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Recipes and Stories

29 August 2015: Mary Randolph’s French Beans

Mary Randolph's French Beans, here finished with a little of her Melted Butter.

A couple of weeks ago, I revisited one of the loveliest and most misunderstood dishes in all of Southern cooking: pole beans slow-simmered with salt pork. With small new potatoes laid on top to steam during the last part of the simmer, it remains one of my all-time favorite ways of cooking these sturdy beans.

But pole beans are not the only ones that I, and many other Southern cooks, bring to the table. While researching for a lecture on the indomitable Mary Randolph, whose 1824 cookbook was one of the earliest printed records of Southern cooking, I was once again taken by her lucid and careful directions for French beans.

The name was not capricious; what she outlined is the classic French method for preparing true haricots verts of the sort that have become so popular in our country these days, slender, young beans that she called “snaps” (a term still used to this day in the South). Her recipe is as vibrant and useful today as it was when she first set it down nearly two hundred years ago:

French Beans.

Cut off the stalk end first, and then turn to the point and strip off the strings; if not quite fresh, have a bowl of spring water, with a little salt dissolved in it, standing before you, as the beans are cleansed and trimmed, throw them in; when all are done, put them on the fire in boiling water with some salt in it; when they have boiled fifteen or twenty minutes, take one out and taste it; as soon as they are tender, take them up throw them into a colander to drain. To send up the beans whole, when they are young, is much the best method, and their delicate flavour and colour is much better preserved. When a little more grown, they must be cut across, in two, after stringing; and for common tables, they are split, and divided across; but those who are nice, do not use them at such as a growth as to require splitting.

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1824), page 126

Whether the beans are true haricots verts or young, slender beans gleaned from whatever variety you have growing in your garden or merely very young Blue Lakes from the supermarket, this is a good basic method of cooking any of them. They can be served dozens of ways—from salads to savory gratins. In fact, this was one of the rare times when Mrs. Randolph was silent on how the cooked vegetable was to be finished and served.

The water must really boil—and hard—or the beans will lose their color and become flabby and uninteresting, especially if they are those generic supermarket beans. I know that Mrs. Randolph’s cooking times seem a little long, but there are two things at work here. The varieties of beans that were available to her took a good bit longer to cook than the modern “string-less” hybrids that we find in our markets. The second thing is that, unlike Monticello, most kitchens in her day didn’t have a clock, which means that her cooking times were not to be taken literally. She clearly wanted the cook to watch the pot, not the minute hand.

If you need a codified recipe, here you go:

French Beans, or Quick-Cooked Young Green Beans
Serves 4-6

1½ pounds young, thin, green beans, preferably true haricots verts
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, Vinaigrette (see below), or Melted Butter (see below)

1. Wash the beans in several changes of water and drain well. Snap off the stem ends and if there are any strings, pull them away, but leave the beans whole.

2. Put 2 quarts of water in a heavy-bottomed 3- to 4-quart pot, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in a small handful of salt and the beans. Cover until it comes back to a boil, then remove the lid and cook, uncovered, until barely tender, from 4 to 8 minutes, depending on the beans and your taste. If you are using an heirloom bean from your garden or farmers’ market, they may indeed take as long as Mrs. Randolph directed. At any rate, the moment they’re done, drain and toss with butter or vinaigrette or pass a sauceboat of Mrs. Randolph’s Melted Butter separately.

To Melt Butter.

Nothing is more simple than this process, and nothing is so generally done badly. Keep a quart tin sauce pan with a cover to it exclusively for this purpose; weigh one quarter of a pound of good butter, rub into it two teaspoonsful of flour; when well mixed, put it in the sauce pan with one table spoonful of water, and a little salt; cover it, and set the pan in a large one of boiling water, shake it constantly till completely melted and beginning to boil. If the pan containing the butter be set on coals, it will oil the butter and spoil it. This quantity is sufficient for one sauce boat. A great variety of delicious sauces can be made, by adding different herbs to melted butter, all of which are excellent to eat with fish, poultry, or boiled butchers meat.

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1824), pages 112-113

Classic Vinaigrette — In Mary Randolph’s era, this was usually made in the dining room, in well-to-do houses by the butler at the sideboard, but sometimes tableside by the mistress of the house. At Monticello it was probably done by Jefferson’s daughter Patsy Jefferson Randolph or at times by the man himself. Using a silver fork (as they would have done) or whisk, beat together a tablespoon of red wine or herb vinegar or lemon juice (or a combination of them) and a pinch of salt. By droplets, slowly beat in 2-3 tablespoons of your best extra-virgin olive oil. A lot will depend on the vinegar, the oil, and your own taste. This is enough to dress one recipe of the beans or a salad for 4-6 persons. If you need more, the usual proportions are 1 part vinegar to 2 or 3 parts oil, again depending on the vinegar, oil, and your palate. You may add pepper and minced herbs to taste, and the vinegar can be lightly flavored with garlic by letting a small, crushed clove steep in it for a moment before mixing the dressing, all depending on what you’ll dress with it. To make an emulsion that will hold better, you can add a bit of garlic crushed to a puree with the salt and/or a dab of Dijon mustard, again depending on what you’ll dress with it.

Quick-Cooked Young Green Beans recipe and text adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches, by Damon Lee Fowler, Globe Pequot Press, copyright © 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved

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