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Lean, Mean Green Beans

I’ll never forget the first time I planted green beans. I was living in Central Illinois farm country, surrounded by soybeans. I had just put in a big backyard garden, and had ambitious plans to grow all sorts of varieties of produce that I could not find in stores. I even mail-ordered some exotic yard-long bean seeds that I'd never even tasted.  My plants sprouted and grew explosively; quickly climbing about four feet up the fence sprouting tiny baby beans. Shortly after, I came home from work, and every single leaf on those robust, lively plants had been transformed into lace. The tiny baby beans were gone.  Bean beetles had descended on my lovely plants like a plague of locusts, gnawing the soft leaves and leaving only the network of veins and stems.

I didn’t get any beans that year.

It’s a shame, because fresh green beans are a real treat, a world away from the canned ones you might know. And I have come to love yard-long beans as well, now that my local markets often carry them. In fact, my co-op and farmers' market carry such great produce that I have scaled back my gardening experiments back, using the space I have now to grow greens, herbs and a few tomatoes.

Green beans sometimes suffer quietly after picking, quickly becoming tough and even losing some of the vitamin C that they provide as they are exposed to air. The fresher you can get them, the better. A really fresh green bean will feel tight around its contents, not loose. It will be brightly colored and have no dark or light spots. Look for a snappy texture, not one that bends without breaking. Looseness or leatheriness means the beans have lost moisture. When you get your sprightly, fresh beans, wrap them tightly and cook them the same day (or give in to the temptation to eat them raw).

Once you get them home, you'll be glad that the newer bean varieties are “stringless.” Back in the old days, you had to strip the tough string from the spine of each bean but now all you really need to do is snap off the stem. Some like to slice off the tip as well, but it's not necessary. Cooking is a breeze. Steam whole green beans from about three minutes for slender French beans (sometimes called haricots verts or filet beans) to 10 minutes for fat green beans. Steam a shorter time for crisp beans for salads, or longer if you want softer beans.

Cook the beans as they are, sliced on a diagonal, or even chopped into small pieces to add to soups or stir-fries. Whole green beans make an elegant presentation and steamed whole beans are fabulous tossed with crumbled crisp bacon, warm vinaigrette, or just butter and a sprinkle of fresh herbs. Mix them in with a sauté of garlic and tomatoes, or caramelized onions for a terrific side dish. They are also a perfect crown for Nicoise-style salads, with potatoes, boiled eggs, and tuna, but don’t stop there. Crisp-tender and chilled green beans can make any salad more interesting.

Chopped on a diagonal for stir-fries, green beans or long beans are perfect in Thai or other Asian flavored dishes. For a pretty presentation, mix green beans, orange carrots and white water chestnuts, with a red chili for spice. Chop the green beans into thin slices and stir them into summery soups, where they will cook almost instantly. Summer sweet corn and chopped green beans make a great succotash; just sauté in butter and throw in some red bell pepper for color.

If you are a fan of canned or frozen “Frenched” green beans, they are simply regular beans that have been slivered before cooking, and you can do it yourself by laying each bean flat on the cutting board and cutting it in half lengthwise.

Hot or cold, the versatile green bean is a summer favorite. Beans also come in purple, yellow, and various spotted and striped varieties, if you'd like to venture beyond green. Don’t be disappointed when the dramatic purples fades when cooked (purple beans turn green), you will still get lots of great bean flavor. Just seek out the freshest ones, and you may fall in love with this familiar veggie all over again.