Most people these days would disagree heartily with Ms. Hale, and you’ll find many a green bean — in homes and restaurants both — so crunchy and furry it is nearly raw. I don’t think a green bean should skip across the plate when you stick a fork into it; it should yield gently to the fork’s impaling. But that’s just me.
There are countless ways to cook this popularity queen of vegetables, but sometimes simplest is best. Some years (this is one of them) I grow my own, a French pole-growing variety called Emerite, which if picked young enough has the tenderness and complex flavor of the best haricots verts (which is merely French for “green beans”).
I am not a great gardener, or even a good one, and the yield is so teeny that rarely are enough green beans ready to pick for a substantial contribution to a meal. I get only a little at a time, and they vary so much in size that I have to toss the bigger ones in the pot first, waiting until they get a good head start before tossing in their little brothers. Sly green beans are good at camouflaging themselves in their own greenery, and often I miss them until they are too big and tough. But when caught in time they are delightfully nutty and green-tasting, well worth the effort.
Blanched in boiling, well-salted water, then refreshed, they need only a dab of butter or olive oil and maybe a bit of herb like chiffonaded basil or minced dill. Basil-infused olive oil is great with them if you have any handy, because basil loves green beans almost as much as it loves tomatoes. Fresh tarragon, chervil or dill flatter young green beans, too. James Beard recommended three tablespoons of butter for every pound of beans, but I say a dab’ll do ya.
With the bigger beans I like to make an Italian salad, a great colorful party dish because it holds well at patio or deck temperature. I’m not including a recipe because it’s too much like one I used in my last column, but it’s basically blanched green beans and boiled skin-on red potatoes in any proportions; add sliced red onion, chopped parsley, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, and toss with wild abandon.
If you only eat your green beans crunchy/fuzzy, don’t read this, but two of the tastiest treatments for mature specimens are classic Mediterranean and American southern classics, in which the beans are purposely overcooked. In the former they are stewed with a certain holy trinity that makes just about every kind of edible flora or fauna better, from a meaty braise to snapper Veracruz: garlic, onion and tomato. The spice mix varies depending on the region, but it’s hearty and good. In the latter, a direct descendant of the original boiling-with-fatback method for green beans, they are cooked to death with generous quantities of swine — not such a bad thing either, if done right.
Lighter porky preparations include cooking green beans Basque style, with prosciutto, onion, garlic and parsley, or with just a bit of smoky bacon with a hint of vinegar to balance it out.
Green beans go well with mushrooms, as in a sauté or stir-fry. And I guess we should count that famous green-bean casserole which appears by the thousands on holiday tables across America. I don’t think I’ve ever had it, or if I did I don’t remember it, so I cannot judge how good green beans, cream of mushroom soup and fried onions, all out of cans, is, but the dish is certainly popular for some reason. Recipes I’ve seen using from-scratch ingredients look promising.
More exotic and likely tastier is a killer Bengali-style green-bean dish with mustard seeds and cilantro that I’ve made from World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey (Clarkson Potter, 1999). Other suitable embellishments for green beans include walnuts (whether in salad, or as walnut oil, or toasted and sprinkled atop warm ones) or pine nuts, whether in pesto (perfect with green beans), or toasted and mixed in. A classic French dish is beans bathed in a lemony egg-infused cream sauce, and a salade niçoise wouldn’t be a salade niçoise without them.
Many folks are fans of green beans roasted or grilled until lightly charred, although I haven’t yet tried these methods. They’re good in Asian stir-fries, too, with a bit of meat or not.
Other green beans of a similar ilk are subjects for another day: cousins include the Roman bean or flat bean, whose meaty character needs longer cooking, and the delicious yard-long bean: ditto, and actually closer kin to the black-eyed pea than the green bean.
No matter how you slice them (or don’t; Ruth Spear wrote in The Complete Vegetable Cookbook [Harper & Row, 1985] “that slicing green beans lengthwise,” or “Frenching” them, is “a pointless mutilation to make overgrown beans appear slender, a procedure quite unknown in France”), they are good for you, offering vitamins A, C and K, plus fiber, potassium, folate, magnesium, iron, riboflavin and phosphorus.
Until the late 1800s we called them “French beans,” even though they are an ancient New-World crop, an immature form of what we see most often as dried beans. Their old name “string beans” is from the string that has mostly been bred out of them these days.
There are unlimited ways to cook and enjoy them, and as Spear wrote, “String beans are probably the one vegetable everybody likes without reservation.”
She obviously never met my kids. Well, more for me, and the rest of us, to treasure and enjoy.++
E-mail Jennifer Brizzi with questions, comments or recipe requests at firstname.lastname@example.org, via her web site at www.jenniferbrizzi.com or by posting on one of her blogs at www.tripesoup.com or www.rbkgourmand.wordpress.com.