Visitors to farmers’ markets can be forgiven for overlooking the humble bushel baskets of green beans in the glistening, bulging cornucopia of late summer. Bean green is no competition for tomato red or eggplant purple. Nor can a tangle of skinny beans compete with zucchini in the ebullience category. Do pause, however, to consider their educational and metaphorical significance. There is more to the mundane bean than meets the eye.
Green beans have introduced countless generations of grade-school children to the science and mystery of cell division, root formation, stem, flower, and seed. And it was the fabled Jack who took a risk on a bag of beans no one believed in, and through pluck and calculation secured his fortune. The French popularized green beans in Europe, prizing them for their subtle taste. Ancient Egyptians, however, believed that broad beans, called “favas” in Europe and the Middle East, held the souls of the dead, and even now, lentils are still prepared as part of Hindu birth and death rituals.
Beans are legumes, a family of vegetables that includes peas and lentils, eaten for both seeds and their pods. Most beans originated in the New World, where they were grown together with corn and squash in a remarkable synergy. All legumes absorb nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil, enabling corn to grow taller to support their twining vines. Both shaded the slow-growing squash. The Indians called this triumvirate “the three sisters” and composed a stew of beans, corn, and squash we call “succotash.”
Fresh green beans and shell beans, my subject here, are best eaten in late summer at the peak of their season. Dried beans, peas, and lentils, called “pulses,” can be stored for long periods, and their concentrated nutrients make them more appropriate for the winter months or hungry times—and a different article.
Green beans are very low in calories and high in fiber, ideal for dieters. They have substantial amounts of potassium, vitamins C and A, and traces of folate and iron. Frozen and canned green beans are much lower in nutrients than fresh beans. Such preserved green beans are remembered as a canonical dish at Eisenhower-era Thanksgiving feasts, when they were dumped from a can, bathed in cream of mushroom soup, and baked with a topping of fried onion rings.
How to Handle Beans
Fifty years ago string beans had a tough fibrous string along their seam; cooks snapped the ends off each bean and stripped the string, then tossed the beans into a pot with salt pork or bacon for a long, hard boil. Today’s beans, stringless and tender, require only a short time in a steamer or in a small amount of simmering, salted water. To retain the bright green color of fresh green beans, plunge them into ice water immediately after removing from the heat. Sautéing blanched green beans for a few minutes in olive oil or butter before serving will make them even sweeter.
Fresh supermarket green beans are bred to withstand the rigors of machine harvest, cross-country transportation, and long shelf life. They are tough, resilient, and not particularly tasty. Beans grown for local markets in late summer might include two or three different kinds of green bush beans, heirlooms with strings, broad, flat pole beans such as Italian Romano, stippled cranberry shell beans, fresh soy beans (eda mame), and baby limas. Most farmers’ market green beans are sweeter and more flavorful than supermarket beans. Yellow wax beans look nice, but have less flavor than their green siblings. Purple beans stand out like punks, but fade to green upon cooking.
Keep an eye out for haricots verts, young “French” green beans. They are long, slender, tender, and incredibly delicious. More difficult to grow than ordinary string beans, they are generally available for only a two- or three-week summer period. To fully appreciate the glory of haricots verts, boil the beans in a little salted water until crisply tender and serve as an appetizer with a slice of very ripe tomato and a tablespoon or two of homemade mayonnaise.
In Italy, green beans are often served in combination with new potatoes, pasta, and pesto sauce. Add penne pasta and thinly sliced new red potatoes to four quarts of boiling salted water. After the pasta and penne have cooked for five minutes, add green beans cut in one-inch lengths and continue cooking until the pasta is al dente. Save half a cup of the cooking water. Drain and dress immediately with a pesto of olive oil, basil, and garlic, and a tablespoon of butter, and Parmesan cheese. Add a little of the cooking water if the pasta seems too dry.
Getting to Know Shell Beans
In the last few years the beautifully streaked pink and white pods of cranberry beans have appeared in farmers’ markets. Considered a delicacy in Italy, these shell beans are relatively expensive because of their delicate taste, rich texture, and short shelf life. The pods are not eaten and do not store well, so shell them immediately. Simmer the beans in unsalted water at the lowest possible heat with a few whole garlic cloves and Mediterranean bay leaves. After 30 minutes or so, when they are tender, pour off most of the cooking liquid, discard the garlic and the bay leaves, and season with plenty of sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and a few tablespoons of chopped, raw, sweet onion and very good olive oil. Allow the flavors to marry for an hour or two, and then serve as a substantial side dish or an appetizer with a last-minute garnish of fresh-chopped parsley, ripe tomato, and really good crusty bread. The flavor is elusive, mother-of-all-beans; and the texture is both creamy and toothsome.
Many years ago a short film from the heyday of Czech cinema made the rounds of the art house movie theaters. In the initial scene an old woman prepares a pot of beans in her small, empty kitchen. She impulsively plants a single bean in a can on the windowsill of her tiny apartment. Wonders. The bean sprouts. She observes it closely and cultivates it into a small plant. One day she slips the bean plant into a bag and carries it to a garden on the grounds of a large baroque palace, where she carefully transplants it into a flower bed hidden between large rosebushes. Opposite the roses is a park bench where she returns each day, sitting alone. When no one is watching, she sneaks over, fluffs the leaves of her bean plant, and gives it a little water from a bottle in her purse. When the pods ripen and dry, she takes them home and shells them into a cooking pot, except for one which she again plants on her windowsill.
The next time that you visit a farmers’ market, pause to consider the humble green bean.
Green Bean in Modern Variations
Julia Child is credited for introducing blanching and sautéing of fresh green beans to American cooks. The basic idea is to tenderize the beans by boiling, “fix” their color in ice water, and concentrate their sweet flavor with a minute or two in a sauté pan. This technique can be carried to a delicious extreme by continuing to sauté the beans until they blister and turn light brown. They can be eaten plain, or with a dash of lemon juice to balance their sweetness. Sautéed in olive oil with thinly sliced onions, garlic, and hot pepper, they become a first-class sauce for penne pasta topped with Parmesan cheese.
In her classic, Indian Cooking (Barron’s, 1982), Madhur Jaffrey suggests sautéing green beans in vegetable oil with chopped ginger, cumin, coriander, mashed garlic, tomatoes, chili pepper, and lemon juice. They are an ideal tart/spicy accompaniment to an otherwise bland rice-based meal.
Italian Style Green Beans
Romano beans (or Italian green beans) are pole beans that appear in many late summer farmers’ markets. They are wider and flatter than ordinary green beans, with a more distinct, sweet green bean flavor. Select small young beans which lack the bulge of mature seeds and “snap” when bent. The following dish serves four as a side dish. It can take the place of a salad with the meal.
- 1 medium red onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 medium ripe tomatoes or one 10-ounce can, chopped
- 1 pound Romano beans (or green beans)
- 6-8 leaves fresh basil (a “handful”)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat until translucent and fragrant.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and stir to mix. (If you do not want the tomato skins, dip the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds and slip the skins off when they cool slightly.) Simmer the onion, garlic, tomato mixture for 10 minutes until it is slightly reduced in volume.
- Nip off the ends of the beans and cut them into one-inch lengths. Add to the pot along with half the basil leaves and a little salt. Cover and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the lid and cook the beans until they are very tender. They should be a little “soupy.” Add the remaining basil leaves. Salt and pepper to taste.
This dish improves upon standing and can be served warm or at room temperature. For a richer variation, crumble feta cheese over the top just before serving.