The green-beanies green beans are young, not more than about four inches long, taken straight from the garden, and they belong to one of the flavorful French filet, “thin,” varieties.
I can eat them with pleasure almost every day of their season. They have a lot more flavor than the two most-praised American varieties, Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake (in either their low, bush form or the original pole-bean form).
Cooked, the filet beans have a rich flavor, as vegetables go, sweet and nutty. Green beans, also known as snap or string beans, are Phaseolus vulgaris, together with wax, fresh shelling, and dry beans.
They’re sometimes called kidney beans, after the shape of their seeds, which are very different from the wide, flat ones of lima (butter) or fava (broad) beans (P. lunatus and Vicia faba).
In a perfect world, you would always pick green beans in the morning before the dew evaporated and serve them at lunch rather than wait for dinner. Early in the season, they deserve to be their own course.
I’ve never seen green beans for sale that are as luxuriously young as those I pick from my garden; I usually include a few that are newly formed, threadlike. It takes a lot of young beans to make a pound, and they grow so quickly that they require daily hand-picking.
For market gardeners, the cost in labor is so high that some don’t grow them at all and nearly all those who do pick them big. After the beans are five or six inches long and the pods begin to swell on their way to maturity, the flavor changes noticeably.
Fat, fibrous pods, bumpy with seeds, have much less flavor. But mature American varieties, boiled with cured pork for as long as three or four hours in the traditional Southern way, are a different vegetable and good in their own right.
Fashions in vegetable varieties come and go, if only because seed houses want new and different ones.
I once grew rows of different modern filet varieties, some with old-fashioned strings and others with the strings bred out of them, so as to compare.
I carefully tested and chose a favorite, only to have it disappear from catalogs a few years later. And it wasn’t any better than the old varieties Fin de Bagnols and Triomphe de Farcy (the beans of the latter are purple-streaked until fully cooked).
Both of those are bush varieties that, wanting to twine just a little, throw up incipient runners. The oldest varieties of green beans have tough strings that don’t break up with chewing. But young filet beans, even if they belong to stringy varieties, haven’t yet formed strings.
Cooking heightens the flavor of green beans—full cooking until all the raw taste is gone. For years, I believed that most vegetables were better undercooked than overcooked.
Yet for flavor, that’s not true. No one likes mushy vegetables, but if you compare batches of green beans, you’ll likely conclude that the most cooked batch has the best, strongest flavor—much stronger than that of beans retaining a shadow of crunch, no matter the variety. Some people advocate serving raw or barely cooked green beans in a salad, but even for that purpose, fully cooked beans taste better.
To test my changed views on doneness, I cooked batches of Fin de Bagnols and Rolande to three different degrees of doneness, and the most cooked batches of both had by far the most flavor, the variety being irrelevant by comparison. (To compare the varieties, I tied handfuls of each in loose bags of cheesecloth, dropping them simultaneously into the same pot and simultaneously pulling them out. Both were excellent, with Fin de Bagnols being possibly finer.)
A brighter green color tends to mean better flavor, but any acidity in the cooking water dulls the color. Cooks have often added a little baking soda to make the water neutral or slightly alkaline, but too much soda gives a soapy taste and a pappy texture. Then there’s the question of salt.
To quote the talented English chef Heston Blumenthal: “You do not need salt in the water in order to keep your vegetable green. There, I have said it—I have committed the cardinal sin of questioning perhaps the single most unquestioned act in the kitchen.” But, as he would agree, salt can play a useful role.
Home cooks often add about a tablespoon of salt to a gallon of water (about five grams per liter), as if cooking pasta. Professionals add much more. Salt at seawater concentration speeds cooking, and with the shorter time, the vegetable keeps a brighter color and loses less flavor to the water, as Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking.
Seawater is very salty—3 percent salt, which is just over ⅓ cup per gallon (120 grams for four liters). Few home cooks may be brave enough to try that.