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Love Me Tender: A Sultry Italian Way With Vegetables

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)

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)

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!

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.)

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

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.

Growing techniques

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.

Garden Green Beans, Italian Style

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 6 minutes

Total Time: 11 minutes

Yield: 4 side-dish servings

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.

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds freshly picked green beans
  • kosher salt
  • best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • fine sea salt

Directions

  1. Wash the beans in cold water to remove any grit.
  2. Snip the umbilical tips, leaving the pointed ends intact.
  3. Fill an ample pot with enough cold water to generously cover the beans.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.

Notes

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.

* * *

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)



Zester Daily contributor Julia della Croce is the author of  "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" (Kyle Books), "Pasta Classica" (Chronicle) and 12 other cookbooks.

17 COMMENTS
  • Judith Klinger 6·10·14

    Sadly, I’m afraid I have to agree with your Italian friend. I don’t care for the Italian style mushy vegetables either. I think its all about how your Mama made them!
    But you are spot on about fresh beans from the garden! Absolutely glorious.

  • Victor Hazan 6·10·14

    “Mushy” is the buzzword that is current in this country for fruit that is fully ripened, juicy, and sugary, and vegetables that are cooked until tender. The inedible undercooked vegetables of the American table are not to be confused with Chinese stir-fried vegetables, whose flavor and texture benefits from high heat, stirring, and oil. I think your timing is off, Julia. Unless your beans are less than a day old or you have harvested them yourself, adequate cooking time for market beans is 7 to 8 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Odd that you don’t mention vinegar. At an Italian table, a few drops of true, fragrant, high-quality red wine vinegar drizzled on the hot, just drained beans are essential. An entirely different chapter is that devoted to braised beans, cooked for a long time in olive oil and pancetta or guanciale until completely limp and excruciatingly delicious. Southern American cooks used to know how to do that too. It’s all about taste, really. If you have a palate, you will prize the flavor of vegetables over crunchiness. Otherwise, why cook them?

  • Joan Gussow 6·11·14

    No, no, they’re not mushy. Julia had to convince me, but I tried them boiled (for the right length of time) and she’s right! They’re incomparable. This from a lifetime steamer.

  • Phyllis @ Oracibo 6·11·14

    Hi Julia, I look forward to trying this method out…our farmers market here in Vancouver had amazing “Romano” green beans last summer and although I pretty much did cook them the way you do, I forgot the EVOO and luckily we brought home a fantastic bottle from Chianti! Victor suggests red wine vinegar, never tried that but love to use Meyer lemon juice!

  • Lynne 6·12·14

    Would that the freshest beans were always available (small garden=fewer replantings). In any event, boiled is always best, to my mind. Steamed? I’ve tried both, and there’s no comparison: good water and an attentive cook make boiling a lovely way–even to resurrect not the greatest beans. (Well, sort of resurrect). I too, not even raised in an Italian family, have discovered that a good olive oil and a bit of sea salt on a well-boiled and drained bean=delicious.

  • Maureen Fant 6·13·14

    Julia, brava for defending tender vegetables. And bravo, Victor, for calling the American hyper crunch inedible. I have lots to say on this topic, and often do. 🙂

    As for the beans, they are what we call “fagioli al corallo” in Rome, and anyone is entitled to a theory as to why. It may be because of the color of the seeds when they dry, but I don’t know. The recipe I use (learned from Oretta) is to sauté sliced green onion in oil, add some tomatoes (red, ripe, and mushy or even shriveled are best), and a piece of chile and simmer for about ten minutes. Then add the beans (trimmed just of their ends) with no water, cover the pot, and let them cook in their own water (they produce an inordinate amount) until just as tender as you like.

  • Rosemary Melli 6·13·14

    Yes Julia! Romano, those broad/flat beans are also my favorite. And yes I like them cooked JUST until tender, drenched in olio (even if served @ rm temp, better to pour olio when still warm); or else add a little fresh tomato to the olio & saute lightly (from a Sicilian uncle).

  • Terra 6·14·14

    Thank you, Julia, for bringing boiling back into the fold of not just an acceptable, but sometimes a PREFERRED cooking practice for vegetables! I find that Romanos reach their apotheosis when boiled for 5-7 minutes. After that, all you need is a little olive oil and/or vinegar.
    To make Romanos into a main dish, I start by sauteing small cubes of ham with onion and garlic, then adding chopped tomatoes, and then the beans, braising until they are soft and infused with the smoky, sweet, and salty flavors that mellow and mingle in the slurpy, unctuous sauce.

  • Julia della Croce 6·16·14

    Thanks to some of my very favorite writers, and friends for your wisdom. To Victor Hazan: When it comes to green beans, I don’t want anything getting in the way of the fagiolini and the olive oil, plain and simple. To Joan Gussow, mentor of all mentors, only you can grow vegetables that taste at least as good as what grows in Italian soil—offering you advice on how I think to best cook them is the least I can do. Maureen Fant, your recipes are always welcome in my kitchen, Phyllis, Lynne, Rosemary and Terra, yes, yes, yes! As for Judith Klinger, I hope to make a convert of you someday!

  • Catherine Faris 6·16·14

    They’re not “mushy” at all! Their flavor is fully developed when cooked this way, enhanced by best quality extra virgin olive oil and the right salt. After a recent trip to northern Spain, I added a little pimenton dulce to the olive oil and salt tonight. Que rico . . .

  • Julia della Croce 6·17·14

    I love that pimento dulce, too! I hadn’t thought about putting it on green beans but when they are ready, I’ll try it. Thanks everyone for all the variations.

  • Kitty Morse 6·18·14

    Julia, I agree with you! My French grandmother would NEVER have served green beans “al dente.” After trying the sort of “crunchy” cooking style, I have to agree with her. I now boil them until tender, then saute them briefly with a touch of olive oil and some diced (home -made) Moroccan preserved lemon. YUM!

    • Phyllis @ Oracibo 6·18·14

      Aah…and I just happen to have a jar of homemade Moroccan preserved Meyer lemons I did a couple of months ago!

  • Julia della Croce 7·13·14

    Kitty Morse, of course you would think of that dreamy combination! You’ve just created another classic in my kitchen, this one Moroccan-Italian! Grazie.

  • Gabriella 10·6·14

    There’s nothing like Romano flat beans. I adore them and don’t like round varieties at all, almost regardless of how they’re cooked.

    What about the Seeds Savers Exchange and Native Seed Search? (Or the brand new Fruition Seeds in upstate NY?) I think of them before anyone else when buying seeds. I think they’re doing unusually as doing stellar work preserving biodiversity and flavor, treasuring old world heirlooms and not selling out to larger ag companies.

  • Gabriella 10·6·14

    p.s. Seeds of Change is owned by Mars. (The corporation most famous for its candy.)

  • Dennis Bukantis 5·3·15

    While there are culinary proponents of al dente cooked green beans, from what I have learned and my cooking and eating preference, I leave al dente to pasta. Blanched very quickly in boiling water, ice-chilled immediately, then sauté with your favorite herbs and spices to finish…they still have some ‘to the tooth’ but are thoroughly cooked.
    Dennis Bukantis

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