Monday, July 20, 2009

Green Bean Territory

It is amazing what people will just give you for free: advice, directions, warnings.  Now granted, all this free stuff comes with a price, which is that you may not want what’s being given away for free.  One must sift through the silt to find the gems.  But when that gem comes my way, in the form of a recipe, I’m muttering the directions under my breath all the way to Whole Foods and into my kitchen.

One never knows when she is going to acquire a new recipe.  There are the obvious places of course, like cookbooks, magazines, and the dozens of excellent food blogs out here in the ether.  I love all those places and cook from them frequently.  But my favorite way to acquire a new recipe is a little more subtle.  I can’t even go about it deliberately.  It has to happen on its own time.  That method is the spontaneous, excited, shared-in-the-middle-of-a-conversation exchange.  I highly recommend it.

To understand how this method works for me, I have to tell you that in my non-blog life, I make no secret of my love for food and cooking.  When I first met my friend Daine, we discovered quickly that we both love to cook.  Daine, I learned a bit later, is a fabulous cook.  From his homemade breads to his (wife’s) cilantro hummus to his amazing cheesecakes and ginger molasses cookies, Daine is like a walking issue of Bon Appétit.  I want to eat everything he makes.  He’s so generous too!  If he makes something particularly delicious, like a lusciously rich and creamy mocha cheesecake, he’ll save me a slice, tuck it in his bag, and bring it all the way from his Hyde Park kitchen to our lab in Evanston.  Few people have ever brought me cheesecake before; I’m almost afraid of what I could be convinced to do if someone used cheesecake as a bribe to get the job done.  But I digress; Daine isn’t like that at all.  He’s got a feisty, snarky sense of humor, and he’s almost too confident sometimes, but he is also one of the kindest, most genuinely caring people I’ve ever met.  He also makes one of the best ginger molasses cookies I’ve ever eaten.  He is superlative all around.

Daine and I chat frequently about food.  I like that I can ask him, “So, what have you made lately?” and I always get an interesting answer.  I’m happy to run into him in a space that facilitates chatting.  The lunchroom at work is one of those spaces.  The Fly Room is another.  It was just another Friday evening in the Fly Room when Daine and I were chatting about our dinner plans.  I don’t remember exactly how our conversation meandered into green bean territory, but that was the salient part for me.  He described for me the green bean dish his mom makes with the beans plucked straight from her garden: a slow-cooked pile of beans, gently infused with garlic and sesame oil, followed by a splash of soy sauce, and a pinch each of cayenne pepper and sugar.  The final touch was a handful of slivered, toasted almonds, tossed over the beans at the table.  The whole thing sounded amazing.  That night, my little legs couldn’t get me to Whole Foods fast enough for a pound of green beans.

Daine’s mom’s recipe did not disappoint.  I had to consult a cookbook to figure out exactly how to cook the beans, but that was easy enough with my fat copy of Passionate Vegetarian sitting up so straight and eager on my cookbook shelf.  I decided to infuse the sesame oil with garlic and then remove the garlic for the long, slow cooking that would coax the beans into caramelized, meltingly tender pods.  That way, the garlic wouldn’t burn and the beans could be cooked for as long as I wanted.  I added the garlic back into the finished beans at the end for an extra bite of earthy flavor.

I’ve always liked green beans but always frozen or canned, never fresh.  This recipe has made me a believer.  I’m even branching out beyond the slow-cooked green bean to embrace the snappy crispness of a quickly blanched, barely cooked bean that has me bookmarking new recipes, such as the article in June 2009’s Bon Appétit that described eight(!) new recipes for fresh green beans.  (Eight!)  It’s like the mother lode.  I’ve gotta start buying more than a pound of green beans each week if I’m going to sample all these recipes.  But Daine’s mom’s recipe has dibs on my cast-iron skillet for the rest of the summer.

Daine’s Mom’s Slow-Cooked Green Beans

Adapted from my friend Daine and his mom’s favorite green bean recipe

Serves 2-3

This recipe is terrific.  In a single cast-iron skillet, a pound or so of green beans cooks by a combination of sautéing in sesame oil and braising in their own vegetal juice as they sweat it out inside a lidded chamber.  When they have shriveled into gently bronzed, sweetened pods, you add a splash of soy sauce, some heat in the form of cayenne pepper, and just a touch of sugar to balance everything out.  The result is the taste of a July garden in a single bite.

A word of caution from Daine: be sure to have some liquid in the pan when you add the cayenne.  If you don’t, the heat will create cayenne pepper vapors—“Mace,” says Daine—that induce coughing fits and a frantic splash of water into the skillet.  I think you can guess how he knows this…

~3/4 pound (12 oz.) fresh green beans

1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil

2 cloves garlic

1/2-1 tbsp. soy sauce (your choice; how salty do you want your beans?)

A shake or two of cayenne pepper (maybe 1/8 tsp.?)

Pinch of sugar

1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted (~5 minutes on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree F oven ought to do the trick)

1)  Prep the green beans: place them in a strainer, rinse them well under cold water, and then break off the stem end.  You can leave the nice tapered pointy end intact.

2)  Heat the sesame oil over medium heat in a large skillet, preferably NOT non-stick.  I use my gorgeous ten-inch cast-iron skillet for this.  Add the garlic, sauté for a minute to infuse the oil, then remove the garlic from the pan to a small plate and set aside for now.

3)  Lower the heat to a low setting.  Add the green beans to the skillet and sauté for a minute, pushing them around frequently.  They might seem a tiny bit crowded if your skillet is a ten-incher like mine, but don’t worry; the beans will cook just fine.  Clamp a tight-fitting lid on the skillet and let the beans cook for about 30-40 minutes, uncovering them and pushing them around every 5-10 minutes.  During this process, you’ll notice two things: the first is that the beans give off a lot of liquid as they are cooking.  The second is that as they give off all that liquid and cook against the hot iron of the skillet, they’ll become a bit shriveled and brown on some sides.  That’s all part of the plan.

4)  Uncover the beans and add the garlic and soy sauce.  Push around to coat the beans in soy sauce and cook until most or all the liquid is evaporated.

5)  If the liquid has all evaporated, add ~1/2 tbsp. water, the cayenne pepper, and the sugar.  Otherwise, just add the cayenne and sugar.  Push around again to distribute the seasonings and let the liquid cook off.

6)  Turn off the heat and transfer the green bean mixture to individual plates or a large serving plate for the table.  Top with toasted almonds and serve.  Try not to get your hopes up that there will be any leftovers.  Plan to make more green beans tomorrow.


Nicole said...

This sounds delicious! I love green beans. They are a fast and easy go-too veggie side for many of my dinners. For even MORE ideas, check out EatingWell's website. I usually steam green beans and add any variety of sauce or spice mix, depending on my mood and the rest of my meal. I don't have a cast iron skillet, but maybe my non-stick would work.

Nicole said...

^ oops, used the wrong word in "go-to." I should slow down!

ttfn300 said...

ooh, that does sound delish! my fav way to cook green beans right now is to roast them with sliced red peppers, EVOO and some s/p. i was shocked at how tasty they were :)

Rosiecat said...

Huzzah for green beans!

Nicole, I'm glad to hear you love green beans too. I'll have to hop on over to EatingWell--thanks for the tip!

From what I've read, I think the main thing about non-stick skillets is that it's hard to caramelize food while cooking in them. The surface of the pan just isn't conducive to that kind of cooking. I think you could make a very good version of this recipe in a non-stick skillet; you just wouldn't get the nice browning that happens in cast-iron. You definitely need a lid, though, in order to trap the moisture so that the beans can braise. If you try it, do report back with your results!

Ooh, ttfn, roasted green beans! Those do sound good! What roasting temperature do you use?

Laurie said...

Shriveled, browned green beans. Hmmm. I'm more of a snappy, steamed green bean gal myself, yet somehow you make this recipe sound delish. May just have to see if there are beans at the market tomorrow.

ttfn300 said...

Mmm, somewhere between 400 and 450 :)

Rosiecat said...

Hi Laurie! Far be it from me to tell you how to eat your green beans, but what this recipe lacks in looks it more than makes up for with flavor. And I think it's nice to have lots of vegetable recipes because if we're going to eat them all the time for good health, then we might as well enjoy some variety!

ttfn, thanks! I've still got a bag of beans in the crisper drawer, so I'll give your roasting method a whirl.

daine said...

By the way, sesame seeds make a great addition at the end especially if you've added way too much pepper and it's blazingly hot (that tends to happen when you don't measure anything).

Rosiecat said...

Sesame seeds sound awesome, Daine. What isn't made better by sesame seeds?

Speaking of not measuring anything, when Matt and I made this dish on Sunday, there was no measuring involved. Not one measuring spoon was dirtied in the making of this dish. I can't decide if that makes him a good or a bad influence on me! Either way, he's awfully nice company to have in the kitchen.