Older beans no longer are a snap to fix

As beans grow older, they aren't a snap to fix

September 08, 2004|By ROB KASPER

WHEN YOU are young, tender and intriguing, almost everybody wants a piece of you.

But as you become older, leathery and taken for granted, you need help to stay appealing. That is how it works with life and with green beans.

Early in the summer, when the green beans first appeared in my garden, they were fetching. Their skin was so smooth, their centers so soft, their flavor so clean that I succumbed to the temptation to pop a few into my mouth, right off the vine.

But as time marched on, the sun bore down and the novelty wore off. Picking the beans, once a labor of love, became a chore, one I often put off.

As my interest in the beans waned, that of the bugs' increased. Denizens of the insect world chowed down on the vines, some of them leaving tiny yellow larvae on the undersides of the leaves. When I eventually got around to picking the beans, there was now an additional duty of bug squashing, a task, I must admit, that still gave me a primal thrill.

As happens when skin is exposed to the summer sun, the husk of the beans got tougher. By September, the skin on my green beans was as gnarly as a golfer's neck.

This means that the part of the gardening process known as "presenting the harvest" became much less exciting. Early in the summer when a gardener strides into the family kitchen and presents the fruits of his harvest, he is greeted with acclaim. There are some cries of "Oh my!" and an occasional "Isn't that a beauty!"

By summer's end, this hallelujah chorus has ended, and has been replaced by stony silence or a sigh. This change in mood, from exultation to resignation, is caused by fatigue. Getting the garden harvest into the homestead is simply the first of a two-step operation.

The second step, getting it to the table, requires work, a fact of which the kitchen crew is very aware by late summer. A mess of freshly picked greens, which in June would generate a salutation from the cook of, "Aren't they lovely!" by September is greeted with a look that says, "Beans again."

Moreover, these beans are not in their prime. Instead of supple youths, these are mature beans that, when you attempt to break them in half, have a hard time living up to their nickname of snap beans. Somewhat flexible beans would be more like it.

Lately, I pulled several batches of mature beans from the garden and struggled with ways to bring out their best at the table.

First, I tried the quick-cook, high-heat method of preparation. I put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a frying pan, turned the heat up to high, put in the beans and cooked them for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

The skins of the beans ended up charred, almost burned. But the flavor can be terrific - if the beans are young. However, if the beans are of a certain age, as mine were, this cooking method only makes them tougher. The mature beans I cooked this way could have been used for a game of fiddlesticks.

Next, I tried the cook-them-to-death method, a style I grew up with. This consists of putting beans in a lidded pot with water and a hambone and cooking them on low fire on the stove top for two to three hours. I didn't have a hambone, so I substituted bacon. A batch of such slow-cooked beans emerged squishy and tasted starchy.

Finally I settled on a cooking method that employed moisture, a fair amount of cooking and a lot of help with the flavor. When you add minced onion, chopped garlic and a healthy dose of tomatoes, mature green beans take on a certain glow.

Green beans may not get better with age, but with help they can still have their autumnal moments.

Late-Harvest Green Beans and Tomatoes

Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small yellow onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 pound mature green beans, ends removed

2 1/4 cups peeled, seeded and chopped fresh or canned tomatoes

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until soft, 7 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for 1 minute.

Increase the heat to high, add the beans and tomatoes, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until beans are very tender and soft, 30 minutes.

Remove the cover and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve hot or warm.

- From "You Say Tomato: Peel, Chop, Roast, Dry, Freeze, Preserve, and Enjoy" by Joanne Weir (Broadway Books, 1998, $16)

Per serving: 85 calories; 2 grams protein; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 10 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 11 milligrams sodium

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