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Recipes and Stories

11 August 2015: Southern Slow-Cooked Pole Beans

One of the most misunderstood and unjustly maligned dishes in all of Southern cooking: slow-simmered green beans, here with new potatoes that have been halved and laid on top of the beans to steam during the last few minutes of cooking

One of the most misunderstood dishes in all of Southern cooking is green beans slow-simmered with salt pork or ham until they’re tender and deeply infused with the salt-pork flavor. It’s easy to understand why it has been misunderstood when one sees the misguided mess that all too often passes for this dish in “Southern” style diners and cafeterias: canned beans or the generic hybrid green beans that inhabit most supermarket produce bins, indifferently boiled to Hell and back with a chunk of artificially smoke-flavored ham or half a dozen slices of smoked bacon until they’re the color of army fatigues and have surrendered what little flavor they had left in them.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea. When properly done, it’s one of the loveliest vegetable dishes in all of Southern cooking. The problem lies not in the concept, but in its misguided application. This method is meant for sturdy, thick-skinned beans, any variety requiring a long, slow simmer to make them tender. They’re often called “pole beans” not because they look like a pole, but because they grow on a vine that has to be trained onto a pole or cage. I’ve always maintained that regular snap beans (which grow on a bush) will be reduced to mush if subjected to this treatment, and they are if the cook is careless.

But while working on this story, I discovered that, where there’s a will, there’s a way. After making the rounds of all the markets in my part of town where I usually get pole beans, nearly three hundred miles from my mother’s garden and a week away from my neighborhood farmers’ market, I found to my dismay that there were no pole beans to be had. The best I could do was some fresh mature snap beans. Having maintained for years that you couldn’t use snap beans in this recipe, I didn’t have much hope for them, but bought them anyway. And it turns out that, with a little care, they can make a more than acceptable variation if the cook uses a little extra care and doesn’t try to give them the long, sustained simmer that pole beans require.

The biggest mistake in some of the more careless interpretations of this less a bad choice in beans than that of using breakfast bacon or smoked ham hocks for the seasoning meat. Yes, all the old recipes call for “bacon,” but what the word meant in those days was salt-cured pork that wasn’t smoked, usually the side cut that’s often called “streak of lean” in the South. A scrap hunk of a country ham was also a common seasoning, but even though country hams are usually smoked, the smoke doesn’t penetrate through the skin and fat, so it doesn’t permeate the meat as it does with modern breakfast bacon and smoked hocks.

The smoky taste of bacon and regular ham hocks will overpower and dull the flavor of the beans rather than enhance it. Pancetta, or Italian bacon, which in some parts of the South is ironically easier to come by than streak of lean, is actually a better choice if you can’t get it. And if you prefer not to use pork, a well-scraped 1x3-inch piece of Parmesan cheese rind works wonders.

Keep in mind that this is really a stew (Mary Randolph called it a “ragout”). And know that a great advantage of it is that, like most stews, it’s better the second day.

Southern Slow-Cooked Pole Beans
Serves 6

3 pounds sturdy flat pole beans (sometime sold as “Italian” green beans), or half-runners or Kentucky Wonder beans
½ pound lean salt pork, pancetta, or country ham in one piece or 1 country ham hock (not a regular smoked hock)
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small Vidalia Sweet or other sweet onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced, optional
Pepper Vinegar (see 10 August 2015: Pepper Vinegar) or Pepper Sherry (see 10 August 2015: Bird Peppers and Pepper Sherry), optional

1. Wash the beans thoroughly in cold water and drain. Have ready a fresh basin of cool water. Top and tail the beans and strip off the woody “strings” that run down the seams of the pods, taking care to remove all traces of them. Break or cut the beans into 1-inch lengths and drop them into the basin of water.

2. Wash the pork to remove the excess salt from the surface and pat it dry. Put it in a heavy-bottomed 4-to-6-quart pot over medium heat. If it’s very lean, add a spoonful of vegetable oil or lard. Cook, turning frequently, until it has browned and thrown off most of its fat. Remove all but a spoonful of fat and add the onion. Sauté until golden, about 5 minutes, then add 4 cups of water and let it come to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer at least 30 minutes.

3. Raise the heat to high and bring the liquid back to a rolling boil. Drain and add the beans. If the water doesn’t cover them, add more as needed. Let it come back to a boil, then reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Loosely cover and simmer for at least 1½ hours—longer won’t hurt—until the beans are very tender, at which point, there should be very little liquid left. At this point, you can add new potatoes or immature little “baby” vegetables to the top and let them steam until they’re just tender—see the variations below for details.

4. If by chance there is a good bit of liquid left when the beans are done, raise the heat to medium high and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, stirring often to prevent scorching. Pour the beans into a warm vegetable dish.

5. I like them just as they are, but they’re often served with chopped raw onion and pepper vinegar. Another once popular but now rare condiment for them is Pepper Sherry. If any of those appeal to you, pass them separately.

Variation – Slow-Cooked Snap Beans: where there’s a will, there’s a way. Faced with no pole beans to be had in any of my markets and nearly three hundred miles from my mother’s garden, the best I could do for the photograph of this story was some very fresh mature snap beans. Having maintained for years that you couldn’t use these beans in this recipe, I didn’t have much hope for them, but bought them anyway. And it turns out that, with a little care, they can make a more than acceptable variation. Using the same amount of beans

Serves 6

3 pounds fresh but mature snap beans
½ pound lean salt pork or pancetta, thickly sliced
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small Vidalia Sweet or other sweet onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced, optional
Pepper Vinegar (see 10 August 2015: Pepper Vinegar) or Pepper Sherry (see 10 August 2015: Bird Peppers and Pepper Sherry), optional

1. Wash the beans thoroughly in cold water and drain. Have ready a fresh basin of cool water. Top and tail the beans and strip off any woody “strings” that run down the seams of the pods (they don’t usually have any). Break the beans into 1-inch lengths and drop them into the basin of water.

2. If using salt pork, wash it to remove the excess salt from the surface and pat it dry. Pancetta won’t need washing. Put it in a heavy-bottomed 4-to-6-quart pot over medium heat. If it’s very lean, add a spoonful of vegetable oil or lard. Cook, turning frequently, until it has browned and thrown off most of its fat. Remove all but a spoonful of fat and add the onion. Sauté until golden, about 5 minutes, then add 6 cups of water and let it come to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for an hour.

3. Raise the heat to high and bring the liquid back to a rolling boil. Drain and add the beans. If the water doesn’t cover them, add more as needed. Let it come back to a boil, then reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Loosely cover and simmer for about 30-45 minutes—some may take as much as an hour—the beans should be very tender but still quite firm, and there should be very little liquid left. At this point, you can add new potatoes or immature little “baby” vegetables to the top and let them steam until they’re just tender—see the variations below for details.

4. If by chance there is a good bit of liquid left when the beans are done, raise the heat to medium high and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, stirring often to prevent scorching. Pour the beans into a warm vegetable dish.

5. I like them just as they are, but they’re often served with chopped raw onion and pepper vinegar. Another once popular but now rare condiment for them is Pepper Sherry. If any of those appeal to you, pass them separately.

Variation – Slow-Cooked Pole Beans with New Potatoes: An old-time country classic and one of my own favorites from my childhood. When the beans are nearly ready, scrub a dozen or so of the smallest new potatoes that you can get under cold running water. When they’re really young and new, the skin is so thin and delicate that it rubs off with the scrubbing. If it doesn’t, they’re traditionally peeled, but I never bother). Lay them on top of the beans, tightly cover, and steam until they’re tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the potatoes to a warm bowl, season lightly with salt, cover, and keep warm. Finish the beans as directed in step 4 above and either mix the potatoes back into them, or pour them into a warm serving bowl and arrange the potatoes around the edges. Dust with several grindings of pepper and serve hot.

Variation – Slow-Cooked Beans with Summer Vegetables: While the beans are cooking, wash and trim 1 pound of immature (“baby”) summer squash (preferably yellow crooknecks or pattypan), okra, carrots, small onions, or eggplants but leave them whole. When the beans have cooked for at least an hour and are nearly done, lay the vegetables on top in a single layer. They mustn’t touch any liquid or they’ll cook unevenly. Tightly cover and steam until they’re tender but still firm, testing them after 6-8 minutes; they may need as much as 10-12 minutes. As soon as they’re done, take them up into a warm serving bowl. Toss, if you like, with melted butter, season to taste with salt and a liberal grinding of pepper and, if you have it, a spoonful of chopped parsley. Finish the beans as directed in step 4 above and serve them in a separate bowl.

Recipe and text adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches (2nd Edition, Globe Pequot Press), copyright © 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, and from Classical Southern Cooking (2nd Edition, Gibbs-Smith Publishers), copyright © 2008 by Damon Lee Fowler all rights reserved

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