I can't remember when the rhetoric of "all vegetables must be cooked al dente" started, but frankly, I'm getting a little sick and tired of it. I've been served dried beans and potatoes that are still half raw at some nameless establishments with bearded cooks and have been told "that's the way the chef likes to do them" by a supercilious waiter. Al dente potatoes, ferchrissake! This madness has got to stop.
Don't get me wrong. I love a crisp sautéed green bean or a fresh and crunchy green bean salad as much as anyone, but there's a time and a place for everything, and I'd like to make the case for tender braised green beans.
Perhaps the reason we've come to have an aversion to long-cooked green vegetables is that we automatically compare them to their canned counterparts based on appearance alone. I'll give that to you. Mushy green beans from a can are not fine dining. That said, there's a big difference between olive-green and mushy and olive-green and tender. The ideal braised green bean should be tender and moist, but still retain a hint of crunch in its walls. It should be cooked in a flavorful liquid so that it has a chance to pick up those flavors that really enhance it.
Green Bean Blues
There are three factors that determine how quickly a bean will turn from bright and crisp to drab and mushy. Time and temperature are obvious ones. At temperatures above 183°F, the pectin in vegetable cell walls will begin to break down, causing the beans to soften over time. But there's another important factor that's often overlooked: pH. Adjusting the acidity level of a pot of beans can have a drastic affect on its outcome.
Take a look at these two beans. Both were simmered for 10 minutes. The one on top was simmered with water containing a big splash of distilled vinegar, lowering its pH. The one of the bottom was cooked in water with a pinch of baking soda, raising its pH.
From the photograph, it's easy to say that the one on the bottom looks better. However, pop them in your mouth and you'll sing a different tune. While the bean cooked in high-acid water stays nice and crisp (at the expense of its color), the one in low-acid water turns to soft mush.*
*This same phenomenon occurs with potatoes or dried beans. You can use it to your advantage for making ultra-crispy roast potatoes that don't fall apart or to make Perfect Thin and Crispy French Fries.
What does this mean for us? Well if we want to braise our green beans to pack more flavor into them while still maintaining a bit of crunch, we'd best cook them in an acidic environment. Luckily, this is also great for flavor, keeping them nice and punchy all the way to the dinner table.
I start by cooking some bacon in a Dutch oven. If you'd prefer a vegetarian version, butter or olive oil and mushrooms would work well here.
Next up, some sliced onions which I cook down until quite soft.
A pinch of red pepper flakes and some sliced garlic also hit the pot while the onions cook.
In go the trimmed green beans.
Finally, that acid. Apple cider vinegar is a natural choice with the Southern flavors of bacon and braised beans going on here. Once the vinegar is in, all you need to do is cover the pot, give it a few stirs now and then, and let it do its thing. I uncover the pot towards the end and stir in a bit of butter to emulsify the reducing stock and vinegar into a rich, glossy sauce that coats the green beans.
45 minutes to an hour later you're left with green beans that pack more flavor than you ever thought was possible in a single vegetable.
I wouldn't normally use the word "juicy" to describe a vegetable dish, but that's really what these green beans are. Tender, bright, and positively bursting with juice.
Ah, if only the canned beans at the cafeteria could be so tasty, we might never have gotten into this reactionary crunchy vegetable rut we're in today. I'm organizing a break from the al dente prison we're stuck in. Who's with me?