Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Green Bean Summer Salad

As with some of my other suggestions for ways to cook to save the planet, I suspect that the tips I'm sharing in this posting won't be new to many folks. They're certainly not a novel way to cook and serve the ingredients of the dish I discuss here, many of them locally available throughout the U.S. and in other places in summertime.

Still, this salad (which is really a version of a salade Ni├žoise) may not have occurred to some blog readers. In the hope that the recipe might help some readers, I want to offer it as part of my series on cooking to save the planet.

What follows is a simple main-dish salad composed of fresh local ingredients (for the most part) that Steve and I eat frequently--often weekly--in the hot weeks of summer. It begins with local string beans, or "green beans" may be the most accurate term nowadays. The term "string beans" is a vestige of my childhood, when the green pole bean we preferred above all others was the incomparably flavorful Kentucky Wonder, with its thick, meaty pod that we cooked down for a long time with a bit of smoked pork or some bacon drippings and (towards the end) a handful of new potatoes.

I can no longer cook that staple of our summer dinnertable, because I can't find its main ingredient, authentic Kentucky Wonder pole beans. We bought what purported to be old-fashioned pole beans, grown locally on an organic farm, from our food co-op a few weeks ago. As soon as I began to snap and string them, I knew that they weren't the real thing.

For one thing, they had no strings at all. For another, they were watery and tender, not tough and leathery (and full of flavor), as Kentucky Wonder pole beans should be. As soon as I began to cook them, I knew I was right: they disintegrated in a few minutes, rather than slowly becoming tender and succulent with the flavor of the ham I had added to the pot.

I have even grown Kentucky Wonders in recent years in the garden, to try to produce the string bean dish of my childhood. They're not the same. Someone has obviously fooled with this bean, hybridized it to remove the strings and produce the tender small green beans folks want nowadays. The trade-off is that the beans have lost that incomparable pole bean flavor, and we're now minus one more dish once traditional in Southern cooking, because we can no longer buy its main ingredient.

But I digress. The green beans I use for our summer salad are the ordinary green beans now grown around the country, available everywhere in summer. I top and tail them, snap them, and quickly steam them until just tender. Then I set them aside to cool. I do the same with a handful of well-scrubbed new potatoes in their jacket.

Meanwhile, I slice several tomatoes at their peak of ripeness, and I quarter and slice a sweet onion or two. In a large flat serving bowl or on a platter, I arrange each of the vegetables--the steamed and cooled green beans, the tomatoes, the potatoes, and the onion.

Alongside these, I put several eggs I've boiled and cooled ahead of time (I often steam and cool the beans ahead of time, too, putting them in the refrigerator with the eggs until I'm ready to make the salad). With the quartered eggs I put a handful of black olives on the platter. The olives are the one ingredient (in addition to the olive oil in the vinaigrette) I can't buy locally. Giving up olives and olive oil to eat only locally available foods would be a major challenge to me, though we've gradually cut the variety of things we eat by eating as much as possible only local and seasonal foodstuffs from organic farms nearby.

Dinner is simple. Each diner helps herself or himself to a variety of the ingredients arranged in heaps in the bowl or on the platter, and makes a mixed salad of them on his or her plate. For the dressing, I make a vinaigrette of one third wine vinegar or cider vinegar, two thirds olive oil, a bit of dry mustard or sharp prepared (not yellow) mustard, salt, pepper, thyme, and a clove of crushed garlic.

We sometimes add a can of tuna fish to the platter alongside the boiled eggs and black olives. With french bread and a glass of cool white wine, this summer salad is a delicious, easily prepared meal that tempts the appetite when a heavier meal would not be appealing. It also uses, for the most part, fresh items available locally in many areas. A little cheese to close the stomach at the end isn't amiss, along with a bit of fresh fruit from one's region--for us now, sliced watermelon, canteloupe, or peaches.