Thursday, October 13, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 11: Green Beans

I think a lot of people never associate green beans with the New World or with Native American cuisine....they're just green beans, the simple and somewhat boring side dish or vegetable.  Tomatoes, avocados, hot peppers, pumpkins & squash, and, especially, corn or maize--Native American for sure....but green beans?  Well, yes.  And there are some really distinctive native preparations for these little green poles that are never seen in mainstream green bean cooking.  Take, for example, "Leather Britches" in the southeast, or the Aztec Romeritos in Mexico.

Actually, there are a number of different types of beans that are eaten "green." For example, here in the southeast, there are still two different types of green beans:  regular green beans that you can purchase at any super market, and so called "pole beans, " which are longer, flatter and thicker (like the ones pictured above).  Even the so-called "field peas" that we eat here (which comprise all types of peas grown for freezing after being shelled) have "snaps" in them--that is little immature field peas tossed in the pod into the shelled peas for cooking.  Truthfully, most immature beans grown for dried beans can be eater as a green bean, when cooked.  Wax beans, mostly known for being yellow, but can also be purple are also popular.  There is a yellow variety that is grown by the Cherokee, which produces a large black bean when mature that resembles a black kidney bean, which can be dried.

Cherokee Wax Beans

The so-called "stringless bean" was unknown in Europe and Africa until after the Columbian exchange in 1492.  Surely immature beans had been eaten, but beans that grew largely to be eaten in a purely "podded" state were not available.  There were such beans in Asia, the Yardlong Bean being one of the world all time best examples of a beans that never "goes to seed."  There is also a "winged bean" in Austronesian speaking parts the extreme eastern Asian continent, and might be native to the Philippines, that is eaten green, but it is in a botanical class all to itself, a bears no resemblance to any other bean.  In most places it is translated as "green bean" into languages.  In French, curiously,  their word haricot, derives from the word "ayecotl"--yeah it's Aztec again!  In this case it's 16th century or Old Aztec, as the modern word in the Nahuatl language for "green bean" is exotl.

Green Bean types, including wax beans, runner beans and yardlongs

These are winged beans

Beans make up one half of the most important vegetable protein combination in the New World; along with corn, they make a perfect protein.  Native people on both continents that grew corn, always had ways of serving it with beans; without beans corn ingestion can be dangerous.  The disease pellagra became wide spread after the rest of the world started growing and eating large amounts of corn.  Combining beans with corn prevents this (we are taking untreated corn, treated corn like hominy and the Mexican nixtamalzation also keep the disease at bay).  This combination was called Misickquotash, which just means, "corn and beans together."  It is the original of the popular dish now known as succotash.  Although most succotash is made with one dried bean (like Limas or Great Northerns) and fresh corn; some are variations are made with green beans instead, or with several types of bean with corn and/or hominy.

Multi-bean Succotash with Green Beans

Green Bean and Yellow Corn Succotash

Nutritionally speaking, they provide a good source of vitamins A & C and a nice amount of protein.  Even in their green state, they do provide some starch.  The are a very good source of fiber that mixes with other stuff in the digestive system better than, well more "fibrous fiber."  Used the world over, they are very, very popular steamed.  After steaming they can be served as is, or tossed in hot fat and seasoned with herbs.  They are excellent in stir-frys and are popularly made into casseroles in the U.S.  The are also boiled the world over; in the southeastern US pole beans are famously boiled with bacon or other smoked meats and served with "pot likker."  In Japan they are part of the Tempura platter, and popular amongst vegetarians.  They are also fried in the the US, then becoming "French Fried Beans."  They are also pickled, this is a specialty of the Midwestern parts of the U.S.  Blanched they are also put into salads.  They show up as side dishes in all sort of vegetable combinations, with tomato, with roasted red pepper, with nuts, with dried fruit, onions, shallots, mushrooms, you name it.  The can even be roasted.  These are also the same beans that are cut or rather split, to make French Style Beans.  They are popular canned and frozen.

The above plant Romeritos is native to Mexico and used in a very traditional dish that also includes dried shrimp.  It is a popular Lenten dish among Natives who are Catholic.  It is also sometimes served around Christmas.  The problem is that many Mexican families cannot get their hands on the actual romeritos when they need them, so, why not substitute the tiny green beans that their ancestors gave to French that became haricot verde??  That's what some families who just can't do without the dish at certain times of the year do.  The taste will not be the same, but at least the look will be.  When I first started to really learn Native Mexican cooking ways years ago, I did this as well, except that I tended to substitute traditional Cherokee dried green beans called "leather britches."

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