Revenge is a dish best served cold and at this time of year, so is a plate of green beans. Just about room temperature, actually, or on one of those rare days in early summer when the humidity and mercury are low enough, the temperature of a slight breeze under a tree beside the river.
No, this won’t be an indictment of green-bean casseroles, but rather, a defense of a rather ordinary vegetable I was sure I could live without until thrusting my hand into a pile of Jade green beans and carting some home. The flavor of green beans depends on the season which makes sense when you realize that what we eat as a vegetable is actually an immature fruit, and more specifically, a seed pod that flourishes from June through September. The brevity of their time off bush or pole also makes a difference, so buying fresh green beans at a farmers market means yours really will snap when broken in two and pop as they writhe in a pot of boiling water. Embrace diversity the next time you shop at market. Search not only for Jade, but other varieties with unusual names and distinctive profiles such as Kentucky Wonder and Dragon Tongues—both flat, broad runner beans—or the delicate little haricots verts our farmers sell as French filets.
Two recipes follow, both inspired by the Italian preference for cooked salads during months when lettuce wilts under the scorching sun. As long as green beans are braised, not boiled, the first demonstrates how good green vegetables can be when thoroughly cooked. Think of a tender mess of collards. Italians call tiny, slender green beans “fagiolini” and in Florence they stew them till they are just about to disintegrate.
Long-Braised Green Beans
Pint of green beans, washed
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, slivered and coarsely chopped
Pint of cherry tomatoes, cut in half (optional)
Handful of torn basil (leaves from 3-4 stems in a bunch)
Olive oil, salt & pepper
Snap what remains of the stems at the top of your green beans. You are not Mrs. Gibbs; no need to string them or snip off their curly tails. Choose an enameled Dutch oven or heavy frying pan with a lid to heat just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan generously and turn the heat to medium, waiting for that moment when the surface of the oil quivers before tossing in beans, garlic, basil and tomatoes.
Stir until everything glistens, colors start to deepen and shapes alter. Sprinkle with about a half teaspoon of coarse salt, then turn the heat down low and cover with tight-fitting lid. After 20 minutes or so, the bright green will turn drab and the perky little pods will have grown weary and limp. You can stop at this point if you are braising French filets, but don’t hesitate to continue for as long as 40 minutes for larger beans such as Romas. The tomatoes keep contents of pan moist and make a lovely sauce once you remove the lid and let remaining liquid thicken. However, the beans are great braised simply with basil and garlic; just check periodically and add a little water or a few drops of oil to prevent burning if necessary.
When done, taste to adjust seasonings, but also to learn how much the flavor improves as the beans cool and recover from their ordeal on the stove. Drizzle with olive oil to serve two as a side dish with grilled steak or on a picnic with olives, crusty bread, mozzarella, maybe some salami and figs or prosciutto and a very ripe peach.
Marcella’s Potato Salad with Green Beans
½ pound new potatoes
½ – ¾ pound green beans
Strong red wine or sherry vinegar
Olive oil, salt & pepper
In The Classic Italian Cook Book, Marcella Hazan recommends a very simple way to prepare potato salad that is perfect with green beans, too. Scrub new potatoes and boil them in barely salted water until tender when pierced with a knife—around 10 minutes, depending on size. Drain. While they’re still hot, as soon as you can stand holding one, slice them in half and douse in vinegar. No need to drown the tubers, but let the vinegar soak in and darken the flesh. Season generously, but do not refrigerate or they will get soggy and taste blah.
Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water and snap tops off green beans. Fill a bowl with cold water and ice. When the water comes to a boil, toss in a handful of salt, standing back as the water responds. Turn down the heat slightly and toss in your green beans, watching tiny bubbles bead up their entire lengths. When the water returns to a boil, wait 3-4 minutes if they’re French filets, 5-6 minutes otherwise, tasting one to see if it’s softened but still slightly crisp. Drain and then shock them in ice water.
To prepare the salad, cut beans into desired lengths and toss with potatoes. Dress the salad simply with olive oil. The genius of this dish is that the vinegary potatoes contribute all the acid you’ll need to balance flavors, so there’s no need to worry about losing that bright lovely green. Wonderful just as it is, or with sunflower sprouts for crunch and a tablespoon of pickled cherry peppers for heat.
Post by Elizabeth Dunn, FRESHFARM Markets. Photo: Elizabeth Dunn