Fresh Beans You Can Count On
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Sometimes we forget that an ever-present vegetable really is seasonal. Green beans are a perfect example. They seem just as at home on the table for Thanksgiving as for Labor Day, but I've got a tip for you: They might look the same, but they are not.
Few vegetables shine so brightly when eaten in season. Whether you call them string beans, green beans or snap beans, locally grown varieties beat the beans shipped here the rest of year.
The local bean is tender. It has a sweet taste, without the bitterness of beans grown elsewhere and shipped here. It cooks faster. Its pleasing flavors need little or no adornment. And it has a wonderful texture that allows it to be both crisp and tender when cooked.
Contrast that with the beans we get from Florida in the winter months. Their flavor can easily turn bitter. We often overcook them as we try to coax them toward tenderness. Worse yet is their woody texture, so characteristic of out-of-season beans that it seems to define them.
In desperation, I've turned to buying only haricots verts in the winter. The French beans are very thin and seem free from the deficiencies that are so common among other beans. They cook quickly and have a pleasant bean flavor and lovely texture year-round. You pay a high price for them, but out of season, it's the only way to go.
Happily, we now find ourselves smack in the middle of the local green bean season. Through the end of summer, mountains of green beans will greet us at farmers markets and in the locally grown section of supermarkets' produce departments. You hardly need an excuse to try them. Green beans are one of the most familiar and popular vegetables on the American table. Kids love them, and although beans might not be known for their nutrients, they are nonetheless packed with vitamins K and C, fiber, potassium and folate.
Even appreciative cooks have committed crimes against the green bean -- such as a certain soup-based casserole. I'd never tasted the dish before, and for purposes of this very column, I followed the recipe on the onion can. The result was edible, but I don't get it. Why take delicious beans and suffocate them in a sea of mushroom glop topped by a fried snack food?
For the same combination of flavors, one could saute some thinly sliced onions with mushrooms in olive oil until they are lightly browned and soft, add cooked green beans and a little salt and pepper, and dig into something delicious and healthful.
I consulted an expert to find out why beans seem to wilt and, worse yet, discolor under the stress of overcooking. According to Shirley O. Corriher, author of "CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed" (Morrow, 1997), the bean itself is the culprit.
"The yucky gray color of overcooked beans is caused by acid leaking out of the bean," she said from her home in Atlanta. The solution is to not let the acid out. Corriher advises cooking the beans in a large pot of salted water; about a tablespoon of salt added to four to six quarts of water should do it.
"Salt makes the bean get tender and cook faster," she said. Fast cooking is key: The more time in the pot, the greater the chance the cell walls will allow the acid to leak out. "No longer than seven minutes" is Corriher's rule. If the beans are too large to cook in that time, cut them, either in one-inch lengths or lengthwise in the "French" fashion.
After that, be careful about what you add to the beans. Any acid will undo your best efforts. Green beans and lemons are natural partners, but lemon juice will cause the beans to go from a beautiful green to an olive drab. Corriher gets around that problem by adding only the lemon's zest. If you are using a dressing made with vinegar, toss the beans with the dressing and get it on the table fast.
Once you're past the notion that beans should be cooked to death, the rest is easy. Green beans are a natural convenience food. Not only do they cook quickly, but they also lend themselves to precooking. Cook the beans in the salted water, then drain them and cool immediately in an ice-water bath. Dry the beans on paper towels, place them in a resealable plastic food storage bag and roll up the bag to get rid of excess air. Refrigerate them for up to 24 hours.
The cooked beans, refrigerated or not, can be warmed and tossed with browned butter and almonds for the classic amandine treatment. They can be added to salads or combined with garlic and olive oil. Asian dressings are a great match for beans.
Or cut raw beans into one-inch lengths and saute with chicken, shrimp or scallops, letting steam cook the beans.
Older or larger beans can be stewed with spices in a tomato sauce. The beans will turn drab, but the dish is wonderful as summer nights come to an end and the evenings get cooler.
If you are using haricots verts -- and I recommend you try them -- keep the preparation plain. A simple dressing tossed in with the cooked beans should do it. Save the Southern-style stew recipes: Haricots verts aren't suited to them. These thin, tender beans are perfect served with just a pinch of salt and some sweet butter.
Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached email@example.com. Her In Season column appears the first Wednesday of every month.