A mess of fresh green beans on a plate is at the top of the list of the best summer produce, right up there with just-picked corn on the cob and juicy tomatoes.
Green beans, also called string beans and snap beans, are "best cooked very slowly, in a black pot or skillet, with a ration of cured pork or bacon grease," according to John Egerton's Southern Food.
Egerton, who was raised in Cadiz, is one of the South's leading culinary experts and has spent decades documenting the diverse food cultures of the South. He's also a founding editor of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Many Southerners still prefer their green beans "cooked to death," and Egerton explains that there are two variations of the cooking method:
"You can either simmer a 2-inch cube of salt pork or a small piece of country ham hock in a deep, covered pot or skillet with 4 cups of water for one hour or more. Put in 1 pound of beans and cook them covered over low heat for three to four hours. Stir occasionally and add water if necessary. Some salt may be needed if the pork is not enough. Or, you can put 2 tablespoons of bacon grease in a heavy iron skillet over medium heat. When the grease is hot, put in the beans. "Reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook slowly for three hours or more. It may be necessary to add a little water now and then, but condensation in the closed pot should provide most of the moisture needed. Add salt if necessary."
There's no denying that green beans taste delicious when cooked this way, but nutritionists prefer that we eat them in a more recognizable state. When cooked in a small amount of water for a short time, green beans contain only 27 calories per cup.
Linda McMaine, a vendor at Bluegrass Farmers Market, grows green beans on her farm in Salvisa. The variety she favors most is Jade. Johnny's Selected Seeds lists Jade green beans as "gourmet-quality beans."
"They are an excellent green bean, very tender and have a good flavor," McMaine said. "The plants are heat-tolerant and high yielding, even in the kind of weather we have been having. They mature in 53 days, so they are about average for the length of time for production after seeding. I cooked ours with a little ham seasoning (the kind that is similar to bouillon), and they were delicious.
Despite the shortage of rain this summer, McMaine's garden is doing well.
"We are able to irrigate from the Salt River, so we have water to keep things alive and producing," she said. "We did use city water before we got the pump ready and hooked up to the river.
"Our biggest problem this year seems to be cucumber beetles. They are everywhere. We have not sprayed anything to try to control them, though, because we don't want to stress the plants with the spray."
When shopping at farmers markets, you'll see signs for snap beans (because when you break them in half, you'll hear a snap). They include pole beans, wax beans, haricots verts (skinny ones), rattlesnake beans and string beans (although modern varieties are often bred to be stringless).
Skillet green beans with orange
1 large navel orange
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 pound green beans, ends trimmed
¾ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, champagne vinegar or rice vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Finely grate zest of the orange and reserve it. Segment the orange and keep the sections and juice in a bowl.
In a large cast-iron skillet or sauté pan, heat canola oil over high heat, swirling it around the pan so it coats the bottom thinly and evenly. When the oil begins to smoke, add beans (in batches if necessary — don't crowd the pan) and scatter ½ teaspoon salt over them. Cook, stirring only every 1½ to 2 minutes, until beans are half-blistered and blackened, about 8 minutes. Transfer beans to a serving platter or bowl. Lift the orange segments out of their juice (reserve juice) and scatter them over the beans. Sprinkle ¼ teaspoon orange zest over beans and oranges.
Add vinegar, olive oil and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt to bowl of orange juice, and whisk until thoroughly combined. Pour dressing over beans. Toss, then season to taste with salt, black pepper and the remaining orange zest.
From The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
Stewed string beans with tomatoes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, sliced
1 large yellow onion, cut into thick ribs
3/4 pound string beans, stems trimmed, cut in half
1 ripe tomato, coarsely chopped, including juices
Sea salt and pepper
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
3 cups water
1⁄8 teaspoon ground cloves
1⁄8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
5 large fresh basil leaves
Heat oil in a heavy 4-quart pot over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, beans, tomato, salt and pepper. Stir well to coat with oil. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until vegetables have softened and released some of their juices.
Add tomato paste, water, cloves and cayenne, stirring well to mix thoroughly. Coarsely chop basil, then stir it into the bean mixture.
Cover and bring to a medium-high boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until beans are tender. Taste for seasonings.
From Welcome to Claire's: 35 Years of Recipes and Reflections from the Landmark Vegetarian Restaurant by Claire Criscuolo (Lyons Press, $24.95)
In the South, dried green beans are called leather britches. "It is an age-old process of blanching the beans first to destroy bacteria, drying the beans and then stringing them as you would hot peppers. They can be rehydrated in water or stock, and used in any recipe calling for green beans," according to The Complete Southern Cookbook by Tammy Algood (Running Press, $26.95).
2 pounds fresh green beans, trimmed
Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Place beans in a steamer, then steam for 21/2 minutes. Run cold water over steamed beans and place in single layer on a jelly-roll pan. Place in the freezer 30 minutes.
Lay beans on the racks of a food dehydrator. Dry 8 to 10 hours, or follow the instructions on dehydrator. When the beans are completely dry, string and hang in a dry, dark place until ready to use. You also can place the dried beans in a canning jar or any container that can be closed tightly. Makes 1 string.
Sharon Thompson: (859) 231-3321. Twitter: @FlavorsofKY. Blog: Flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com.