I know you may find this hard to believe but it's true. These green beans are cooked at least three hours.
And you know what? They could cook a little longer.
The recipe has a twisted pedigree. When I was in my youth, I spent a year in Switzerland. My Swiss host mother, Tante Marie, cooked big, fat green beans in a pressure cooker what seemed like forever. The beans emerged from that pressure cooker limp and dark and ugly. But boy, were they good. The best beans I'd ever tasted.
Then some years later I happened upon an article by food writer Corby Kummer in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Corby made clear why those cooked-to-death green beans I'd eaten back in Switzerland tasted so good.
First, the flavor compounds in green beans take hours of cooking to fully develop. Second, green beans contain lots of lignin, the tough, fibrous material that's also found in wood, hemp, linen--lignin has to be cooked a long time to break down into something easily digestible.
So if you are still cooking green beans according to the Nouvelle Cuisine method--meaning boiled until just barely cooked, then dumped into a bowl of ice water--then you are getting green beans full of green color but no flavor.
Sorry, the compounds that govern flavor and color in green beans are completely different. You have to choose one or the other, and I choose flavor.
Kummer gave a recipe for cooking green beans with fennel seed that he'd gotten from Italian food writer Anna del Conte. I added bacon to make these a Southern version of green beans, and cooked them a lot longer.
The result is a kind of green bean ambrosia, tender beans with a bit of sweet anise flavor and the soul food depth of bacon. Onion and tomatoes round out the flavors.
This recipe was first published in The Washington Post Food Section, but then was selected for Houghton Mifflin's The Best American Recipes 2005-2006. The editors liked the beans so much, they came back the next year and published the recipe again in The 150 Best American Recipes, a kind of best-of-the-best from the publisher's previous "best of."
These beans cry out for a heap of corn bread to mop up the broth the vegetables create during their three-hour braising. The braising starts with just the liquid from the tomatoes. Hard as it may be to believe, the finished beans retain a slight bit of crunch even after such a long time on the fire.
These are just the thing to serve with barbecue, so I've been making a big mess of them for the Hope House Ho' Down we're catering this evening, featuring hizzoner the mayor of the District of Columbia, Adrian Fenty. Give these beans a try sometime.
For 6-8 servings:
1 pound green beans, trimmed and washed
1 medium yellow onion, pealed and cut into thin strips
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
1 teaspoon freshly ground fennel seed
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons bacon fat (or canola oil)
2 thick slices bacon, cut into bite-size pieces
In a heavy pot or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, heat the bacon fat or canola oil and cook the onion gently over medium heat until tender, about eight minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, toss together and bring to a simmer. Close the pot, reduce the heat to very low and simmer for about three hours, stirring and tasting the beans occasionally for doneness. When the beans are tender and flavorful, adjust seasoning and serve warm.