11 August 2015: Southern Slow-Cooked Pole Beans
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 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 or generic hybrid green beans that inhabit most supermarket produce bins, indifferently boiled to Hell and back with a chunk of boiled 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 to begin with.
However, just because it's often done badly doesn't mean there's nothing wrong with the idea. When done well, it's one of the loveliest dishes in all of Southern cooking. The problem lies not in the concept, but in its misguided application, mainly in the use of the wrong ingredients. This method is intended for sturdy, thick-skinned beans, any variety requiring a long, slow simmer to make them tender. They're often called "pole beans" because they grow on a vine that has to be trained onto a pole or cage, not because they look like a pole.
I've always maintained that regular snap beans (which grow on a bush), especially the generic hybrids that are found in most markets, will be reduced to mush if subjected to this treatment. But while working on this story, I discovered that, where there's a will, there's a way.
Being nearly three hundred miles from mother's garden and a week away from a farmer's market, I'd made the rounds of all the markets where I can usually find pole beans. To my dismay, there were none to be had. The best I could do was some very fresh mature snap beans. Having always believed that snap beans wouldn't work in this recipe, I didn't have much hope for them, but bought them anyway. And it turns out that they can indeed be cooked in this way if one uses a little extra care and doesn't try to give them the long, sustained simmer that pole beans require.
But the wrong choice of beans isn't the only careless mistake that's all too often made with ingredients. So many of the bad interpretations of this dish use smoked breakfast bacon or smoked ham hocks as the seasoning meat. Yes, all the old recipes called for "bacon," but what the word meant back then 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 dry-cured (or country) ham was also common, but even though those are usually smoked, the smoke doesn't penetrate through the skin and fat into the dense meat, so it doesn't the smoke flavor doesn't permeate it. It's better if the meat is in a single piece, but several thick slices will work.
Rather than enhancing the flavor, that smoky taste overpowers and dulls it. Pancetta, or Italian bacon, which in some parts of the South is ironically easier to come by than streak of lean, is actually closer to the original intent and works well in this dish. And if you can't, or prefer not, to use salt-cured 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
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 dry-cure (country) ham, preferably in one piece or at least thick-sliced if a single piece isn't available
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 in a basin of cold water and drain. Have ready a fresh basin of cold water. Top and tail the beans and strip off the woody "string" that run down the seam, taking care to remove all traces of it. Break or cut the beans into 1-inch lengths and drop them into the cold water.
2. If using salt pork, wash it under cold running water to remove the excess salt and pat it dry. If using pancetta, it 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's browned on all sides and most of its fat is rendered. Remove it and all but a spoonful of fat. Add the onion and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes, then return the pork to the pot and add 4 cups of water. Bring it to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer at least 30 minutes. Longer won't hurt a thing.
3. Raise the heat and bring the liquid back to a rolling boil. Drain and add the beans by handfuls. If the water doesn't cover them, add more as needed. Let it come back to a boil and reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Loosely cover and simmer for at least 1½ hours, or until the beans are very tender and the liquid is considerably reduced. It can be made to this point up to three days ahead. Let them cool, and then cover and refrigerate until needed.
4. When you're ready to serve the beans, reheat heat the gently over medium heat. If by chance there is a good bit of liquid left when the beans are warm again, raise the heat to medium high and cook until most of it has evaporated, stirring often to prevent scorching. Pour them into a warm vegetable dish and serve them just as they are, or with chopped raw onion and pepper vinegar or pepper sherry passed separately.
Variation – Slow-Cooked Snap Beans: Using the same amount of beans and other ingredients, increase the water to 6 cups and let the salt pork simmer in it (step 2) for at least an hour, until the liquid is deeply flavored and reduced to 4 cups. Cook the beans only until they're tender, about 30-45 minutes and then finish them in the same way.
Variation – Slow-Cooked 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