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Green Beans Get Serious

If you’ve gone to the supermarket the last couple of weeks, and seen huge haystacks of green beans on sale for under a dollar a pound, you might be wondering to yourself how much green bean casserole can any one family take? Pretty bad that Thanksgiving only has one sanctioned green bean recipe, and that no one can think of anything better to do with them over the holidays.

Not that I’m against plain and simple green beans, as long as they’re actually still green. Fresh, lightly steamed or microwaved or stir-fried, not boiled to death. Although frankly, I often prefer them raw and fresh as something to just wash and nosh, like carrot sticks or celery.

Even frozen green beans are fine if you treat them gently and cook them a bit less than you would fresh ones–the freezing and thawing break down all vegetables slightly, and you don’t want them to go to mush or turn brown.

Just not the dank, slimy brown horrors that emerged from a can every once in a while when I was a kid, and which my mother insisted, against all reason, had once been something living. Canned green beans are the zombies of the green bean world.

But with a bounty of cheap greens in winter, what to do with them is a pretty good question, and one that begs a three-minute solution, especially when most green vegetables are getting harder to come by. You want to stock up but you don’t want to be eating the same old, same old for a month.

My best solution for a quick green bean dish–other than the grab-and-go raw snack vegetable business above–is of course to wash and trim the tough ends from a bunch of green beans (I usually grab about a pound at a time). Stick them in a covered container or between two microwaveable stoneware or Corelle dinner plates with a drizzle of water (anything from a couple of tablespoons up to about a quarter-inch in depth) .

Three minutes on HIGH should cook a pound of rinsed and trimmed green beans to that crisp-tender ideal where they’re still green and just cooked but still have a bit of bite to them. Basically like blanched or steamed, but without the big stockpot of boiling water (which I hate to wait for and which seems a waste), the strainer, or the ice water bath (another wasted bowl).

And you can do it right before dinner as a last-minute thought, just enough for that meal so they stay green. Drain and serve them ASAP for best results. Don’t give ’em a chance to go brown.

If you want to keep them green for later, microwave them a little less, maybe 1.5-2.5 minutes per pound, just until they begin to turn jewel green, rinse them under a cold tap as soon as they’re done, drain and chill. Do not add anything acidic to them until just before you serve them so they don’t turn olive-brown.

Yes, it’s pretty plain–which is handy if you want it versatile. You can serve them hot with a mustard garlic vinaigrette or other salad-type dressing to dip into or drizzle over them. Or the richer (but not saturated-fat) sauces, tehina with lemon and garlic (and either water or plain yogurt), or Asian peanut sauce with chile, garlic and ginger are also good.

If you want something a little fancier-looking and vaguely French (we’re going for “day in Monet’s Garden,” not “tacky tourist café with haricots verts side dish that turns out to be nothing more than buttered overcooked green beans”) you can arrange the green beans in a covered stoneware platter or bowl, with thinly sliced onions and a bit of thyme and minced garlic strewn around to get a fairly nice-looking and savory microwave-to-table kind of dish that still only takes a few minutes to throw together and zap to perfection.


Slice some mushrooms over the green beans or nestle mushroom caps between them, open side up to retain the juices. White and brown (cremini) mushrooms are both fine, and if you have a portobello hanging around wondering what to do with itself, you have the makings of something even more impressive. If you go with the mushroom caps, a few sprinkles of shredded or crumbled cheese–feta is good, so is swiss–and/or a dab of garlic or pesto on the caps dresses things up even further, and a very tiny pinch or grating of nutmeg (very tiny!) over the cheese is good too. With mushrooms in the dish, I’d probably skip anything more than a tablespoon of water over the green beans, because you’ll have enough liquid to steam them and you don’t want things to get too watery. Microwave covered the three minutes as for plain green beans, lift the lid carefully to check progress–add half a minute or so if the green beans aren’t cooked enough for you. The mushrooms should probably be done about when the green beans are.


Green beans in a salad with poached eggs

Not a classic nicoise, but not shameful either–the green beans are real, fresh and still green…

Salade Niçoise 

You knew I was going to do this–as if you don’t already know how to do a salade niçoise. This one, with fresh nuked green beans, is an awful lot better than the horrible, shameful, slimy one (canned GBs again! yeesh! and a nasty sweetened dressing for which there are no excuses) I had in a Paris café my first day out, when I was still naïve enough to assume that, since they were French, of course they’d know how to make salade niçoise. I feel only marginally better knowing that David Lebovitz has actually suffered worse in his adopted city–something billed as salade niçoise but topped with white rice. One of his readers was served “salade niçoise” with canned corn. Shudder. Don’t do that, okay?

Make a green salad of romaine or leaf lettuce, washed, dried and torn, possibly a bit of arugula too, and put the following items over it–you can arrange it carefully as a pretty platter or you can toss it all together, as you prefer. Serve with a garlicky vinaigrette, mustard dressing, or just oil and vinegar. I tend to add a few extras–marinated artichoke hearts, chunks of red cabbage…whatever looks okay in my fridge.

  • Green beans, lightly nuked and chilled, although according to David Lebovitz these are not traditional in Provence after all–they favor fresh peeled fava beans. Which are more expensive and hard to come by this time of year.
  • Hard-boiled eggs cut in halves or quarters, or medium-boiled (just-set yolks) or poached eggs added to individual plates right before you eat–the latter are more sybaritic but you don’t want any kind of lightly-cooked eggs to hang around on a big communal salad platter for hours, especially if you have leftovers.
  • Greek-type olives, pitted (obviously the expensive little niçoise olives are the ones the foodies would try to insist on, but kalamata, gaeta, alfonso, etc. work just fine and are easier to pit because they’re bigger)
  • Sliced onions
  • Sliced tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, whatever ya got that won’t bankrupt you
  • Canned tuna, drained well and flaked over the top of everything else, or possibly rinsed and deboned anchovies draped over the salad at attractive intervals (at least, they’re attractive if you like anchovies)
  • Boiled new or red potatoes in chunks, drained–this is also completely nontraditional in Provence, apparently, but I like it anyway because of the…

Marinade for the still-hot potatoes

Mix and pour over the hot potatoes and let them sit and absorb it (and cool) before you add them to the salad platter:

  • Dry white wine or rosé
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic, minced
  • Chopped fresh or crumbled dry rosemary or thyme
  • squeeze of lemon
  • a little S&P to taste (fresh-ground black peppercorns, not stale years-old gray powder from a can if you can help it)

If you don’t want potatoes but want something else substantial, steamed (microwaved) cauliflower florets, cooked kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils or peeled and cooked gigantes (giant favas)–or big lima beans–would also work. Heat them, mix with the marinade, let sit to absorb and cool, add to the salad.

If you’re not into French, you can go world-beat and hit up your green beans with some hot stuff.

Two versions:

Shakshouka-style Green Beans

Only with green beans instead of eggs. I did this way back in my youth, as a kibbutz volunteer in a big shiny kibbutz that had made its fortune in plastics (yes, just like in The Graduate). They had a big shiny new kitchen complex with no cockroaches and shiny state-of-the-art everything to cook for a thousand members, including an industrial-scale electric frying tray–I don’t quite know what to call it, but it was like an electric fryer the size of a big steel table, with a five-inch rim and a pedestal cemented into the floor. The coils heated through the pedestal, and it could hold bushels of green beans in shakshouka sauce.

  • Green beans, washed and trimmed
  • Chunky tomato sauce with garlic
  • optional bell pepper
  • Chile flakes
  • Cracked black pepper too, why not?
  • Pinches of cumin and cinnamon, optional OR a pinch of fennel seed and some oregano

Take a thick, chunky, garlicky tomato sauce like my microwave marinara, adding a chopped bell pepper or so if you happen to like it. Jazz it up with chile flakes and cracked black pepper to taste, and maybe a few pinches of cumin and cinnamon for that north African vibe or else fennel seed and oregano for Italian (note: not all four spices at once unless you’re seriously warped!), and heat it a few minutes in a nonstick frying pan. Microwave green beans lightly and toss them into the pan to simmer for a minute or so until just tender. Don’t let them go too long or the acidity of the sauce will start turning them olive drab.


Szechuan-style green beans

Szechuan-style or dry-fried green beans

This version is less oily and a lot less salted than the restaurant version, and possibly quicker but still packs a punch. On the down side, I don’t wait until the green beans are charred and blistered. On the up side, this is a pretty simple version with a short list of fairly easy to find ingredients.

If you can’t get Szechuan peppercorn, or they’re Whole Foods-only and three bucks for a teaspoon worth (even here in Pasadena! I was PO’d–I have GOT to branch out and find a decent Chinese corner grocery), I’ve discovered that a coarsely crushed or ground half-and-half mix of whole black peppercorns and coriander seeds is a pretty decent substitute. It’s still not an exact match but it covers much of the territory–numbing sensation, floral notes and heat from the pepper; citrusy notes from the coriander seed. A mortar and pestle will do the trick, as will a coffee grinder you don’t mind using (and wiping clean before tomorrow morning), or at a pinch, putting the spices in a plastic bag, setting it on a cutting board, and crushing them with a rolling pin. If you make several tablespoons’ worth, save whatever you don’t use in a zippered sandwich baggie with the air squeezed out and keep it in the freezer for next time so the flavors don’t evaporate.

  • Green beans (~ 1 lb.), washed, stem ends trimmed
  • 1 T olive or neutral vegetable oil
  • 1 lg clove garlic, mashed, minced or grated
  • 1/2 t z’khug (chile-garlic-cilantro paste, or chile flakes to taste)
  • ~ 1 t. coarse-ground Szechuan peppercorn OR a half-and-half mix of crushed whole black peppercorns with crushed whole coriander seed (note–you want it coarse and freshly crushed, not years-old flavorless powder out of that spice rack your in-laws bought for your wedding)
  • 1/2 t. Chinese toasted sesame oil
  • few shakes of low-sodium soy sauce
  • half-inch dab of dark/blackstrap molasses, optional

While the green beans are microwave-steaming, heat a little oil in a nonstick pan with optional molasses and add a minced clove of garlic, some chile flakes, and a teaspoon (or less, or more, to taste) coarsely ground Szechuan peppercorn or black pepper/coriander seed mix. Let the spices toast for 30 seconds or so, add a couple of spoonfuls of water to keep things from burning, boil it down to near-dry again, and toss in the just-cooked green beans to coat. Sprinkle on the soy sauce sparingly and keep tossing until everything looks and smells good and the beans are the tenderness you prefer. Sprinkle on the sesame oil and toss once more, then serve quickly. Warn your company about the spice factor if you need to.

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