Let’s just put it out here. We Southern home cooks are some of the best in the country.
It comes from a conversation Sharon Bale had with Saveur magazine editor, New York restaurant owner and pioneer in the food photography industry Christopher Hirsheimer in June.
Hirsheimer was here to prepare a fundraising meal at the home of Jon Carloftis in Lexington. The James Beard award winner was also a featured speaker at the Governor’s Mansion for the Summer Solstice event.
Sharon asked her point blank why the only green bean that appeared to have any place on a plate was haricots verts – which actually means green bean in French.
She provided Sharon with a surprising and rather honest answer.
“They aren’t in the markets where New York chefs shop. Most chefs have never heard of the varieties of beans you can find here nor do they know how to cook them unless they have some kind of roots in the South.”
Hirsheimer told Sharon she thought Southern cooks were clever and recognized flavors most chefs do know about or how to achieve.
Ta-Dah. Stop the presses and write the headline.
We have it in spades when it comes to utilizing farm to table vegetables. We were using bacon, lard and butter before most true chefs of the North and East came to the table.
We knew the value of kale, chard, Polk and dandelion greens, yellow squash and heirloom tomatoes before most chefs ever thought to put them on the table.
But the biggest surprise was the green bean and its multitude of varieties – there are about 130 if you include dried beans, which are known as haricot beans.
A visit to the Farmers Market
Hirsheimer visited a Farmers Market while she was here and was surprised by the Roma, Pole, Tenderette, Kentucky Wonder and our beloved White Half Runner.
In fact, she tasted them in their purest form, raw from the garden and declared the Half Runner one of the best tasting beans that she ever had.
Sharon said she wished both Hirsheimer and she had the time for her to taste of kettle of white Half Runners.
If you search the Internet you won’t find a multitude of different recipes for green beans. In fact, most sites allude to the traditional green bean casserole and offer their take on it.
There are steamed green beans with vinaigrettes, green beans with tomatoes and green bean almandine. But there are no recipes I could find for using any variety of the beans we know.
Most cooks I talk to at the Farmers Market and in other settings will buy their favorite beans to cook up a kettle or enough for a mess. That latter measurement should have our friends to the east and north scratching their heads.
There are times when we like the vibrancy of the green bean that has not been cooked into submission, but I have seldom eaten in a home where the dish is served. We want our beans to have that familiar flavor that we grew up with in the kitchens of our mothers and grandmothers.
Television can inspire
We watch televised cooking shows with renowned chefs and admire the beauty of their dishes and the multitude of ways they transform foods. They provide us inspiration, and perhaps, new ways of thinking about foods.
Case in point was Sunday night’s Guy’s Grocery Games when four of Food Network’s top chefs appeared for the challenge where the winner could earn $20,000 for a charity of choice.
The one challenge that piqued my interest was the letter game where the chefs by luck of the draw had to make a meal using foods that began with “F.”
My mind went into overdrive and the only protein I thought of was fish, but that was not specific enough. Then when it came to vegetables and other savory elements I was stuck.
Here’s the part where they inspired me with what they thought of — filet of beef, fava beans, fennel, figs, focaccia and several others.
They created some beautiful food. Host of the show, Guy Fieri, suggested at-home shoppers take on such a challenge in our own shopping and choose a letter.
Inspiration — perhaps I might try it some cold day in January.
Cook familiar flavors
Use the television as inspiration but don’t ever doubt your ability as a Southern home cook. The food you put before your family and guests is just as dynamic as those made on television and probably more so in their flavors.
Michael Simon and Mario Batali of The Chew both have Italian backgrounds and often talk about the flavors of familiarity and how when they are actually cooking at home for family and friends they go to the simple, flavorful recipes they came to know from their grandmothers.
While they, like us, enjoy experimenting with new ideas and new takes on old recipes, they load the family and friends’ table with tastes they know they will love.
We know the sumptuousness of a baked chicken, the creaminess of the mashed potato or the gravied potatoes that Sharon’s grandmother used to make; the flavor of fried Kentucky River catfish when it is hot and crispy and the bounty that is brought to the table with a tender pot roast, vegetables and gravy.
I’d put my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs up against any New York chef who claims to cook Italian.
Quit apologizing for the beautiful food you prepare. I realize now that the Baptist church, community and family potlucks I used to go to were the products of incredible home cooks who were lovers of cooking. Even if they weren’t, they turned to dishes of their youth to prepare, all filled with flavor.
Also, know now that you have it on “high” authority and acclaim from a national magazine creator, food photographer and restaurant owner that we have access to the best green beans in any market, and we know how to cook them.
Kudos to us.
Scrumptious green beans
When my college roommate moved to Virginia she made friends with an older Virginia woman who was known for her cooking and entertaining.
While visiting one summer, Sarah made me her older friend’s cooked green beans. I haven’t looked back since.
Use enough of your favorite green beans to make a mess — for me I buy about 3½ pounds of Half Runners to have what I want to serve and for leftovers. With Half Runners you lose volume when you string and either cut or snap off the ends. I usually do the same with Romas, but you don’t lose as much since they are stringless.
Prepare green beans for cooking.
Take the large pot or kettle you are going to use and put it on the stove on medium heat.
Take seasoning meat — bacon, fat back or ham hock — and begin to fry it in the pan rendering the fat.
Add pepper generously.
Let cook until meat is caramelized and has rendered up at least ¼ cup fat. At this point, if you have some bacon grease, add several tablespoons.
Add a whole clove of garlic, a teaspoon of lemon juice, a teaspoon of salt and a few red pepper flakes if you like a little kick in your beans.
Add water to about the halfway point of your kettle.
Cover and let all this come to a boil.
Remove top and add prepared green beans along with another teaspoon of salt.
Bring back to a full boil. Stir well.
Cover. Reduce heat to medium low and let beans cook at least one hour.
Remove top, stir well again and recover for another 30 minutes.
At this point, remove the cover and cook beans for 30 minutes or so to reduce liquid, if needed.
According to our veteran Virginia cook, don’t add any more water.
If the liquid is reduced by at least half, stir the beans, turn heat to low or off if they are cooked to your liking and let set on the stove.
If you continue on low, let beans cook as long as you want and turn off when they are where you like them.
Tip: Cooking green beans a day ahead and reheating allows more time to heighten the flavor of the beans.
Here’s what I bring to the pot. After the beans have cooked about an hour and a half, I add whole peeled carrots (these are so pretty when cooked whole), and small new potatoes. Salt and pepper the potatoes. With about 30 minutes until I am ready to serve, I add a whole small yellow squash. You have delicious summer vegetables all done in one big pot.
From Food Network’s Patrick and Gina Neely
2 pounds green beans, ends trimmed
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 T. butter
2 large garlic cloves minced
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 T. lemon zest
Salt and ground pepper
Blanch green beans in a large pot of boiling salted water until bright green — about two minutes.
Shock beans in a bowl of ice water to immediately stop the cooking.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and butter, garlic, red pepper flakes and sauté until fragrant about 30 seconds.
Add green beans and coat in the oils and spices. Cook for about five minutes.
Add lemon zest, salt and pepper. Remove from skillet and serve.