An Italian-American friend, now happily domiciled in Italy, remarked that there was one thing he couldn’t abide about Italian food in his otherwise happy eating adventures there. “They don’t like their vegetables crunchy,” he protested.
He is quite right. When it comes to cooking vegetables, “al dente” is not their cue. Like me, they like them tender and sweet. The crunch crowd will no doubt challenge this, citing, perhaps, the prowess of the Chinese with their crisp, stir-fry style. I could concur, but I would no more stir-fry green beans than my Chinese friend might cook rice my way — sticky rice for her; soupy, Italian-style risotto for me; and vive la différence!
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From other quarters, I am told steaming conserves more vitamins than boiling. I have never been willing to sacrifice the pleasures of a boiled bean for the preservation of a few micronutrients, but if I ever suffer remorse at the thought of killing off a few, a recent report will quiet those doubts. Italian scientists evaluating cooking methods concluded that none retains 100% of the nutrients. Hurrah! Never again will I have to suffer the reproach of purportedly health-minded folk when I admit that my vegetables taste so good because I boil them. In a recent story on rapini, I gave the scientific explanation for why this sweetens vegetables. (In a nutritional analysis, research shows a slight increase in natural sugars when food is boiled rather than steamed.) You need only compare the taste between a steamed and a properly boiled batch of beans as proof that cooking past the crunch point, but just before the beans become too soft, delivers their best flavor and sugary qualities.
Green Beans, Italian Style
Green beans, (Phaseolus vulgaris, Leguminosae), a native plant of the New World, are one of summer’s gifts I most eagerly await. They are the unripe pods of the bean plant, named green beans for this reason, though there are yellow, red and purple types, and other hues that span the color spectrum. (The seeds cradled within, referred to as “shell beans,” are the beans we typically dry and rehydrate before cooking.) There are so many varieties that botanists have stopped counting. (The whims of fashion, even in the botanical world, make cultivars come and go, and new ones debut now and then.)
Probably no vegetable suffers more from mis-cooking. They are usually undercooked in favor of crunch. (If the beans are old, there will be no crunch, but rubberiness.) Or, they are overcooked because of supermarket conditions in which the poor specimens arrive many weeks after they have been severed from their umbilical vines in Mexico or Chile or another faraway place, and shipped thousands of miles, arriving shell-shocked and sapped of any life. Many people complain that no matter how long they cook supermarket-variety green beans, they remain tough. Such old beans deserve a resting place in the compost bin, not a workout in the cooking pot.
Like tomatoes or corn, green beans are best eaten soon after they are harvested, before the seeds begin to bulge in their pods and brown markings appear. If you have a farmers market nearby, ask whether their beans have been picked that morning. If not, wait until they can promise you they’ll treat them with the same respect they show their corn. “Day-picked” should apply to green beans as much as to maize.
Best of all, grow them if you can. Once you have tasted green beans straight from the vine and cooked properly, store-bought will never do. Romano flat beans, Kentucky Wonders, Sultan’s Crescents, Haricots Verts, German Pole Beans and Indie Gold are among those that have had a turn in my garden. The long and flat, meaty Italian snap beans that are stringless, variously called Romano, Roma, Rampicanti or Marconi are, hands down, my favorites. Nothing compares to their flavor, not to mention the thrill of seeing their long, broad pods swinging and twirling on the vines. They grow up to 10 inches if you let them, and still cook up tender, but stop at 5 inches — remember, newborn! I reseed the bed every three weeks until August for an extended harvest into the fall. Plant them after the soil warms up well, sit back and get ready for some fun. You can nearly hear them grow. If you can’t keep up with the harvest, you can find comfort in knowing the overgrown pods can be left to mature on the vine until you are ready to reap their big, fat seeds for using fresh or storing, dried.
So remember, the key to great-tasting green beans, whether you plant or buy them, is twofold. First, youth and freshness are vital—newborn are best, but no older than a few days. Second, boil them until they nearly melt (but not quite!) on your tongue at the first bite. You might realize that you have never really tasted green beans before in their grassy, buttery glory, bursting with the essence of summer.
The supermarket offerings of my childhood in a small American town didn't satisfy my mother, who before marrying and coming to America was accustomed to shopping for vegetables in the overflowing stalls of Rome's radiant street markets. Our family planted a garden every spring. Since then, my life has been filled with gardens, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Whether you buy green beans freshly picked from a farmer or can grow your own, make them the way the Italians do, still hot from the colander, anointed with the best extra virgin olive oil and, if you like, a memory of fine sea salt. They are a revelation.
- 1½ pounds freshly picked green beans
- kosher salt
- best quality extra virgin olive oil
- fine sea salt
- Wash the beans in cold water to remove any grit.
- Snip the umbilical tips, leaving the pointed ends intact.
- Fill an ample pot with enough cold water to generously cover the beans.
- Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Cook the beans over high heat until there is no crunch left, but they are not overcooked, 5 to 6 minutes, depending on the variety and size of the beans. (Roman flat beans will take longer than smaller types.)
- Drain at once, transfer to a serving bowl, and dress with the olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with fine sea salt at the table, if you like.
Variations: You can squeeze fresh lemon over the beans at the table, but I like them plain and simple. Another variation is to coddle them briefly, once cooked, in extra virgin olive oil into which you have first dissolved a few drained anchovy filets preserved under oil.
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For Gardeners: Sources for Italian-Style Flat Green Snap Beans
The two principal categories gardeners are concerned with, the climbers (pole variety) and the low-growing bush beans, are available from these sustainable seed companies.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Seeds From Italy
Seeds of Change
Territorial Seed Co.
Main photo: Preparing Italian Romano beans for the pot. Credit: Paolo Destefanis from “Veneto: Authentic Recipes from Venice and the Italian Northeast” by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books, 2003)