Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Simple Life

I’ve had pole beans on the brain all day today. Sometimes it goes like that. As far as I know, I’d made it 30-something years without ever tasting a pole bean, much less giving them any thought whatsoever. And like all of us now, so far removed from where our food comes from, I had grown accustomed to the vague thought that for each particular vegetable, there are only a small handful of varieties. I mean, who knew there was a green bean that wasn't a regular old green bean, right?

It’s all a fallacy, of course, one of the great lies of corporate agriculture. For very clear and hard-to-fault economic reasons, over time the farmers that feed us (and the seed companies that essentially decide what will be grown) have winnowed down the selections until consumers got what they wanted. Now, when you go to the supermarket, all the strawberries are gi-normous and unblemished, the peaches are unnaturally firm, and the squash are exactly the same size. We asked for it. They delivered it. I recently read How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table and found the analysis of how we got to this place of homogenized produce to be endlessly fascinating. The book doesn’t only focus on the politics of food however; its true purpose is more to serve as a resource of information on individual fruits and vegetables, with hints on determining ripeness, instructions on how to store the bounty, and recipes for best flavor. I love that kind of thing. Love, love, love.

We are in our third year now of eating off the grid, of attempting to source as much as possible of our foodstuffs away from the confines of the supermarket, and I still spend most of my time in a clueless fog of carting home obscure (to us) items of produce that I have no idea how to cook and even less of an idea of where to put it when I get it into the kitchen.

It can be daunting - don’t ever let anyone tell you differently. But it doesn’t have to actually be difficult. I have gone to both my mother and grandmother with questions (especially the first time I found a bunch of beets in my CSA box), I have done internet searches just to find out what something is called (ever seen green garlic?), I have spent countless hours reading cooking magazines word-for-word, and I have had picked the brains of all the farmers I have purchased from.

The bright side is that it didn’t take long at all before I would purposely buy things that stumped me. Once I learned where to look for information, I wanted nothing more than to search out heirloom varieties of common veggies and to find uses for items I hadn’t even known existed. This has led to mis-steps, of course, but a good challenge never hurt anyone. Matter of fact, I’m still a little steamed that I wasted those stunning paprika peppers on a pasta dish earlier this evening that turned out so spectacularly un-spectacular. That was just no way to treat a pepper.

Live and learn.

For the most part, I do not find general Googling to be the best source for recipes when I drag in my farmer’s market finds - the results are entirely too vast and I wouldn't know who to trust nor what to do. Sure, I get plenty of recipes online from the food blogs that I devour on a daily basis, but those aren’t the first place I turn to when I’m dribbling around in bags of unknown beans and strangely-shaped peppers. During the summer, I have a small stack of cookbooks that I keep within easy reach at all times for both general information and for recipes: Chez Panisse Vegetables, a gorgeous fount of information with soul-soothing line drawings and recipes that range from the simple old-fashioned type to the only-in-the-Bay-Area-restaurant kind of thing; the afore-mentioned How to Pick a Peach, which is now my go-to for general information on selecting and storing fruits and vegetables; a couple of reliable Moosewood Restaurant and Mollie Katzen vegetarian cookbooks; and my absolute favorite, that funky, painfully-eighties, badly-photographed, but virtually indispensable Joy of Gardening Cookbook.

Look, you can dress a girl up and teach her how to cook. You can send her to college and let her spend some time traveling. You can buy her books that teach her big words, and you can hope she learns a little bit of culture from her single and carefree years spent catting about. But when it all comes down to it, you can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. Chez Panisse is just a little bit above my raising. The Joy of Gardening Cookbook is a little more working-class, a bit less sophisticated, a comfortably small-town, down-to-earth, back-to-basics cookbook for everyday use.

Frankly, it's right up my alley.

And when I found myself with a pound of Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans and no idea whatsoever about what I should do with them, when Alice Waters and Russ Parsons gave me nothing more than the sound of crickets in the night, I found what I needed in my trusty old Joy of Gardening Cookbook. In less than a minute, I learned that pole beans could be cooked and served in the same manner as all other snap beans, which meant I could have gone on to my other big-city cookbooks, but I felt right at home where I was and so I kept reading, even though I already knew good and well how to cook a snap bean.

I ended up going for the simple old-school preparation on these pole beans, partly because the fried rice dish I was serving alongside was going to have ample flavor on its own, but also because the information I read said that the pole beans had a nutty flavor and so I didn’t want to overshadow that with too much pomp and circumstance. As it turned out, plain and simple was the way to go. Pole beans are incredibly flavorful, much more so than regular old green beans, with a nice lumpy shape and a pronounced nuttiness. I loved them. They were wonderful for dinner, and just as satisfying warmed up for lunch today.

  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1 pound fresh pole beans, washed and trimmed
  • 1 tsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  1. In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs to pan and cook, stirring, for a minute or two, until breadcrumbs are crispy and have browned a little. Set aside.
  2. In a steamer basket or metal colander set over a pan with an inch or so of boiling water, steam the beans, covered, for 3 to 4 minutes, until crisp-tender.
  3. In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the beans and the parsley and cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes, until heated through.
  4. Season with a generous pinch of salt and a grind or two of black pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired. Top with breadcrumbs and serve immediately.

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