by Damon Lee Fowler
author of Beans, Greens and
Sweet Georgia Peaches
Now here's a generic name to make you take to the bourbon. So-called green beans are the immature green pods of any member of the large family of legumes Phaseolus Vulgaris, commonly known as kidney beans. There are many varieties, from French haricots and Italian cannellini to ordinary supermarket snap beans. Even though each variety has a distinctly different color, flavor, and texture, just as do their matured seeds, these distinctions are seldom marked when the beans come to market, let alone in recipes. They're just called "green beans."
Unfortunately, they are too often treated with indifference in the kitchen. This leads predictably to equally indifferent results—like skinny little snap beans slow-cooked to tasteless mush in salt-pork broth, or, conversely, tough pole beans (the slow-cooking variety) so underdone that you couldn't cut them with a chainsaw. The problem does not lie in the method but in its misapplication. There's nothing wrong with beans simmered slowly in an aromatic salt-pork broth; properly cooked, they are one of the South's culinary glories and perhaps the most satisfying vegetable dish on Southern tables. There will, however, be a lot wrong with this dish if you use the wrong kind of green beans. To that end, what follows are recipes that give each variety its appropriate treatment.
This recipe has been largely misunderstood both without and within the South, making it the brunt of way too many rude jokes about Southern vegetables. When Linda Negro, a Southern-born colleague in Evansville, Indiana, was asked by an eminent chef to design an ideal menu, she included these beans. The chef said that anyone who could down this slop had no palate. Far from being offended by such culinary snobbery, Linda roared with laughter. Had she called it a "ragout" (which it essentially is) and compared it with its French cousin cassoulet, he'd probably have had a different attitude.
The only important point for success with this recipe is that you cannot slow-cook just any green bean. Use only broad, flat, thick-skinned pole beans for this recipe.
Serves 4 to 6
3 pounds pole beans
1 country ham hock or 1/2 pound country ham in 1 piece
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small sweet onion, preferably Vidalia (optional)
Pepper Vinegar (optional—see the book for a recipe)
1. Wash the beans thoroughly in cold water and drain them. Have ready a fresh basin of cool water. Top and tail the beans and strip off the woody "strings" that run down the seams of the pods. Be careful to remove all traces of these strings-they won't ever get tender. Break or cut the beans into 1-inch lengths and drop them into the water.
2. Put the ham hock or ham in a heavy-bottomed kettle that will hold all the beans comfortably, and turn on the heat to medium. Cook, turning frequently, until it has thrown off most of its fat. Add the onion and sauté until it is golden but not scorched, about 5 minutes. Add about a pint of water and let it come to a boil. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Raise the heat to high and bring the liquid back to a rolling boil. Add the pole beans, let the water again come back to a boil, then reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Loosely cover the pot and let the beans simmer for at least 1-1/2 hours—longer won't hurt—until the beans are very tender. At this point, there should be very little liquid left. However, if there is, raise the heat to medium high and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and been absorbed, stirring often to prevent scorching. Pour the beans into a warm vegetable dish.
4. The beans are often served with condiments of chopped raw onion and pickled hot peppers. If this appeals to you, peel and chop a small sweet onion and pass it and the pepper vinegar separately.
Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches:
The Southern Way of Cooking Fruits and Vegetables
by Damon Fowler
Broadway Books, 1998; $17.50
Reprinted by permission.
This page originally published as a Global Gourmet Today column in 1998.
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This page modified January 2007
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