I lived in Paris for many years before I figured out how to cook green beans the French way. They would arrive glistening on bistro plates in deep green, succulent piles. Whatever I tried — steaming the beans, boiling them, adding butter or olive oil — I couldn’t manage to replicate the pleasantly nutty flavor. I tested every kind of green bean I could find at the market (and there are many), but still no luck. What was the secret?
Haricots verts à la française / Green beans, French style
The trick, as it turns out, is that the beans are cooked twice — first boiled until just tender, and then tossed in a skillet in melted butter until it turns a rich, nutty brown. This imparts the kind of flavor you can achieve when you allow vegetables to caramelize slightly as they are braising. It’s easy, and it adds a little je-ne-sais-quoi to the meal (something special).
Over here in France, green beans begin appearing at farmers’ markets in early April, mainly imported from Morocco, and by this time of year stalls are filled to overflowing with locally grown varieties. They come in a surprising range of colors — some of the best have purple stripes! — and are often thinner than the green beans available elsewhere.
This is apparently what distinguishes a so-called ‘French bean’ from the sturdier varieties typically found in other countries. The beans are thin for a simple reason — they are harvested younger. This produces a more tender mouthful, and also eliminates the need to string the beans. But I am hardly an expert on ‘French beans’ — the term doesn’t exist in French — so if anyone has any insight on this subject, please let us know!
The best beans of all come from one’s own garden, of course. I’ve had uneven luck growing green beans in France given the healthy appetites of the slugs who frolic in my garden. This year’s first crop of lettuce, radishes, peas and arugula was totally decimated by rabbits and slugs, forcing me to replant in late May. That’s when I put in the beans. Let’s hope they produce a beautiful crop…
Now some news from the literary front. If you are looking for a good read this summer, don’t miss Anne Penketh’s Food Fight, in which one intrepid woman takes on a major food corporation amid many amusing shenanigans. As David Usborne, US editor of The Independent, wrote, ‘This addictive novel is closer to real life in Washington, D.C., than we’d like to think. Fun yet insightful about the lobbying and politicking in the American capital, this take-down of a fictional American food giant is irresistible.’