Bebe’s Green Beans
I live in the land of the meat and three. That is Nashville's claim to fame - along with hot chicken and of course, country music. Meat and three means you pick one meat offering and a trinity of veggie sides to go with it. There's nothing profound about the history of this way of serving up hot southern food in restaurants and diners - it was an efficient method to keep the line moving, I suppose.
And this way of selling southern food surely is rooted in the home where you might have a pork chop or piece of fish and three vegetables alongside. My mother didn't think she had prepared an adequate meal unless there were at least three vegetables, plus hot bread and dessert. Those were the days...
However, we've woken up to the fact that the way we've cooked southern veggies may taste good but isn't good for us. My apologies to the southern chefs and authors who have espoused the gastronomic pleasure of greens dripping in pork fat, okra fried in bacon grease, and squash swimming in butter. I am going to tell you right here and now that there is a better way to cook those garden veggies, a way that respects their natural and local flavor, is still pleasing to the palate, and will have full approval of your cardiologist. If you are with me, read on. If not, go get in line at your favorite meat and three.
Lessons learned from the past
The reason green beans were originally simmered in pork fat is that fatty meat was available on a farm that raised hogs. The salty, rich flavor of the pork made those beans flavorful, and the fat made them substantial.
According to Virginia historian Leni Sorenson, southern food history is rooted in economy. "The poor didn't eat desserts, couldn't buy sugar... they made do with field peas." And she adds, "They wanted fat meat like pork for sustenance."
Those beans or peas simmered in a pot with water and pork was the main dish. That hog jowl, the fatback, whatever you call it, was added to give everyone the feeling of satiety. Plus, it added more calories to vegetables, which increased the amount of energy that could be expended in fields or factories until the next meal. But we don't live that way anymore, and there is a better and more delicious way to cook green beans.
Cook in as little water as possible
A modern way to prepare green beans is on top of the stove in just enough water to cover the beans halfway. They are cooked through and not crisp. Most importantly, they are free of animal fat. This is a method my mother developed out of creativity and the need to put something healthier on the dinner table. The uncanny mix of olive oil, onion, brown sugar, salt, and pepper gets magically smoky and seasons the beans in a most satisfying way.
BEBE’S GREEN BEANS RECIPE:
Makes 6 servings | Prep: 15 to 20 minutes | Cook: 20 to 25 minutes
1 1/2 pounds fresh green beans, trimmed
Water to cover halfway
1 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup light brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Snap the trimmed green beans in half and place in a large saucepan. Add enough water to cover the beans only halfway. Add the onion, olive oil, brown sugar, and salt and pepper to taste - about 1/4 teaspoon each. Place the pan over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the beans are just tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Taste one of the beans to test for doneness. If you like beans cooked a little longer, keep cooking them until they are your desired doneness.
Drain most, but not all, of the water from the pan. Season again with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, or let cool and store in the fridge until time to serve.