There are always two serious vegetables as the worst undercooked in the belief that color and texture are paramount: string beans and broccoli. String beans, which are more logically called green beans, since so few need stringing anymore, don’t have much taste when they’re boiled for a few minutes and drained just after they turn a bright grass green. This is the way I have always cooked them, thinking that when their color is at its most intense their flavor must be too. I’ve had to season them heavily with salt and pepper, and to add lemon juice and oil too. And it has been work to eat them.
I was recently given pause when a friend from North Carolina, enlightened in culinary matters, became dreamy while recounting the pressure-cooked green beans of her youth. I felt queasy as she enthused over their flavor and the ease of cutting through them with a fork, thinking instead how brown and musty they surely tasted. A lot of fatback in the pot gave them what flavor they had, I reasoned. But then I remembered that every green bean I had ever been served in Italy was dark green and tender, and decided that perhaps rich European soil couldn’t account for my fondness for them.
Like most people I had always felt that flavor somehow fades with color. Harold McGee, the author of the essential On Food and Cooking and of a delightful new series of essays on science and cooking, The Curious Cook, to be published next month, set me straight. “The chemical reactions that flavor and color involve are distinct,” he explained. “There’s no necessary correlation between them.” Chlorophyll, which gives vegetables their color, breaks down quickly. (And if you plunge green vegetables in ice water to stop the breakdown and keep the color bright, a common trick among chefs, you risk making the vegetables taste waterlogged.) But flavor compounds, he said, can take time to develop, and the compounds present after forty-five minutes of cooking can be very different from those at five, say, or twenty minutes.
But are they welcome flavor compounds? I telephoned Anna del Conte, a writer whom I greatly admire-she is the best historian of Italian food in either Italian or English, and has a highly developed sense for good food too. Her recently published Italian Pantry is full of everyday recipes that are easy and unusual, and have the just-right simplicity of great home cooking. (The recipes are grouped by ingredients, which explains the title; they’re full of fresh vegetables, fish, and meat.) She said that green beans are better long cooked, and that the real way to tell when they are done is not by color but by smell. “It’s pervasive,” she said. “Don’t you know it? My mother used to get up suddenly and say ‘Oh, the beans, they must be nearly done’-just the way you can smell a cake baking near the end.” I couldn’t conjure the smell, because I had for so long drained green beans before they began to release it.
That night I made a recipe that she called her favorite way of eating green beans it’s from an earlier book, unfortunately not available here). When the simple Tuscan stew, with onion, tomato, and crushed fennel seed, was done, I ate every bit of it, amazed that I was tasting Italy in my own house. Maybe it wasn’t the soil. Maybe it was better to eat a green bean that hung in a curl when you lifted it instead of one that stayed stiff. Certainly these were succulent, an adjective I had never thought I’d use for green beans.
I’ve since made the recipe in a number of other ways, but find that Del Conte’s method is best. Trim a pound of fresh green beans that have lively color and a firm, slightly furry surface. Bring two to four quarts of water to a boil. While the water is heating, separately chop one medium onion and four or five plum tomatoes this should yield about a cup and a half of chopped tomato; you can substitute drained and chopped canned tomatoes). Crush a teaspoon of fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle, or with the end of a knife handle in a small bowl; the seeds need not be ground to a powder, just broken into small pieces. Even if you have no fennel seed on hand, you’ll still see the pleasures of long, slow cooking. Heat a film of olive oil in a wide saute pan and sweat the onion for five minutes, until it turns translucent; it should not brown. When the water boils, add more salt than you usually would. “Beans take a tremendous amount of salt in the water, more than any other vegetable, more than pasta even,” Del Conte says. Beans are often insipid; try two tablespoons of coarse salt. Boil the beans for four or five minutes, until they just begin to soften. Drain them and add them to the onions, with the tomato and fennel seed. Cook, covered, over low heat for thirty-five to forty minutes. The beans will darken and soften, and absorb the liquid exuded by the onion and tomato. They might even look brownish. Their rich flavor, heightened but not masked by the tomato and fennel, will be generous recompense.
Southerners cook green beans even longer. Bill Neal, a chef and historian in Chapel Hill and the author of Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, my favorite introduction to the subject, recently researched green-bean recipes for his new book, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie. He quotes Azilee Edwards, who wrote in a 1976 book of food from one section of Atlanta: “A green bean is supposed to be cooked at least three hours anyway if you want to make them taste good.”
Neal told me that all the recipes call for the liquid to be nearly evaporated by the end, whether the beans are cooked for a half hour or three hours. Most call for unsmoked or lightly smoked bacon. “My mother can cook them that way and they’re so good I can’t stand t,” he said. “There’s nothing like those well-cooked beans. They’re not overcooked. They’re well-cooked, and that’s not the same thing.”
I DON’T HAVE MUCH use for broccoli when it’s cooked lightly, and think it’s far better after longer cooking. But that’s my opinion; it’s not necessary to cook it a long time to taste Its real flavor, as it is for green beans. The taste of broccoli changes completely with long cooking. It becomes sweeter, milder, smoother, and richer, but not old or cabbagy (broccoli is a member of the cabbage family).
A standard pasta sauce in Italy can also be served as a vegetable dish: broccoli braised for a long time with olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper. (Braising is slow cooking in a covered pan with a small amount of liquid.) Del Conte offers a recipe for broccoli stufati, and Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli, in Chez Panisse Cooking, offer one for long-cooked broccoli. They are very similar. To make broccoli stufati, cut a pound of broccoli into florets and stems, and peel the stems and cut them into small pieces. Blanch the broccoli pieces in lightly salted boiling water for three minutes. In a saute pan heat one to three tablespoons of olive oil with five peeled garlic cloves (you can put a toothpick through each clove to help you find it later) and a dried chili. After a minute or two take out the chill and put in the broccoli. Cook, covered, for about forty minutes. This can also be done in a microwave oven, heating the oil, garlic, and chili uncovered for two minutes and then the broccoli covered for about twenty minutes. To make sure that the flavor is concentrated and the texture that of a chunky puree, Waters and Bertolli cook the broccoli for an hour and fifteen minutes; I find that forty minutes is enough. Remove the garlic before serving.