Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Longsuffering Green Beans

Vegetables, like youth, are wasted on the young. Which is not to say that you shouldn't encourage children to eat vegetables: I believe there's been some recent research linking early vegetable consumption with some outcome or other that's widely recognized as good. I know this because V. mentioned it to me when he was (yet again) lamenting my lack of parenting skills and the resultant low level of vegetable consumption by my offspring. My response (yet again) was twofold: a) if the kids get good grades and they're never in trouble and people go out of their way at church to hunt me down and tell me what wonderful children I have, then I can probably overlook the fact that L. will typically eat no more than one broccoli floret or three green beans at dinner; and b) dude, more for me.

When I was a lad, not eating my vegetables was not an option. My mother's typical reaction to vegetable-induced consumption reticence was to threaten additional helpings. Mom, ever one to extrapolate the universe from a single data point, always assumed that if the vegetables tasted good to her, they obviously tasted good to us, and that our unwillingness to eat them was nothing more than an attempt to annoy her. Or perhaps evidence of demonic possession: there can be no other explanation for threatening a child with a dose of cod liver oil.

Fortunately, the only long-term effect that I suffered as a result of my parents' dinner policies1 was that I didn't learn to appreciate spinach until I was an adult and was finally given to understand that spinach is a leafy green and not something that comes only as a frozen rectangular solid. I also didn't learn to like (or in some cases tolerate) most forms of squash until I was an adult, but since eating squash as a child mostly meant suppressing my gag reflex, I don't think that had anything to do with how it was prepared. I am also not fully convinced that my life has been enriched by my increased appreciation for squash, though I suppose that I would miss zucchini if it were to disappear suddenly.

But while most vegetables evoked something between indifference (broccoli) and terror (brussels sprouts), I have always loved green beans. I suppose that if you had asked me about them when I was young enough, I might not have identified them as a vegetable at all. They would simply have been green beans. And, aside from iced tea -- without which our table never was -- green beans were probably served more often than any other single food. It is likely that several hundred times during my childhood I was sent down into the basement2 to fetch a quart of green beans.

My father, I believe, always felt somewhat limited by the one-acre lot that we lived on because it only provided him with enough room to have a garden about eighty percent as big as a tennis court. He came from a Mennonite family, though, so not owning and working a real farm struck him as selling out, somehow. For most of my youth, the garden included four double-rows of string beans. In the mid-spring, Dad would get out the rototiller (I sometimes did this when I got older) and work the soil, which had already been turned under by a local farmer doing us a favor, discarding the larger rocks as he went. Then we'd get out with the rakes and even out the soil, then he and I would head off to the local seed store where we'd get a small paper bag full of been seeds coated with something pink which I suppose must have been an insecticide. (Dad subscribed to Organic Gardening, but he took it with a grain of Miracle Gro.) Then we'd go home, and dad would mark the rows by driving two stakes, connected by a thick string, into the soil at the sides of the garden. He'd move down the row, poking the rake handle into the tilled soil, and we'd follow behind, dropping the seeds into the holes and covering them up.

As you might guess, this is all a lot more fun to think about now than it was to do when I was a teenager. The planting of seeds really wasn't bad, but that would soon be followed by weeding. Lots and lots and lots of weeding. And then, eventually, picking, which involved going down all four double rows bent over, holding a large colander, and whinging.

Even as a teenager, I never particularly minded snapping the beans. When it was time for canning, a group of us sat on the back porch and worked together. You'd pick up a bean, snap off the stem and the tail end, snap the bean in half, and put the two halve your bowl. Then they'd go upstairs to the kitchen to be washed in a big sink full of water. At the end of the session, someone would take a broom and sweep all of the bean tips and tails off into the back yard.

The actually cooking and canning (i.e., putting into jars and processing) was not something I often witnessed. My mother liked to do this by herself, perhaps so that she could complain more about it later, but perhaps simply because it was work that couldn't be trusted to anyone else. Before she could actually can, she had to send my father up into the attic to retrieve the very large (it could process seven quart jars at a time) and heavy pressure cooker, and she had to prepare however many jars and lids she'd be using for that session. Given that she would typically put up just under a hundred quarts of beans in a summer -- mostly over a period lasting about two weeks -- she probably had ample reason both to complain and to not want anyone around who didn't know exactly what she (my grandmother and my aunts were allowed to help if they were foolish enough to be around) was doing.3

After I'd fetched a jar from the basement, my mother always prepared her green beans the same way. She dumped the whole jar into a saucepan, added some salt pork, and boiled until the rest of dinner was ready, which was often quite a while later. They were always delicious, and who doesn't like salt pork? (Rhetorical question.)

I was in my twenties when I first read Julia Child's description of the French method for preparing haricots verts. It entirely changed the way that I looked at vegetables, and for years afterwards whenever I prepared green beans, I bought them young and tender, cut off only the stem end, left them whole, boiled them for a few minutes, shocked them in ice water, and sauteed them with butter, salt, and pepper. I still love green beans prepared in that way, which also works very well with the thin green beans that one can buy frozen at Trader Joe's. As time went by, my mother put by fewer and fewer beans and then moved out of my childhood home and gave up growing and canning beans altogether, so I was less and less exposed to the treatment that she learned from her mother.

Even if you pay attention to food trends only as little as I do (which, really, is hardly at all), you will likely have noticed that over the last few years, there has been a reemerging interest in longer cooking methods for green beans. I had, until very recently, dismissed this as a sort of retro-trendiness that was not worth my time. Surely, I reasoned, longer cooking could do nothing but rob the vegetables of flavor and nutrients.

But I've been eating a lot of green beans recently, and I felt the need to come up with a different way to serve them. This dish has become one of my staple foods, partly because it fits the parameters of my diet, partly because it's very versatile, but mostly just because it's yummy.

Longsuffering Green Beans

1 T. olive oil
One medium-small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
12 kalamata olives, quartered
2 T. capers, well drained
1 t. dried oregano
1 t. dried basil
A 1.5 lb bag of Trader Joe's frozen thin green beans, defrosted
1/3 c. pearled barley
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the diced onion, cover, and cook for about five minutes, until the onion is well softened. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for about a minute. Do not brown the garlic. Add the tomatoes (with their juice), olives, capers, oregano, and basil. Stir well, cover, and cook for about five minutes. Add the defrosted beans and stir well. Cover and cook for ten to twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the barley, stir, cover, and cook for another thirty to forty minutes, stirring two or three times, until the barley is tender. Season with salt and pepper.

You may have to adjust this dish to your own taste. V., for example, finds it a bit acidic, though I think that may be because I didn't drain the capers before he tried it. I find, though, that I like the acidity. If you don't, you can easily add more oil. You may also want more or less basil, oregano, or capers. I can't imagine wanting fewer olives, but that's entirely up to you. I only stop at a dozen because I feel like I'm abusing the fact that olives are on my core food list.

The timing here is also highly approximate, and the dish is very forgiving. You can get away with cooking it a lot less. Or you can cook it for longer. It reheats beautifully in the microwave, so it makes a great addition to lunch. The barley is a very recent addition for me. Without it the beans are somewhat soupy. I enjoy the soupiness when I am using these beans as a base for a one-dish meal: when the beans are nearly done, I add a grilled chicken breast or a raw fish fillet and let it poach until the protein is done just the way I like it. That would be especially good if you're able to mop up the juices with some nice crusty bread. I haven't added shrimp or scallops yet, but I've got them on the list.

1I'm not trying to say here that I had anything but a happy childhood or loving parents. My mother may have been a little weird about dinner, but it's not like she would melt down at the sight of wire hangers. Speaking of which, I've never really understood why Joan Crawford just didn't get rid of all the wire hangers in her home. But I digress. Duh.

2Yet another opportunity to overstate the notional wretchedness of my youth escapes me here. While part of our basement was technically unfinished, it was nothing like a root cellar or anything remotely resembling any part of The Silence of the Lambs. The green beans, in fact, were stored with the tomatoes on open shelves a few feet away from the washer and the dryer. We weren't even miserable enough to have vermin, unless you count that one time that a small family of snakes managed to find their way into the rec room and terrorize my mother, even though the presumed Mama snake was only about five inches long and the four baby snakes were no more than two inches each. God only knows how the snakes got into the rec room, but they looked pretty cool winding in formation across the linoleum. My father gathered them into a dust pan and put them outside, and they were never heard from again. I suppose there was also the mouse incident, but since the mouse in question was an albino lab mouse that I brought home after a science experiment was finished, I think counting it is a bit of a stretch.

3One year, when my mother was feeling too ornery (this word is pronounced "ON-ree" where my mother's family comes from) to process one of the batches, my father did it instead, and when the jars had been put on the shelf in the basement, Mom discovered a little yellow worm in one of the jars. She showed it to everyone she could find. She still talks about it.



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