Mouths to Feed: Rhapsody in Green (and Yellow)

Fricassee of Many Beans

I don’t know anyone who loathes green beans. I also don’t know anyone who loves them madly; who will, say, stand in line 20 minutes for them at the farmers market the way so many have been doing lately for tomatoes, or coo over them like spring peas. 

Even my husband, who eats them raw with a distracted-snacker’s kind of pleasure, doesn’t rhapsodize at the sight of them the way he does fresh summer corn on the cob. And I have yet to see an eat more green beans bumper sticker.

Part of the problem is that they are the quintessential straight man to meat and potatoes, the eternal dinner-plate sidekick, the perpetual Best Supporting Role nominee who never wins. 

I set out to see if I could change that. After all, my guiding aim as a cook is to put vegetables at the center of the proverbial dinner plate, not because I’m vegetarian, but because vegetables are the category of food that is simultaneously best for you and (to most folks) the hardest to get passionate about. I’ve tried to integrate them fully into tasty meals so that, at my table at least, they can no longer be seen as side dishes. 

Because: side to what? Banish the hierarchy! — or so my old-school idealistic peacenik brain would wish.

Yet green beans very nearly proved my Waterloo. Last week, I pulled two dozen cookbooks off the shelves, and, by the light of my trusty headlamp once Tropical Storm Isaias had gotten busy with us, began conducting an all-out search. 

While doors slammed from the sudden gusts and sheet music blew around the house, I paged past Salades Niçoise, novelty green-bean casseroles and Greek stews (which, by the way, are a fabulous way to cook beans out of season). I came across a recipe in an Italian cookbook for a baked green-bean loaf, with eggs, bread crumbs and cheese. Sure, yeah, I thought, you can do that to a green bean. But will it benefit from the effort? 

Finally, discouraged, I clicked off my headlamp and contemplated the paper-strewn darkness. It was then that a glimmer of hope appeared, in the form of a distant memory. 

Many years ago, when we had just bought our house and had only two children, both still infants, my dear friend Maura came up from the city to see what kind of trouble we’d gotten ourselves into here in the Highlands. For dinner, I made us chicken on the grill and a kind of fricassee of fresh and shell beans with herbs. The latter turned out so nicely that Maura declared she could become a vegetarian if vegetables always tasted that good. 

In the months that followed, I made the dish a handful of times, serving it with whole-wheat pasta, which ingratiated it with the aforementioned tots. And then, like dishes do, it floated away on one of time’s inexorable breezes.

So for all the trouble and loss Isaias dumped on us last week, I’d like to also thank it for blowing that little memory into my mind, and for giving me a chance to share it now with you.

Fricassee of Many Beans

You can use a combination of yellow wax beans, haricots verts and green beans for this dish. Fresh shell beans in season are a great treat, and pair beautifully with their botanical cousins; to prepare them for cooking, twist the pods to release the bean (seeds) within. I like to serve this dish over whole-wheat pasta, whose rich, nutty flavor complements the beans; plain semolina pasta is also fine. 

For the fricassee: 

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 fresh young red onion, or 2 large shallots, finely diced, divided
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 teaspoons thyme leaves, divided
  • 3 cups cranberry beans, or other fresh shell bean (from about 2 pounds in pods)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 cups haricots, green and yellow beans (see headnote)
  • 1 bunch parsley, leaves only (about 1 cup loosely packed), chopped
  • 1 bunch basil, leaves only (about 1 cup loosely packed), chopped
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons butter, optional

For serving:

  • 1 pound whole-wheat pasta, cooked al dente, according to package directions
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm half the olive oil. Add half of the onion or shallot, all the garlic and half the thyme leaves, and cook, stirring, until the onion is beginning to turn golden and soft, about five minutes. Add the cranberry beans, stir to combine, then cover with water to about 2 inches in depth. Simmer over low heat until the beans are quite tender, adding more water if necessary (the exact time can vary greatly depending on the variety and freshness of the bean; allow between 15 and 25 minutes). When beans are nearly soft, add 1 teaspoon salt and a few grindings of pepper. 

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil, salt generously, and blanche the green and yellow beans for about two minutes. Remove beans (if you use a steamer or can scoop them out, you can reuse the water for your pasta) and run under cold water to retard cooking. 

Heat a large skillet over medium. Add the remaining olive oil and onion, and when it begins to sizzle, add the blanched green bean mixture. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook until the beans start to blister. Transfer the cooked cranberry beans to the skillet along with some of their cooking liquid, stir to combine, reduce the heat, and simmer together for three to five minutes, adding the al dente pasta for the last two minutes of cooking. Remove from heat. Just before serving, toss with chopped parsley, basil, lemon juice and zest, and butter, if using. 

Serve with grated Parmesan on the side. 

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