SOUTHERN-ESQUE SNAP BEANS WITH LARDONS
Snap beans are such a part of my summer cooking routine, it never occurred to me to write about them until now. Luckily, thanks to second plantings in July, you’ll still find bushels of them at many farmers markets for a few weeks to come. I don’t want you to miss out.
I like having snap beans cooked and in the refrigerator. Cooled in the pot liquor (cooking liquid), then stored in some of that fine stuff, they keep for days. Eat them hot with butter, either plain or ramped up with herbs or minced shallots. Or serve them at room temperature, with a shallot vinaigrette, a garlicky mayonnaise, or a dressing made with a drizzle of walnut oil.
I usually get my beans working on a back burner early on a Sunday evening, while I’m busy tending to other things. The prep work is quick and simple. Pinching off the stems takes no time, and I always leave the curved little tail at the other end—it’s tender and sweet when cooked. And what’s handy about the common varieties you see today is that they’re stringless; that is, they lack the filament, tough as fishing line, that joins the two halves of the pod and that must be removed before cooking*. If you are lucky enough, however, to come across an old heirloom variety like Kentucky Wonder, pounce. I guarantee you won’t regret the fiddly task of stringing them.
All that’s left to do is break them in two or three pieces, so the beans are easy to serve and eat. Their signature juicy snap when you break them sounds like summer.
My mother preferred the garden to the kitchen, and she loved growing snap beans, in large part, for their beauty.”Look at this flower,” she would say, gently pushing aside the heart-shaped leaflets to cradle a bean blossom. She admired the shaggy compactness of yellow bush beans, and took enormous pleasure in building the tall cane wigwams needed to stake the half runners. She would rattle the bamboo, making sure each frame was stable and sturdy. I don’t think Thor Heyerdahl took any greater pride in lashing together the raft Kon-Tiki.
Just writing about this triggers a desire to grow my own next year, although I couldn’t possibly harvest beans that taste any better than the ones I buy at the Union Square market. This year, they most often come from Elizabeth Ryder’s Ryder Farm Cottage Industries, in Brewster, New York. Those are Betsy’s green and yellow snaps, thin as pencils, you see above. They are always fresh and fabulous, like everything else she sells.
The secret to deeply flavorful snap beans is not salt pork or a ham hock, although seasoning meat can be very nice. It lies in cooking them long enough to bring out their nuanced, vegetal flavor. Depending on the age and freshness of the beans, this can take up to an hour or two; frequent tasting for doneness is the price you pay for greatness.
This brings me to a very important point. The notion that, to a southerner, the only good bean is a mushy, overcooked bean is one of the great, enduring (and many) myths of the South. As any early-19th-century southern cook would tell you—with some asperity, I imagine—”boiled” does not mean carelessly cooked or even lengthily cooked. Personally, I don’t care for snap beans cooked al dente. They’re squeaky in the mouth. I like mine well-done, with a consistency that is tender and yielding, yet a few critical steps shy of falling apart.
This summer, I haven’t bothered with infusing the cooking liquid with seasoning meat first; the beans have been so delicious, they haven’t needed the help. If I’m craving some porky richness, lardons do the trick for me. I love the contrast between the chewy-crisp sticks of bacon and soft, velvety beans.
Southern-esque Snap Beans with Lardons
Serves 4 to 6
Yellow wax beans aren’t often as available as garden-variety green beans, and they don’t have as much flavor. But pairing the two types of snaps on a plate is awfully pretty, so I always find them hard to resist. When buying wax beans, look for ones with a tinge of green at the tips, a sign that they are young and tender. They are usually thinner and not as robust as green beans. When feeling ambitious, I cook the two separately, but usually I just give the green beans a head start in the pot.
2 pounds snap beans (any kind), stems removed, strings removed if necessary (always check), and snapped into pieces
6 to 8 ounces slab or thick-cut bacon
1. Rinse the beans well. Put them in a large heavy pot and just cover them with fresh cold water. Put a lid on the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer (or “slow-boil,” as my grandmother would say) the beans, covered, until they are done to your taste. If you like them soft, like I do, this should take at least an hour and usually longer; you really can’t rush things. About halfway through, season the beans with salt and adjust the lid to partially cover.
2. If you can stand it (the beans really are better the next day), let the beans cool in their own liquid, then store them, in some of the liquid, in the refrigerator. Otherwise, proceed.
3. If you’re using slab bacon, first discard the rind and cut the bacon lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices. Then, no matter which type of bacon you have, cut the slices into ¼-inch-wide sticks. Cook the bacon in a large cast-iron or other heavy skillet over moderate heat until it’s crisp, golden, and smells unbelievably great. Drain the bacon on paper towels and try a piece to make sure it’s as good as you think it is. Deny this if someone surprises you in the kitchen.
4. Reheat the beans if necessary. When hot, transfer them with a slotted spoon to warmed plates or a serving platter. Sprinkle with vinegar and scatter with lardons. Eat right away.
* Up side of an evil agri-biz plot? Nope. There are plenty of reasons to hate modern-day Big Ag, but this isn’t one of them. The stringless string bean was first propagated in 1884 by plant breeder Calvin Keeney (1849–1930) at his seed company in LeRoy New York, a town that was also, incidentally, the birthplace of Jell-O.