Great New Reliable Green Beans

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I don’t love redemption narratives, at least when it comes to thinking about my own life. There’s always the chance that one’s triumph will sour, plateaus will be reached, or any number of twists and turns that these stories are err to in real life. Yet I’ll make an exception for green beans. Growing up, I mostly encountered frozen green beans and green beans out of a can. And I hated them. Their limp, beige-green color made me ill, as did their potted-water smell; even disguised under cheese sauce and in a vegetable mix with corn and sliced carrots, nothing about them was appealing. (That said, Thanksgiving green bean casserole — you know, the one with the cream of mushroom soup and crispy onions on top? — was and is still incredible. But those aren’t really beans anymore, a fact I note in love (!) rather than disgust.)

As the years have gone by, and I’ve gotten older, wiser, and a kitchen of of my own, I’ve learned to tolerate green beans, especially the overflowing baskets you get at the farmer’s market. They’re fresh and snappy! Delightfully green and healthy! They go with anything! Good, old reliable green beans. I made them amadine, that toasty, sweet-savory dish prepared with butter, almonds, and garlic; I made them bright and bustling with lemon, drawing out their green flavor with olive oil and a healthy smattering of parsley, all pulled together by the rich, nutty undertone of pine nuts. I even grew to like them nearly raw, quick-blanched and served with hummus, green goddess, or red-pepper dip. Like broccoli or even summer squash, they’re a substantial green vegetable that you can turn to automatically as a side dish, one not expected to upstage the main course but that helps to fill out the meal.

Then this past year rolled by, and I found two versions that changed the way I thought about (or rather, tasted for) green beans. Rather than boiling the beans and quickly sauteeing them with your nuts and aromatics, these recipes called for the beans to cook for a good long time, in the pan, with butter. One of the recipes said you want them to “stew in their own juices,” which was a revelatory way of thinking about green beans; both of them told you to cook them until they browned, shrunk, and got tender. This, as I found, intensifies the flavor, a pure concentrated green bean goodness that one very rarely experiences in other preparations. Once the beans are browned and almost caramelized, you then throw a good amount of chopped garlic into the pan, enough to flash cook it but still keep its bite, which provides a welcome contrast to the vegetal sweetness. And voilà! Beans living up to their fullest and best potential.

 

The cooking process.

The cooking process.

 

Penelope Casa’s Garlic Green Beans (from Food52)

  • ¾ pound Fresh Green Beans
  • 1 Tbsp Butter
  • 1 Clove Garlic, crushed
  • Coarse Salt

Trim the green beans. Melt butter in a skillet, add beans, and cook over medium to med-high flame, stirring, until they beging to brown.

Lower the flame, cover, and cook 15-20 min, or until the beans are your desired tenderness, stirring occasionally.

Mix in crushed garlic, sprinkle with salt, and serve.

 

Chinese-Restaurant Style Green Beans (from Fine Cooking)

  • 1 Tbs Less-Sodium Soy Sauce
  • 1 Tbs Honey
  • 1 Tbs Unsalted Butter
  • 2 Tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1# Younger Green Beans, trimmed
  • Kosher Salt
  • 1 Tbs Minced Garlic

In a 10-inch straight-sided sauté pan, heat the butter with the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, add the green beans and ½ tsp salt and toss with tongs to coat well. Cook, turning the beans occasionally, until most are well browned, shrunken, and tender, 7 to 8 minutes. (The butter in the pan will have turned dark brown.)

Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, and cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof rubber spatula, until the garlic is softened and fragrant, 15 to 20 seconds. Carefully add the soy mixture (you’ll need to scrape the honey into the pan). Cook, stirring, until the liquid reduces to a glazey consistency that coats the beans, 30 to 45 seconds.

Immediately transfer the beans to the serving dish, scraping the pan with the spatula to get all of the garlicky sauce. Let sit for a few minutes and then serve warm.

 

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Rage for Order, or, Substantial Salads

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

(from Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West")

I love origin stories.  This poem, along with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog, is part of mine.  The former introduced me to The Experience of Literature, and moreover, that experience is worth writing down; the latter taught me that sharing is caring; and the Wallace Stevens — well, the Stevens taught me to love both the sounds of words and ideas of order.  All of this was in high school, where I had a fiercely ambivalent relationship to formal English classes; it took me quite a bit longer to decide that the study of literature was worth a lifetime’s work, and more specifically, mine.  But we love what we love, we are that we are, and whether the fixing (arranging, deepening, enchanting) was or was not of my own making, I ended up going to the things I loved, anyway — that which I am, will be, and in some sense, always already was.  A blessed and troubling rage for order, indeed, one that might make us long for the counterfactual with all its ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

I was thinking a few days ago about the origin of “A Kitchen of One’s Own,” the food life I began to inhabit a few years ago and that continues to structure my day-to-day.  And I realized that despite my curious and almost pathological love for narrative, I had never really thought about my culinary trajectory, never saw a plot to it beyond the cyclical influence of seasonality.  Indeed, that’s partly why I love food life — it’s so whimsical and contingent, growing rhizomatically as it refuses emplotment and my tyrannous rage for order (despite my penchant for baking.)  But now, looking back across time, I realize there were and are local patterns and lines of order to what I (perhaps over-enthusiastically) previously imagined was delightful culinary anarchy.  I started wildly, passionately, baking cake after cake, puddings and pots de crème; roasted chickens; attacked parsnips; refused to shy away from butter and insisted upon fresh herbs, spent most to all of my paycheck on foodstuff.  That first winter I made thick, rich stews and sauces and roasted pan after pan of vegetables, while the summer brought three glorious months of grilling and charcoalated giddiness (a summer, too, of the heirloom tomato).  Then another academic year, another turn of the seasons, and I found myself a little more frugal, a little less decadent, and above all, soup-hungry.  So there was soup every weekend, supplemented by a strange and bewildering obsession with braised cabbage and admirable (read: tenacious) foray into bread-making.  Indeed, I never stopped baking: the first year of grad school brought many a therapeutic cake into the world, though they were often simpler, unfrosted, full of spices and fruit.   Then I was single (i.e., culinary idiosyncracy); and then I was in Korea (i.e., kimchi, begrudgingly); and then I was back, and “then” became “now.”

And now?  Now I’m rather obsessed with substantial salads, ones that start with a hearty base of beans, rice, or grains like wheatberries and a colorful vegetable (often roasted), mixed with fresh herbs and oftentimes flavorful cheese, and then finished with a sparkling vinaigrette (with aromatics like shallots, onions, garlic) that binds it all together, making each part positively jewel-like.  Case in point:

Here we have a roasted beet salad with wheat berries and feta, tossed in an oregano vinaigrette.  These salads are often very nice served atop greens, whether that’s lettuce, arugula, or even heartier greens like chard or kale.  They are good warm or cold, keep forever, and make lovely brainfood lunches on the go.  Today I’m going to share with you two of my absolute favorites, this one with the beets (from Lottie + Doof) and one with carrots, dill, and white beans found on 101 Cookbooks, where you can find many substantial salads along the lines presented here.  I’d encourage you to experiment with what you have on hand and what you have in mind, as the formula is quite intuitive, easy, and effective.

Grain + vegetable + herb + cheese + dressing.  Sometimes a rage for order isn’t so bad after all.

Roasted Beet Salad with Wheat Berries and Feta, from Lottie + Doof

Oregano Vinaigrette:
1 Shallot, finely minced (while you can use onion, shallots are particularly nice here)
3 tbsp. White Wine Vinegar (you can also use sherry or rice wine vinegar, but the acidity of the white wine vinegar is a good match for the sweet wheat berries)
½ tsp. Honey
1 tbsp. Finely Chopped Fresh Oregano
½ tsp. Dried Oregano
Kosher Salt And Freshly Ground Black Pepper
¼ cup Good Quality Olive Oil (or a bit less)

Salad
Arugula, preferably baby or wild arugula (optional)
2-3 medium Beets, roasted, peeled and chopped*** (you can also use Trader Joe’s wrapped precooked beets, but I find they seem rather anemic in comparison)
2 cups Cooked Wheat Berries***
½ lb. Feta
Fresh Oregano

Make vinaigrette: In a small bowl combine the shallot, vinegar, oregano, honey, salt and pepper. Let sit for 15 minutes. slowly add olive oil, whisking to combine.

Assemble salad: Place arugula leaves in a medium bowl and toss with a couple of tablespoons of vinaigrette. Divide dressed arugula among 4 plates. Top with ¼ of wheat berries and ¼ of the beets and ¼ of the feta. Drizzle remaining dressing on top. Sprinkle with some additional oregano, salt and pepper. Serve.

*** To roast beets: Preheat oven to 400° F. Wash beets and wrap individually in aluminum foil. Bake for 45-60 minutes or until a small knife easily glides into beet. Let cool a bit before peeling and chopping.

*** To cook wheat berries: Combine 1 ½ cups wheat berries, 6 cups of water and 1 teaspoon salt in a medium pot. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, until tender. This will take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour and 20 minutes. Add additional boiling water as needed to keep grain covered.

Carrot, Dill, and White Bean Salad, from 101 Cookbooks

Dressing:
¼ cup Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
3 tbsp. Fresh Lemon Juice
¼ tsp. Fine Grain Salt
½ cup Thinly Sliced Shallots

Salad:More Olive Oil (Or Ghee) For Cooking
2 cups Sliced Carrots, cut ¼-inch thick on deep bias
3 cups Cooked White Beans
Scant ¼ Cup Chopped Fresh Dill
2 tbsp. Brown Sugar (Or Honey)
⅓ cup Sliced Almonds, toasted (I skip this; and lo, the world does not end)

Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and shallots in a small bowl. Stir and set aside.

In your largest skillet over medium high heat, toss the carrots with a splash of olive oil or a spoonful of ghee (I love ghee with carrots). Let them cook in a single layer – they’ll give off a bit of water at first. Keep cooking, tossing gently every three or four minutes until the carrots are deeply browned. All told, about twelve minutes.

Add the beans and dill to the skillet and cook for another five minutes, or until the beans as well heated through. If you are using beans that weren’t canned you can allow them to brown a bit as well (just cook a bit longer, and stir less frequently) – they can handle this in a way that most canned beans can’t. If you need to add a bit more olive oil to the pan – do so.

Place the contents of the skillet in a large mixing bowl, sprinkle with the brown sugar and pour the ¾ of the lemon-olive oil mixture over the top. Toss gently. Let sit for ten minutes. Toss gently once again, taste and adjust with more salt or sugar or lemon juice if needed to balance the flavors. Serve warm or at room temperature and finish by sprinkling with the almonds just before serving.

Two Things to do with Ricotta: Sugar Snap Peas and Strawberry Graham Tarts

A few months ago, if you asked me how I felt about ricotta–and yes, I find that a perfectly legitimate topic of conversation, don’t you?– I probably would have answered with a shrug.  Ricotta, eh. A bland grainy substance masquerading as cheese, essential for stuffed pasta but not much else.  In short, I was not enthralled.

But then–oh then!–I went to the Italian Market, found myself in Claudio’s Mozzarella (a little jewel of a shop that only sells pesto, mozzarella and ricotta), decided on a whim to buy some fresh-made ricotta and dear god, it was love at first bite.  Creamy, soft, and cool, it was exquisitely and surprisingly flavorful with an almost shy and tender sweetness.  When I wasn’t eating it plain, I had it with berries and a bit of honey, marveling at the profound distance between mediocrity, on the one hand, and the truly, heartachingly good on the other.

Since then, I’ve been trying to expand my ricotta repertoire, and have found some real stunners that I’d like to share with you.  Two, in fact: one savory, one sweet, and both are simple and seasonal.  The first is for Strawberry Graham Tarts, originally from Food & Wine and found again on Smitten Kitchen (pictured below); the second is a delightful dish with sugar snap peas adapted from the Amateur Gourmet (which I ate so quickly there was no time for photography!)  Enjoy.

Strawberry Graham Tarts (from Food & Wine, April 2010)

Excellent picnic food, perfect to make ahead, and the easiest tart you’ll ever make as they are essentially cookies.  What I especially love about this recipe is that each element is its own rock-star and could stand very well on its own (no Ringo here, folks!), especially the cheesecake-like ricotta mixture, which I’ve been eating with blueberries and apricots.

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour (or graham flour, if you can find it)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of ground cloves
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons molasses (or honey, if you don’t have molasses)
3/4 pound strawberries, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 cups fresh ricotta (10 ounces)
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (note: I used more, at least two teaspoons)

  1. In a bowl, whisk both flours with the cinnamon, salt and cloves. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter, light brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar at medium speed until fluffy, about 1 minute. Beat in the honey and molasses, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the side of the bowl and beat in the flour mixture at low speed, just until incorporated. Pat the dough into a disk, cover with plastic and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick. Using a 3 1/2-inch oval cookie cutter, stamp out 16 ovals; reroll the dough scraps if necessary. Transfer the ovals to the baking sheets and bake for about 12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through, until lightly golden around the edges. Let cool on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer the ovals to racks to cool completely. (Note: while I liked a bigger base–I used a 3.5 in round biscuit cutter–I think smaller tartlets would also be very charming.  Just not a lot of room for strawberries on top…)
  3. In a bowl, toss the strawberries with the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar and the lemon juice. Let stand until syrupy, 20 minutes.
  4. In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta, confectioners’ sugar and lemon zest. Spread about 1 tablespoon of the ricotta mixture on each oval. Arrange the strawberries over the ricotta, drizzle with the syrup and serve.


And here’s the lovely Alice, chef, foodie, and food-model extraordinaire with one of the tarts:

Our second recipe is Sugar Snap Peas and (Whipped) Ricotta, a fresh, clean, and uniquely savory pairing for the sweetness of ricotta.  A surprisingly harmonious dish.

sugar-snap peas, ends snapped off and de-stringed
olive oil
lemon juice
lemon zest
torn mint (optional)
shallots or green onions, thinly sliced (optional)
ricotta cheese
milk (optional)

  1. Put a pot of water on to boil, and when boiling, briefly submerge your beautiful sugar-snap peas (for about half a minute to a minute, enough to get them bright and green but still crisp-tender.)  Drain, and submerge in cold water (a technique called “shocking,” which helps them keep their color and texture.)
  2. Strain shocked peas, and toss with a healthy glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle of lemon zest, mint (if you’re using it) and the shallots or green onions (again, if you’re using them).  Toss gently, and salt and pepper to taste.  Taste one; it should be amazing.
  3. Here’s the exciting part: you can either just do what I did and serve the peas over a dollop of ricotta (drizzled with a bit of olive oil), or do as the Amateur Gourmet did and beat the ricotta, slowly drizzling in a bit of milk until it gets smooth and airy.  He recommends doing it in a stand mixer, but I’m sure you could do it by hand.  Either way (regular or airy), I’m sure this dish would be equally amazing.

Happy January!

Hello everyone, and happy January!

Though it’s currently the beginning of a new semester here, with all the frenetic and expansive energy attending the return to academia, it seems to me that the food world holds its own temporal court, keeping us in something like a stasis of old apples, sweet carrots, potatoes and cabbage. I still can’t shake the sense that January is so very much locked between November and March, in the culinary doldrums of sister winter. There is no freedom in a root vegetable, if you catch my drift. Its flavor-fullness comes through a sense of warmth, comfort, perhaps even staidness–but at the moment, I’m ready for all that is solid to melt into air (wink). I’m ready for the giddiness of spring, mainly for fresh rhubarb and salads–oh, salads!–that you feel are necessary rather than salutary, ones you don’t even have to think about, the components just jump right into your bowl.

Now don’t get me wrong, I happen to like winter produce, especially when it comes in your farm share:


It’s true: everything does taste better when from a CSA share. Alice and I are splitting a half-vegetarian share from Keystone Farm, which is pretty much perfect. We also get eggs, granola and cheese every week, which is wonderful! West Phillians, if you’re thinking about doing CSA, you should definitely check out this option. Plus they give you a print-out about your weekly share, detailing what type of produce you’ve gotten as well as recipes to try featuring–you guessed it–the inexorable march of apples, onions, carrots, and potatoes. I’ll post one ASAITO (As Soon As I’ve Tried One.) But for now I’ve been turning to all of Molly’s really great braised vegetable recipes, the ones that make cabbages really lush and lovely, an unforgettable symphony of tenderness and savoriness. I happen to really like braising with its mixture of simplicity and time; it’s perfect for the winter when it’s harder to care about you food, and yet you still want your food to care about you in complex, interesting, layered ways. Roasting also gets me there, but somehow it’s not as exciting (at least right now, at least to me.)

Here’s a great recipe for braised red cabbage, a sweet-and-sour take on the theme that really pops. For a winter vegetable, it’s so flavorful and bright, almost in a summery way. The first time I made it I ate almost all of it. Dolefully scraping the last bits of it out of the container, I honestly considered making it again that night–and I’m telling you people, that was no small amount of cabbage. Trust me. You’re going to like it.

Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage
From the Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook (I know. But it was only 8 bucks at Marshalls and the recipes are really quite good. Its holiday spirit got me through paper-writing.)

1 small head red cabbage (about 2 pounds)
2 T vegetable oil
7 T red-wine vinegar
3 T honey
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch allspice
salt and pepper to taste
1 Granny Smith apple

1. Halve cabbage lengthwise; remove core, and slice leaves as thinly as possible.
2. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add cabbage and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar, honey, cinnamon and allspice. Season with salt and pepper. Add 3 T water, and continue cooking until cabbage is almost soft, about 1 1/2 hours. Add more water as needed if pan looks dry. (NOTE: I usually just cook it for one hour before adding the apple. Life is short. More to the point, I am impatient.)
3. Halve apple lengthwise, remove core, and slice apple into very thin wedges. Add to cabbage, and continue cooking until cabbage is soft and almost dry, about 20 minutes more. Serve warm. (NOTE: Also strangely good cold, straight out of the fridge!)

ps: We got a green cabbage in our last CSA share! It was so beautiful; when I sliced into it, it looked just like a giant brussels sprout.