Serve up some soybeans with that steak

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SALEM, Ohio – Edamame: The word looks funny and sounds even funnier but researchers and growers say it tastes pretty good.

It’s a soybean, but not the traditional kind. Instead, it’s a relatively uncommon edible soybean, treated like any other vegetable.

With a little time, it may even be as common as peas sitting next to steak on the dinner plate.

With a slightly sweet, nutty flavor, edamame (pronounced ed-ah-MAH-may) is served steamed, boiled, fresh, frozen, in the pod, as a vegetable or as a snack.

Serve them cooked at Thanksgiving dinner or crunch on them fresh while having a drink at happy hour, said Ohio State vegetable specialist Matt Kleinhenz.

The possibilities are endless.

Just a novelty? Edamame isn’t new. Southern Asian dinners have included the vegetable for decades, but most people in the United States haven’t even heard of it. Researchers at Ohio State and other universities are working to change that.

They are looking at all aspects of the green soy: breeding new varieties, checking for disease susceptibility, taste testing, and educating growers and consumers.

Kleinhenz and his colleagues take a dozen varieties and test for yield and resistance to disease. The top performers are cooked and served to taste testers.

The goal is to find edamame varieties resistant to disease, with a high yield and good taste.

. Breeding While Kleinhenz determines which varieties would fare best for growers, soybean breeder Ron Fioritto cultivates new lines.

Some varieties have an unpalatable bitter, or beany, flavor, so Fioritto’s goal is to develop varieties that are high in sucrose, making the vegetable taste “sweet and savory.”

But taste isn’t the only component he looks at. He also has to develop lines resistant to diseases like phytophthora root rot, a problem for traditional soybeans and edamame.

Getting rid of disease. Another researcher at Ohio State focuses her research on disease management. Plant pathologist Sally Miller has worked for years determining which varieties are least susceptible to leaf and bacteria diseases.

Although certain varieties are more resistant, she said the deciding factor is consumers. Their tastes will ultimately determine which varieties growers produce and the diseases will have to be dealt with.

Miller and other researchers are also working on sustainable disease management, such as a low-input fungicide program.

Here to stay? After growing edamame, researchers at Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster took it to a farmers’ market. At $3 a pound, they sold out.

“People who already knew about it, wanted it right away,” Miller said.

Although many people haven’t heard of edamame, “people are already growing, eating and selling it in Ohio,” Kleinhenz said.

Researchers agree most of this interest comes from Community Supported Agriculture ventures, organic producers and people attracted to sustainable agriculture.

‘Lovers.’ Producer Dick Jensen of Johnstown, Ohio, is one of these people.

“Customers generally don’t know about [edamame], so it takes education. But once they become acquainted, they become lovers of it,” he said.

Happy with how it sells at the market, Jensen plans to keep planting the vegetable.

Edamame growers in Ohio like Jensen sell primarily to fresh market channels, Kleinhenz said.

Although the vegetable is in the frozen section at some grocery stores, Kleinhenz said research shows most consumers prefer it fresh.

But because edamame’s harvest window is small, serving it fresh can be a problem.

“It’s like sweet corn, where a few days can make a difference,” Kleinhenz said. And unless edamame is processed, its post-harvest life is also short.

In addition, more varieties need to be developed for sequential planting. If harvest-ready dates are staggered, opportunity for marketing increases.

Soybeans vs. edamame. For the most part, someone standing in a field of edamame wouldn’t know the difference from a soybean field; until closer inspection, the plants look alike.

With a better look however, the edamame seed is about twice the size of field beans, said soybean breeder Fioritto.

Another major difference is the beans are harvested green, not dry like field beans, he continued.

They’re also more digestible than traditional soybeans and don’t taste anything like general-purpose beans, Kleinhenz emphasized.

Although edamame isn’t a diversification option for large-scale soybean producers, researchers agree it’s another opportunity for vegetable growers to produce a profitable alternative crop.

And once consumers get down the phonetics of edamame, researchers hope customers won’t be able to get enough of the “new” soy.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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