Green bean casserole. NOT!
OK I’ll admit it, I’ve never actually eaten green bean casserole. It was served at one memorable event I attended, but I just couldn’t bring myself to raise fork to mouth. Is there really any question as to why? Which is not to say that I have never indulged in a tasty casserole. Growing up in the 70s (alright it was the 60s, but I’m sure I could pass), I encountered all manner of miracle quick meals, such as tuna casserole, corn chowder and American Chop Suey (really, that’s what it was called), which was nothing more than elbow macaroni, ground beef and spaghetti sauce baked in a dish with some parmesan on top. Sort of a Wasp-y riff on spaghetti and meatballs.
Somehow though, in spite of my lack of first person experience with the green bean casserole, it looms large in my personal culinary folklore. It is, dare I say, an American classic, fondly remembered by many and still greatly beloved by the lucky few who possess cast-iron stomachs or third world-hardened digestive tracts. I am not one, and though I’d hardly rate my palate as evolved, I do have standards and, as I have previously noted, anything that is held together with a can of condensed cream of whatever soup falls somewhat short of them.
There are, however, alternatives and following are the ones I’d suggest if you’re jonesing for the green bean casserole, but prefer to limit your intake of monosodium glutamate, modified food starch and “flavoring.”
The beans. There are two kinds of green beans: regular green beans (aka string beans) and the finer, tastier French beans (aka haricots verts) you see here. I don’t know what the relationship of those nasty yellow wax beans might be to the regular green ones, but I can say with certainty I’d never eat one. Anyways, in my opinion French beans are tastier and nicer than the regular ones; they’re also ruinously expensive. You decide what the budget can tolerate. But here’s the important part: No. Canned. Beans. Ever. Frozen in an emergency. Fresh is best.
Cooking times. My Grammie Sue boiled fresh beans (in a pressure cooker!) until they were suitable for mashing. I suppose it was because, owing to an overzealous blacksmith in his past, my grandfather gummed his food. Don’t do this. Assume your guests will possess a full set of teeth, or at least have the decency to wear their dentures, and steam the beans just to the point of tenderness. If you must boil them, keep a close watch. A good rule of thumb when steaming vegetables is that if you can smell them, they’re done and speeding toward overdone.
Now, green bean casserole is actually a bastardized version of Haricots Verts Gratinés à la Mornay. Sounds like something Aunt Dahlia’s brilliant French chef, Anatole, would dream up, does it not? In my experience all traditional French dishes sound that way. In any case, here’s how you make it:
Green Beans Mornay
- Remove the stem ends from about a pound of green or French beans.
- Blanch the beans until barely tender (about 2-3 minutes). This means you just drop them in boiling, salted water, quickly bring them back to the boil and let them cook about three minutes – a little more for regular beans, a little less for French beans, depending on the size of the beans and how well done you like them. Keep taste testing.
- Drain the beans and leave ’em sitting in the colander.
- Make béchamel sauce (about a cup, more if you like your casserole gooey.).
- To the hot béchamel, add about 2 ounces of shredded Swiss (milder flavor) or Gruyère (stronger flavor) and stir until the cheese melts.
- Combine the sauce with the blanched beans and pour it all into a buttered casserole dish.
- Sprinkle with crunchy bread crumbs combined with some parmesan and salt and pepper to taste.
- Bake at 375 for about 15-20 minutes, or until the crumbs have browned up nicely.
If that’s all more than you can handle, just make my version of Grammie Sue’s green beans:
- Remove the stem ends and steam the beans until they’re tender crisp.
- Drain well and toss with butter, salt and pepper.
- Pour over some warmed light cream (heavy if you prefer). If you crave crunch, you can sprinkle some toasted slivered almonds over top.