For all the complaining I did about green beans as a child, I can’t believe I’m growing (and eating) more of them these days than practically any other vegetable. My green bean complaints started early. First, my mom seemed stuck on serving those frozen, stringy “frenched” beans about five times a week, no matter what else was on the plate. (‘Very mushy texture’ is the best thing I can say about them.) After her Julia Child-cooking enlightenment period, my mom moved on to fresh beans—but we still ate them, boiled with butter, a lot. Then my Dad got into vegetable gardening, and his pride and joy were pole string beans. I remember one summer (I think I was 10) when it seemed like we ate nothing but green beans. Ack. I’m pretty sure there was then a period of about 20 years when I didn’t eat any green beans at all.
But eventually I became editor of Fine Cooking magazine, and as such, privy to all kinds of reader feedback and issue surveys. I noticed that every time we did a feature with green bean recipes in it, the article topped the popularity scales. Finally, I had to say to myself, “It’s about the green beans, stupid.” Yes, I admitted, green beans are the most popular, most well-liked vegetable on the planet (or at least in America).
Fortunately somewhere along the way I also learned to love green beans—mostly because I began to cook them in lots of different ways. (I roast, grill, braise, and sauté them in Fast, Fresh & Green.) But there’s no getting around the fact that boiling is the quickest, simplest, and most efficient method for cooking green beans perfectly. And also the easiest way to ruin them.
There’s only one way to tell if a bean is perfectly cooked—by tasting it. Tasting as you cook is one of those concepts that chefs hammer into your head in culinary school, so I just thought I’d pass it along to you without screaming or throwing pots. There really is a practical (and rewarding) reason to taste as you cook. Actually, two reasons: flavor and texture. Unless you taste as you go, you won’t catch the subtle changes in flavor and texture that heat (both dry and wet heat) imparts to food, and you won’t be able to make the necessary adjustments in seasoning and cooking times that recipe instructions simply can’t tell you to do.
Green beans are a great example. Undercooked green beans are rubbery; overcooked are mushy. If you are boiling beans, simply begin tasting them after a few minutes. At first you will have a hard time biting through them. As the texture softens, the green beans are closer to being perfectly cooked. When you can just bite through with no resistance, they’re done. (If you walk away to check your email at this point and come back 5 minutes later, you will be sorry.) Yes, you will have to sacrifice a few green beans to tasting.
The thing is, different sized (and different aged) beans cook at different rates, so you pretty much need to taste every batch every time you cook them. In our garden, we are now harvesting “filet” beans—lovely slender green beans that are similar to French haricots verts—and they cook in just a couple minutes. But yesterday, I bought regular green beans at the grocery store to test a recipe for this blog (below), and they took about 6 minutes to be perfectly done. So tasting’s the thing.
By the way, in case there was any doubt, green beans are just as popular on Martha’s Vineyard as everywhere else. Even on recent days when hardly anything else at the farm stand has sold, the filet beans have disappeared. So of course, what have we gone and done? Planted more. (Bush beans are quick to germinate, flower, and fruit.) And the pole beans are coming, too. Yikes, I am going to be surrounded by green beans… having Jack-and-The-Beanstalk nightmares, don’t ya know. What goes around comes around.
The technique for perfectly cooked green beans is embedded in the recipe below. If you don’t feel like green beans with a Greek flavor profile, simply cook the beans and dress them as you please while they’re still a bit warm. Brown better, lemon oil, pesto, your favorite vinaigrette—whatever you like.
3 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
¼ medium red onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
12 ounces (3/4 lb.) green beans, trimmed
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 scant teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped, pitted Kalamata olives
1 to 2 tablespoons finely crumbled feta cheese
1 tablespoon finely chopped toasted almonds
In a small nonstick skillet, heat ½ teaspoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sliced red onion and cook, stirring, until the onion has just softened (the smallest pieces will be wilted), about 2 minutes. Set the onions aside.
Fill a large saucepan half full with water and 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Arrange a few layers of dishtowels on a work surface to drain the beans. Add the beans to the boiling water and begin timing immediately. Boil until the beans are tender to the bite but still green, 5 to 8 minutes. (Begin tasting after 3 or 4 minutes; depending on the age of the beans and how quickly your stovetop brings water back to a boil, there can be a wide range in doneness times.) Drain the beans, or use tongs to lift them out of the water, and spread them out on the towels to let excess moisture drain and evaporate, about 5 minutes.
Make the dressing: Whisk together the 3 tablespoons olive oil, the balsamic vinegar, the lemon zest, the honey, 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, and several grinds of fresh pepper in a glass measure or small mixing bowl. Add the chopped oregano and the chopped olives and stir or whisk again well to combine.
Arrange the cooled beans on a platter or in a shallow bowl and drizzle with all of the dressing. Arrange the red onions loosely over the beans and sprinkle with as much of the feta cheese and toasted almonds that you like. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.