Green beans are thought to have originated in the tropical southern parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica, and to have spread throughout North and South America long before the arrival of European explorers. Christopher Columbus and his fellow travelers typically found the beans growing alongside maize, where cornstalks provided support for their climbing habit. A drawing of beans was included in German doctor Leonhart Fuch’s 1542 volume on the medicinal uses of plants, and they also were described by explorers John Verazanno and Samuel de Champlain.
Originally, green beans had a “string” that ran on the outer curve of the pod shell which usually was removed before the bean was cooked and eaten. This led to the nickname “string beans.” In 1894, Calvin Keeney, known thereafter as “the father of stringless beans,” discovered, working with crops in Le Roy, New York, how to eliminate the string through breeding.
Today nearly all varieties of edible pod beans are grown without strings. Haricots verts (green beans in French) are a special variety of green bean that is harvested when young and still very thin. They have a crunchy texture and complex taste that stands up well to a wide variety of flavors. In an effort to simulate haricots verts, some “French” American beans by splitting them in half. This seldom succeeds.
Until recent decades most Americans boiled their beans. But gray, soggy boiled vegetables eventually lost popularity as cooking celebrities, like Julia Child, taught American home cooks that vegetables should be crisp and bright and that boiling leaches their nutrients. As fresh vegetables became available year round, the need to can vegetables for home consumption declined, and Julia argued that it was no more trouble, once you knew how to cook them, to prepare fresh vegetables from scratch than to open a can or pull a carton from the freezer.
While I’m sure even Julia boiled a vegetable or two in her time, her preference was to parboil, or blanch, vegetables; partially cooking vegetables by submerging them briefly in boiling salted water, then plunging them into an ice water bath to stop the cooking and set a bright green color. Blanched vegetables could be used as is for crudites, or finished just before serving time in a skillet with butter and garlic, or other flavorings. To blanch vegetables:
- Prepare a large bowl of ice water, a slotted spoon or strainer and paper towels to dry the beans once they’re blanched.
- Bring a large pot of water (6 to 8 quarts) to boil over high heat. Plenty of water is important in blanching because the larger the pot of water, the sooner it will return to a boil after the vegetables are added. Your goal is to blanch the vegetables as quickly as possible so they maintain their bright color.
- Prepare the vegetables while you’re waiting for the water to boil. Large chunks require more cooking time than smaller pieces, so cut vegetables into uniform pieces to insure that they cook evenly.
- When the water is at a full, rolling boil, add salt, usually a couple of tablespoons per quart of water. Cooking school wisdom urges the liberal addition of salt to blanching water to season vegetables and help them retain their color, but you can reduce the amount if you’re watching your salt intake.
- Add the vegetables to the pot in small batches so that the water continues to boil, and start timing as soon as the vegetables hit the water, even if the boil stops briefly. After about 2 minutes, start testing for doneness. Remove one piece, dip it in the ice bath, and taste. It should be crisp-tender, but not raw. Continue testing every minute, or until the beans are done to your taste, usually 4 to 5 minutes for French beans.
- When the vegetables are done, immediately scoop them out of the hot water with a strainer or slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice bath to stop the cooking process. Refreshing, or shocking the vegetables in cold water (ice water if possible) helps vegetables retain their color and texture. If this step is not accomplished, the vegetables will continue to cook in their own steam and lose their crispness. When they are completely cool, remove them from the ice bath and dry them on paper towels. (I must admit that I have, on occasion, shortened this process by eliminating the ice bath and running blanched vegetables under cold tap water instead. They might not be sufficiently shocked, but I’m sure Julia would be.) Chilled vegetables keep well for a few hours.
- Just before serving, turn the beans into a large skillet and toss over moderately high heat for a moment to evaporate any excess moisture. Then toss them with a sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper, and several tablespoons of softened butter. Finish it off, if you wish, with a sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve immediately.
If you are blanching more than one type of vegetable, blanch each separately, and blanch the lighter colored ones first, since darker colors may tinge the water and affect the color of subsequent vegetables. In addition to setting color and allowing you to prepare vegetables ahead, blanching can be useful in other ways. Blanching crisper, denser vegetables, like broccoli or cauliflower, cuts down on the time they need to be stir fried. Blanched vegetables can be added to stir fries alongside less dense, uncooked vegetables and they will all finish cooking at the same time. If you need to peel soft vegetables, like tomatoes, blanching them first makes removing their skin much easier.