by Robert Booz
Despite the impressive size of his garden, there were only three things that my father really did well: green beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Oh how the green beans came in, a verdant flush of finger like legumes stretching off their stout trellis. There is probably little that reminds me of long days of summer more than the taste of a fresh green bean picked from the garden. The crisp snap, the distinctly raw taste. I still regularly pluck them from my trellis and munch on them or slice them thinly raw before tossing them into a salad.
My father always called them “string beans,” really a bit of a misnomer (though not much worse than “green bean,” since the beans come in a variety of colors). The great majority of beans we grow and eat these days are stingless varieties, freed of the fibrous “string” that once ran the length of the bean. This string is why people started Frenching beans; that is, running a knife or peeler the length of the bean to remove the tough fiber. Ironically, most of the thin, French, haricot vert are stringless now. For this the French, and all of us, have Calvin Keeny to thank. Keeny bred the first stringless bean in 1894 in Upstate New York, and not long after, the Burpee Company made it ubiquitous. The Burpee “Stringless Green Pod,” the heirloom that Keeny developed, is still available today.
Long before Keeny, farmers in the Andes were busy domesticating the green beans’ ancestors. By the time the first settlers arrived in the Americas, beans formed important parts of native diets from South to North. In New England, beans (green and dried) comprised one part of the important “three sisters” diet along with corn and squash, and with good reason: Green beans are rich in protein, B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and copper, and are a very good source of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and manganese.
But, unlike the Native American beans, cleaning is now as simple as a rinse and trimming the ends. Good thing too, because green beans are easy to grow, productive and will provide you quite the bounty thoughout the summer. The tasty beans are great for blanching and keeping in the fridge for a quick sauté or stir fry to be sliced and added to salads through out the week, or they can be the cornerstone of more formative dishes. No matter what your preference, be glad to have the tasty pods on hand.