Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Green Beans, Blanched and Provencale

It might be surprising, but green beans aren't exactly the easiest vegetable to cook. It's not that preparing them is actually difficult: you just snap off the ends, throw them into boiling water, and that's about all there is to it. But it's not a forgiving vegetable, like the potato or even the cauliflower. It's a fine art to find that perfect consistency: soft, with a bit of snap. Overcooking them -- even by the slightest amount -- will leave you with mush. No one likes to eat mush, unless they are a dog. But even dogs deserve properly cooked green beans, if that's what they want to eat.
Green beans are commonly called string beans, but if you want to go all fancy-pants, say "Haricots Verts." This is (of course) how Julia Child refers to them in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and since we're using her recipe, we might as well be fancy here. One of the great things about green beans is their nutritional value: they're high in vitamin K, vitamin C, and vitamin A, and shockingly low in calories. We're talking very, very low here: 43 calories per cup. You could eat two rolls of Smarties and get stuck with a higher calorie count than that. These beans are great for so many other reasons, too: consider the preferred storing method. Just throw them into a plastic bag and stick it in the fridge. They should last a whole week before starting to turn that way, which gives you ample time after purchasing to actually eat them. So many vegetables don't keep in the refrigerator for that long, and it's always a shame when Thursday rolls around and you're nixing the veggies entirely because you just don't have any good ones left.

Blanched Green Beans

Whatever recipe you choose for your beans, always give them a preliminary blanching in a very large kettle of rapidly boiling salted water. Depending on what you plan to do to them later, boil them either until tender or until almost tender, and drain immediately. This essential step in the French art of bean cookery always produces a fine, fresh, green bean of perfect texture and flavor. (Child, Julia, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1961, 443.)
Green beans require very little cooking, actually -- despite their hearty appearance, they're actually quite fragile little things. Their outer shell, though tough, is only a thin shield for the tender, airy inside portion. It has a large surface area for a vegetable, which gives ample opportunity for those tasty nutrients to escape from the bean as it is being cooked.
One way to watch out for this loss of nutrients is to pay close attention to the color of the beans: they should be vibrantly green when they are fully cooked. Overcook them a
nd you'll end up with a greyish green blob: if you notice your beans beginning to turn grey, they're already overdone (although probably still edible at that point.)
You will start this recipe by bringing 6 quarts of water to a rapid boil. To help the water boil faster, and also help the green beans cook properly, add about 1 tablespoon of salt to the water when you put it on the stove. That may sound like a lot of salt, but it's not: the green beans won't really absorb most of it, but it will help preserve that essential green color.
As the water does its magic and works itself into a boil, prepare the beans. Snap off each end and pull slightly to remove any stringiness that may be attached to the end. This stringiness is less common now than it used to be: most farmers breed their beans to make them less stringy, so you may not have to worry about this. Still, though, you want to snap off the tip on each end before eating.

When the water is boiling, drop in the beans -- about a pound and a half of green beans total for this amount of water -- a handful at a time into the water. Bring the water back to a boil as quickly as possible (I do this by putting the lid back on the pot for a moment or two) and allow the green beans to cook for about eight minutes. After eight minutes have passed, start testing the beans: they should taste slightly nutty and a bit sweet. If they are still too raw, they'll have a kind of freshly-mowed grass flavor, so be on the lookout for that. In addition to the nutty sweetness, they should have a tender texture with just the slightest hint of crunch when they're fully cooked.
Drain immediately in a strainer or colander. Julia Child then suggests that you flip them into a hot, dry pan and toss until the water has evaporated, but I find this step unnecessary if I strain them properly. Maybe that's because I'm lazy, but I just don't find that the extra effort makes the beans any better. If you do decide to dry them in a pan, do not stir the beans -- this will break them -- but toss them gently. These beans will keep for a day or two in the fridge, and all you have to do to reheat them is boil a new pot of water, throw the beans in for just a moment until the water boils again, then drain. This simple reheating technique makes it worth it to prepare a whole pound or two at once, rather than trying to portion out just enough for the amount of mouths you have to feed.
We like to serve these with nothing more than a bit of red pepper flakes and a dash of salt, but there are many ways to jazz up these babies. One of the more exciting recipes in this book is for Green Beans Provencale, which is an involved recipe that will transform the beans into a whole salad. Peel 4 plum tomatoes and cut into wedges. Slice an onion in half, then cut into long, thin strips -- as thin as you can get them. Cover the bottom of a saucepan with water and bring to a simmer. Add the onions, along with a few dashes of dried basil and thyme. Throw in one clove of garlic -- with recipes like this, I merely skin the garlic and roast it in the pan along with everything else, then I remove it when the dish is ready to serve. This allows all the flavors of the garlic to seep into the dish with minimal effort. Bring the water back to a simmer, then cook the onions for about 2 minutes until they are soft but still retain their shape. Pour off most of the cooking juice and reserve.
Add the tomatoes to the pan with the onions and bring to a simmer again, cooking for only one or two minutes. Add some reserved juice if necessary to keep the dish from drying out. You should be left with about 1 to 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquids in the pan. Drain off any excess or add some reserved liquid to make this possible. Stir in about 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil and heat for only about 30 seconds, until the oil coats all the vegetables.
Remove the pan from the stove and allow the vegetables to rest until the green beans are ready. Stir in the beans and coat them evenly with the tomato and onion mixture. Allow the dish to rest for about ten minutes before serving -- the longer you allow it to rest, the saucier and tastier it will get. You may add grated cheese if you wish, but any other deviations will take away from the overall fresh, open-air flavor of this particular dish.


Sarah said...

one of the few things i hate about italians is that they all think green beans should be smooshy. that's so wrong, they should be exactly like you and julia child say! i always serve green beans as a side to fish with lemon, it just seems like the natural accompaniment. (spelling wrong, whatever...)

anyway my mom can't check her email but if you feel weird about calling her email me your number and i'll tell her!

happy thursday, god this week is crawling along. off to preschool, ciao!

p.s. do you like how i pretend i have something to comment about in your post only to communicate other things to you? ha! genius like mine you don't encounter every day!

K8 said...

yeah, seriously crawling, this week.
green beans + fish/lemon = heaven. i also like green beans with chicken, and they can work with a red meat sometimes too. versatile!

ok, i will email you my phone number for your mum -- phones scare me.

p.s. i need your carrot cake recipe. desperately. it is a dire situation.

lovelovelove to my genius in italy,

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