Sunday, August 1, 2010

Green Beans

If cucumbers are not available, even for ready money, how about green beans? They are delicious, compliment many other dishes, and when cooked using a simple technique, easy to prepare ahead of time to serve with your meal.

To cook well, you only need desire, good ingredients, and a handful of skills and techniques. Blanching is one such technique: cooking an ingredient, typically a green vegetable, in boiling water. After mastering this simple process, success is virtually assured every time you cook green beans.

An English cookbook by Heston Blumenthal titled Family Food [2002] expertly explains blanching. Blumenthal is the chef at The Fat Duck, a Michelin three star restaurant known for its application of science to cooking and its wildly innovative cuisine (e.g., a Nitrogen Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse). The recipes in Family Food are on the other side of this food spectrum. He presents his recipes for Roast Leg of Lamb, Glazed Carrots and Rice Pudding. Blumenthal’s idea for Family Food “is to get children eating adult food and parents discovering new dishes or rediscovering ones they already know.” Included in Family Food is a six-page discourse on blanching green beans. It is brilliant in its clarity and scientific curiosity. Here are Heston Blumenthal’s steps to perfectly cooked green beans.

1. Take a casserole (not an aluminium pan or the vegetables will discolour) and fill it with water, measuring out 1 litre [4.23 cups] for every 100g [3.52 ounces] of beans.

2. Top and tail the beans, either using a knife or, preferably, by hand. Hold the bean in one hand and with the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, gently snap off each end of the bean, carefully pulling away so that any vein running down the side comes away with it.

3. Soak the beans in cold water for a couple of hours before cooking. Quite often, these beans will have been picked over a month before being shipped. Soaking will help to rehydrate them.

4. Bring the water to the boil on a high heat, with a lid on.

5. If you have soft water, do not add any salt. If, however, your water is hard, you can either cook the beans in neutral bottled water, which you may find an unnecessary expense, or add a minuscule amount of bicarbonate of soda (this is a little risky, though, as too much and the taste and texture may be ruined).

6. Drain the beans completely and when the water is boiling, plunge them in. Immediately put the lid on and boil until tender—start testing them after 3 minutes but they may take up to 10 minutes.

7. Have a bowl of iced or cold water to hand. When the beans are cooked, test by tasting them (they should have a slight resistance but no crunch), drain them through a colander and tip into the cold water. Do not, as some people do, put the pan under the tap—the beans will take too long to cool down. Do not, either, leave the beans under cold, running water or they will lose their flavour.

8. As soon as the beans are cold, drain them and set them aside until you want to use them. You can prepare them a few hours in advance, which can be quite convenient.

9. When you are ready to serve then beans, simply reheat them in a mix of one third unsalted butter to two thirds water (tap water is fine for this stage). Simmer them for a couple of minutes with salt and freshly ground black pepper, drain and serve. Do not heat the beans in too much of this emulsion; use approximately 50g [1.76 ounces] of butter and 100ml [3.4 ounces] for every 100g [3.52 ounces] of beans.

A few observations and notes on Blumenthal’s process. If you do the math, you will quickly see that one key factor is using a lot of boiling water to cook your vegetables. Thomas Keller of The French Laundry calls this blanching technique “Big-Pot Blanching”. You want the beans to cook as quickly as possible to maintain color and flavor. A lot of boiling water helps to prevent the water temperature from dropping when you add the beans. Blumenthal’s blanching experiments at The Fat Duck also prove that cooking with the lid on does not negatively impact the color of the green beans.

You may notice that Blumenthal does not recommend salting the blanching water if you have soft water. Many chefs, such as Thomas Keller, disagree and add large amounts of salt. Molecular scientists and food chemists have weighed in on this debate and I am not aware of a clear winner. With disagreement among professionals at the highest level, you can feel pretty secure on whatever side of the debate you decide to join. Personally, I add enough sea salt (i.e., a handful or two) so that the water tastes like seawater.

Finally, Blumenthal shocks the beans in cold water to stop their cooking. Again, there is some debate about this last step among chefs; Alice Waters in Chez Panisse Vegetables says that this step robs flavor while Blumenthal and Thomas Keller claim using ice water is essential. In this case I side with the ice bathists, but try it each way and you be the judge.