Emerald City: Cold Green Bean Salads

About The Author

T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is The Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.

We sat in the cramped kitchen, watching Dallas with French subtitles. I was 16, fresh off the exchange-student bus. Martine was not 10 years older than I, and pregnant. Her English was about on a par with my French, which meant that most of the time we hovered in a fog of friendly but mutual incomprehension. Trimming green beans, however, demands neither wit nor vocabulary, and so that is what we were doing.

While Martine finished cooking, I retreated to my room, where, with the shy person's desperate faith in books, I read the bilingual dictionary. The tiny house filled with an aroma so tantalizing that when I returned to the table, I was shocked to find nothing but the beans, now buttered and steaming in a bowl. It was more shocking still to find that they tasted like sweet hay and captured sunlight rather than, well, nothing, like the green beans back home always tasted. We ate them nearly every day for two weeks, and I did not tire of them.

I know what you're saying. What, you went to France and had something great to eat? Big deal; donnez-moi un break. I'm not gloating, though. Although I tried to make those buttered beans myself in later years, I never really replicated the experience. And these days, although I may be willing to spend sweaty weeks in the garden making sure I have a constant supply of superb green beans, I rarely feel like eating them hot on summer evenings.

No, these days what I tend to crave is a cold green bean salad — crisp, bright and fast, easy to make in the morning and leave in the fridge all day. Easy to pack for a picnic, easy to bring to a potluck. In fact, you can just blanch the beans in the morning, chill them and dress them later in the heat of the afternoon, when blanching beans in boiling water seems like a really good thing to have done six hours ago.

Now, blanching — a fast boil that leaves green vegetables crisp and brilliant — scarcely counts as cooking, but I'm going to share a few tips anyway. If you already consider yourself a master in the fine art of boiling water, feel free to skip them.

Use thin beans if at all possible — preferably no thicker than a chopstick or a pencil. If you can get the elegant haricots verts, scarcely thicker than pipe cleaners, so much the better. Fat, mealy beans are a bore even warm; in cold salads they're downright depressing.

Salt plenty of water and bring it to a big-bubble boil. Too little water, and you'll lose your big boil when you dump the beans in. Then the beans will overcook while you're waiting for it to come back up to temperature. Once you add the beans, keep the lid off.

If you're like me, you'll need a timer. Threadlike haricots could take as little as 1 minute, and regular skinny beans won't take more than 4. That's just long enough for you to check your e-mail and completely forget about your rapidly graying beans while crafting a devastating reply to your ex.

Drain your beans and shock them in a really big bowl of ice water. For pity's sake, don't skimp on the ice. Use a whole tray — folks, you can make more. If you have a double sink, you can fill one of them with the ice water. (If you try this with a single sink, you're going to have to hightail it to the nearest bathroom because you'll have nowhere to drain your boiling water.)

Besides how to boil water, there's really nothing more you need to know about cold green bean salads except this: Dress them at the last minute. If you toss in the dressing in advance, the vinegar or acid in it will denature the chlorophyll in the beans, turning them from green to a desolate, muddy olive.

Any number of flavor combinations marry well with cold beans. You could go for soy and rice vinegar with a tousle of cilantro. Try the Mediterranean approach, with basil and tomatoes. Or take the kitchen-garden path, strewn with herbs and edible flowers.

Since that summer long ago in the central Loire, much has changed. For example, I no longer consider July the best time to read dictionaries in your room. Now I think of July as a time to make ice cream, work on the house, drink bourbon cocktails and let the kids wear their swimsuits all day if they want.

It's a good time to reminisce about idle afternoons abroad, and about someone else being in charge of dinner. And it's a time to dream about the buttered beans of summers past while eating cold bean salad, knowing in your heart that both, however different they may be, taste good in any language.

Green Bean Salad With Soy-Glazed Almonds

Green Bean Salad With Soy-Glazed Almonds i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Green Bean Salad With Soy-Glazed Almonds
T. Susan Chang for NPR

I've seen a number of versions of this salad floating around over the years. I make mine with a lot of green elements and very sticky-sweet, salty nuts, which play up the crisp-tender texture of the beans. The nuts tend to drift to the bottom of the bowl, so scatter them on top at the last minute. Even so, there will be some at the bottom for people to fight over afterward.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side salad

Green Beans

1 pound slender green beans

Salt

Ice

Trim the stem ends of the green beans (you can leave the pointed tips). Halve the longer ones if you wish.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. While the water's heating, fill a large bowl with ice water (using at least a dozen cubes of ice). Once the water boils, add the beans and cook briefly: 1 or 2 minutes for tiny haricots, 4 or 5 for bigger beans. Don't walk away. Drain the beans quickly. Then shock them by dumping them in the ice water, agitating them briefly until they are quite cool (about a minute). Then drain again and set aside. They can be refrigerated in a tightly sealed plastic bag for several hours with no loss of color or texture. If you do refrigerate, first dry them extra-thoroughly on a dish towel.

Almonds

1 cup whole almonds

1 teaspoon vegetable oil (any kind except olive oil)

1/4 cup soy sauce

1-1/2 tablespoons sugar

Heat a small, heavy skillet over a high flame. Reduce to medium heat and add the almonds. Toast briefly — no more than 5 minutes — until the nuts take on a little color and begin to release their aroma. Transfer to a plate to cool.

Add the oil, soy sauce and sugar to the same small skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce until syrupy, about 3 minutes. Add the almonds and stir to coat thoroughly until they're sticky and completely glazed. Transfer to a chopping board to cool. They'll stick together, but that's fine. Chop roughly.

Dressing

1 3/4-inch chunk of ginger, peeled and minced

1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon corn or canola oil

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon soy sauce

3 small or 2 medium scallions, finely sliced on the diagonal (use both white and green parts)

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

If you have a mortar and pestle, use it to pound the minced garlic and ginger to a paste. Otherwise, mince them together as finely as you can, and press hard with the side of your broadest chef's knife until you get something close to a paste. Transfer to a large bowl and whisk in the oil, vinegar, soy sauce and scallions. (You can hold the dressing in the refrigerator at this point for up to a day.) Toss in the blanched beans and the cilantro, scatter in the nuts and serve at room temperature.

Fresh Green Bean Salad With Basil And Tomatoes

Fresh Green Bean Salad With Basil And Tomatoes i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Fresh Green Bean Salad With Basil And Tomatoes
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Shirley Corriher, the wisecracking, infinitely knowledgeable kitchen wizard, blanches her green beans with sugar as well as salt. Because the dressing's sweet, I tend to omit the sugar in the blanching water. If you don't have a food processor to make the dressing, you can try using a blender. This makes quite a lot of dressing. Adapted from Cookwise by Shirley Corriher (Morrow 1997).

Makes 8 servings

1-1/2 pounds fresh green beans

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon salt (4 teaspoons total)

1 recipe garlic-basil dressing (below)

5 firm ripe tomatoes, sliced

4 sprigs fresh basil for garnish

Trim the stem ends of the green beans (you can leave the pointed tips). Halve the longer ones if you wish.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. While the water's heating, fill a large bowl with ice water (using at least a dozen cubes of ice). Once the water boils, add the beans and cook briefly: 1 or 2 minutes for tiny haricots, 4 or 5 for bigger beans. Don't walk away. Drain the beans quickly. Then shock them by dumping them in the ice water, agitating them briefly until they are quite cool (about a minute). Then drain again and set aside. They can be refrigerated in a tightly sealed plastic bag for several hours with no loss of color or texture. If you do refrigerate, first dry them extra-thoroughly on a dish towel.

When ready to serve, toss the green beans with 1/3 cup of the dressing in a large mixing bowl. Taste and add more dressing or salt as needed. Pile the beans high in the center of a large white platter. Arrange the tomato slices overlapping around the edge. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt, and drizzle 3 tablespoons of the dressing on top of them. Garnish with the basil sprigs. Serve immediately.

Garlic-Basil Dressing

1 clove garlic

1 shallot

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 cup canola, corn or other vegetable oil

15 fresh basil leaves

Turn on the processor with the steel knife and drop the garlic and shallot down the feed tube onto the spinning blade to mince. Add the vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard and sugar. With the processor running, slowly drizzle in the oil. Add the basil leaves and coarsely chop with several on/off pulses.

Green Bean And Nasturtium Salad With Tarragon

Green Bean And Nasturtium Salad With Tarragon i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Green Bean And Nasturtium Salad With Tarragon
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Jerry Traunfeld says that in place of tarragon, you can use an equal amount of coarsely chopped fresh dill or summer savory, or 1/4 cup torn fresh basil leaves. I liked it with savory; I think its twiggy, pungent scent stands up well to the vinegar. Recipe is adapted from The Herbfarm Cookbook by Jerry Traunfeld (Scribner 2000).

Makes 6 servings

1 medium shallot, very thinly sliced (about 1/3 cup)

2 tablespoons tarragon wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves, very coarsely chopped

Salt

4 quarts water

1 pound tender, young green beans

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

24 nasturtium flowers*

Toss the shallot, vinegar, tarragon and 1/4 teaspoon salt together in a large mixing bowl. Let sit uncovered for at least 30 minutes to marinate the shallot and blend the flavors.

Trim the stem ends of the green beans (you can leave the pointed tips). Halve the longer ones if you wish.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. While the water's heating, fill a large bowl with ice water (using at least a dozen cubes of ice). Once the water boils, add the beans and cook briefly: 1 or 2 minutes for tiny haricots, 4 or 5 for bigger beans. Don't walk away. Drain the beans quickly. Then shock them by dumping them in the ice water, agitating them briefly until they are quite cool (about a minute). Then drain again and set aside. They can be refrigerated in a tightly sealed plastic bag for several hours with no loss of color or texture. If you do refrigerate, first dry them extra-thoroughly on a dish towel.

To make the dressing, stir the olive oil into the shallot mixture. Add the beans and toss well. Taste and season with black pepper and additional salt if needed. Check the nasturtiums for insects and gently toss them with the beans. Transfer the salad to a serving platter or individual salad plates, making sure the nasturtiums are evenly distributed.

*Many nurseries sell nasturtium plants, and some specialty groceries carry the flowers seasonally.

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