Monday, August 10, 2015

Green Beans and Haricots

My hometown of Greeneville, Tennessee, has a fine historic hotel on Main Street, The General Morgan Inn. Its restaurant, Brumley's, is well-regarded and serves up some of the best food in town. Last February, we dined there. I ordered the trout, which is sourced from a farm just across the mountain in North Carolina. It came with rice pilaf and "haricots verts" according to the menu. I was dubious about being served haricots verts in February, when they are anything but in season, especially given that these slender French green beans are notoriously difficult to preserve, either by freezing or canning. When the plate arrived, next to the fabulous trout were some ordinary Blue Lake type green beans, undoubtedly from Mexico given the season. They had been blanched sufficiently to brighten their green coloration. They were also as tough and fibrous as a cornstalk. I mentioned this to the waitress, who replied that "a lot of people" think they should instead be cooked Southern style. Indeed.

The chef may have demonstrated a lack of knowledge, by offering green beans as "haricots verts," which does literally mean "green beans." He may also have been trying to pass off the cheaper product upon an unsuspecting and presumably ignorant dining public. Therefore, to arm readers against such impositions in the future, here is the skinny on green beans.

As one blogger recently pointed out, when a Southerner tells you how to cook green beans, shut up and listen. Modern snap beans, the cultivars we most often think of when we think of "green beans" have been bred to survive unscathed the strictures of mechanical harvest and industrial scale processing. They are at their best after being subjected to the rigors of the canning process, which renders them tender and brings out their flavor. They require a reasonable amount of cooking time when prepared fresh, about 30 minutes to an hour, preferably in water with some sort of cured pork added to it.

Green beans that lend themselves to quick cooking exist. Most are heirloom varieties. Carefully read catalog listings if you are looking for a green bean that lends itself to cooking "Yankee-style."

On the other hand, true haricots verts, also called "filet beans," are intended to be cooked only a few minutes. They are tender, buttery and full-flavored when they are about an eighth of an inch in diameter. At this size, most varieties are about five to six inches in length.

Gardeners who want green beans for fresh use (as opposed to canning) should consider growing the true haricots. This season, we have grown 'Fantastic Filet' from Burpee. We have been getting three pickings from each group of plants. Some of the best have been from containers, surprisingly. We sowed an oblong planter as part of a demonstration of container vegetable gardening, and were surprised when it avoided bean beetles and yielded up as large a harvest as a comparable planting in the ground. The 30-inch long planter provided just the right amount of beans for two servings, about every four days. Filet beans mature quickly, in about 60 days, so there is still time for a planting or two before the end of the season.

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