When fresh green beans arrive on the scene, I think of the snapping sessions of my youth, the time spent in the kitchen pinching off the ends of the beans and snapping them in half.
As a kid, bean snapping was among my first kitchen jobs. The task was simple; it did not require using a sharp instrument. My mom figured I was up to this challenge.
But the task also involved making conversation. A kid who was snapping beans at the kitchen table was trapped in an adult world for a while. Inevitably my mom, my grandmother or a visiting aunt would use the occasion to ask probing questions.
Questions like, "How's your summer going?"
"Fine," you would answer, then snap a few beans and hope that the inquisition was over.
It wasn't. "What have you been doing?" the adult would continue.
You would sigh, snap the beans faster and reply, "Stuff."
"What kind of stuff?" the inquisitor asked.
By now you were snapping beans at a furious pace, counting the number of whole beans left in the pile and counting on the fact that as soon you were finished you could slip out the back door to freedom.
You mumbled something like, "swimming and playing baseball." Then before the adult could ask for details, you snapped the last bean, announced, "All done," and scooted out to the back yard.
The green beans would appear that evening in a big bowl at the supper table. They had been cooked for at least an hour in a large, lidded pot, filled with water and a ham bone. The beans were warm and soft and tasted of bacon.
I thought of this last Sunday as I bought green beans at the Baltimore Farmers Market from Pam Pahl , who along with her husband, Les, grows vegetables in western Baltimore County. Ordinarily I talk with Les, but he wasn't around. He was recovering, Pam said, from a run-in with some bees.
I got home and planned to get my teen-age kids to sit in the kitchen and snap the beans and converse with me just as I had done when I was a little kid.
My attempt to revive the bean-snapping session was not successful. "Huh?" one kid said. "You want me to do what?" And attempts at conversation were greeted with, "What do you mean, How's my summer? You're weird."
I ended up snapping the beans myself, then I tried a new cooking method, called "steam/saute" that I found in Pam Anderson's new cookbook, "How To Cook Without A Book" (Broadway, 2000).
The idea is that beans are put in a large deep pot with a small amount of salted water, fat and seasonings. The pot is covered, the beans steam until almost tender, then the lid is removed and the beans saute in the seasoned fat.
It is not the traditional way to cook green beans, but some customs, I have learned, have got to change.
Steamed / Sauteed Beans
1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter (or bacon fat)
1 pound green beans
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon
Bring water, fat, salt and beans to a boil in a Dutch oven or a large, deep skillet. Cover and steam over medium-high heat until the beans are brightly colored and just tender, 5 to 10 minutes.
Remove the lid, and continue to cook until the liquid evaporates 1 to 2 minutes longer adding the tarragon at this point. Saute to intensify flavor, 1 to 2 minutes longer.