method:

1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to the boil. Add the edamame pods and gently boil until the edamame seeds feel tender, about 5 minutes. Remove and let cool, then pop the edamame seeds from the shells.
2. Add the shelled edamame to the bowl of a food processor. Add the olive oil, water and lime juice and process until a thick, fairly smooth mixture forms. (You can leave it a little chunky if you prefer, or keep pureeing until it is smoother.)
3. Scrape the edamame puree into a medium bowl. Gently stir in the minced jalapeño, diced red onion, diced tomato (and any accumulated juices), pressed garlic clove and a generous pinch of salt. Taste and correct for salt and lime juice, if necessary. (If too thick, gently stir in more lime juice or water to thin.)
4. Let the “guacamole” sit for at least 15 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.

(*Real Food Rule of Thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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