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The time of holiday meals is upon us, and it strikes me that I haven’t yet posted the recipe for my extra-technical-and-complicated-yet-remarkable green bean casserole. I’d intended to document the process this Thanksgiving, but Kraken Rum happened, and the casserole was eaten before I could take any pretty snapshots. That’s how good it is– it moves too quickly for pictures. So no pictures– if you want to see what it looks like, you’ll need to make it for yourself.
I notice with some chagrin that the “official Campbell’s recipe” has been modified to include “98% Fat Free or Healthy Request®” Cream of Mushroom soup. Which, ew. The point behind green bean casserole is to take delicious, crunchy, healthy green beans and make them bad for you. (Also: soy sauce? Whut?)
Not that there’s anything wrong with the traditional version: dump some canned green beans, some canned soup and some milk in a casserole dish, stir it up, top it with French fried onions, and bake. Okay, comforting, easy, but what would a *real* green bean casserole taste like? What would it be like if you took the time and effort to make this dish without any of the canned or processed nonsense, and added copious amounts of cheese? What if green bean casserole, instead of a quick toss-together cop-out any schmo can do, was mind-numbingly inconvenient and terribly complicated?
Well now, you are about to find out. The answer is: This is the Gold Standard of Green Bean Casseroles. Many will attest.
- ~2 lbs fresh green beans
- ~1 lb grated mozzarella cheese
- ~1 lb grated sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 large sweet onion
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- 1 pint+ whole milk
- 1 stick butter
- unflavored oil (canola? peanut?) for frying
- unbleached flour
- white pepper
Total prep time: A lazy holiday afternoon. Probably plan on at least two glasses of wine worth of prep. At least.
Total cooking time: 1 hour or thereabouts.
1. Wash your green beans, snap off the ends, then French cut them. You’ve had French cut beans– they’re split down the middle. The best way to do this is with a peeling knife:
The curvy tip is perfect for inserting into the seam and splitting in half. Or a paring knife would work, too. They don’t have to be perfect, but this is a holiday, not a marathon, so don’t rush it.
2. Fill a big stockpot with water, and salt it. Bring to a boil, and place the beans into the water to taste, until they’re mostly tender to the tooth (about 10 minutes?). They’ll cook when baked, too, so don’t make them too soft. And definitely don’t leave them all crunchy– crunchy beans = healthy beans, and we don’t want that! Drain, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process, and set aside.
3. Slice your onion REALLY thin, like paper thin, then chop into segments (about 1 inch). Place in a bowl and cover the onions with milk. Set aside to soak for at least 10 minutes. (This makes a difference!)
4. Mix together a large portion of sifted flour (depending on how big your onion is, this is probably about 1.5 cups), 1 tbsp salt, 1 tbsp white pepper and 1 tbsp paprika.
5. Coat the onions in the flour mixture, then fry in the oil. You’ll likely need to do batches. You want lots of these, as they tend to get eaten while you’re cooking. Once they’re all fried, set aside. Eat some. Share a few. But save most of them.
6. Preheat the oven to 350.
7. Grease a large casserole dish or baking dish. Cover the bottom of the dish with some of your shredded mozzarella cheese (not all of it, now!).
8. In a saucepan on Low, melt the butter into the whipping cream (slowly, now!). Add about 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp nutmeg and 1 tsp pepper. Using a whisk, stir constantly, adding pinches of flour so it gets smooth and starts to thicken. When it’s slightly thick, begin adding about 3/4 of the grated cheddar, a little at a time. Alternate with milk– delicately– some cheddar, some milk, some cheddar, some milk. Some lumpiness is to be expected. Eventually, you will end up with a delightful, smooth cheese sauce. Feel free to play with this sauce. Add stuff, take stuff away, try some different textures, but be sure it’s not at all watery, or you will end up unhappy.
9. Toss the rest of the shredded mozzarella with the green beans, then pour the beans/cheese into the casserole dish.
10. Using a spatula/smoother, scrape the sauce over the beans, smoothing it down so it drips into the nooks and crannies of the green beans.
11. Top it off with all of the rest of your cheese, then a thick layer of fried onions.
12. Bake for one hour. Or, longer if the temperature is lower because pies and poultry and such are also baking. Or, if you want it faster, jack that sucker up to 450 and back for 1/2 hour. You can cook this over a period of time. If the onions get really dark without burning, it’s done.
Also, don’t pre-make this the night before to bake the next day. Why spoil a delightfully inconvenient process?
I’m telling you, you will never go back to the icky Campbell’s version again, ever. Well, maybe, but you’ll never be able to eat any green bean casserole again without thinking of this one. And I am serious, here!
UPDATE! The lovely E has procured the only known photograph that proves the existence of the Gold Standard Green Bean Casserole! In spite of the blurry, sasquatch-photo-like quality of this image, you can FEEL the golden glow of its power calling you!
1. Food and cooking are deceptively simple acts that are encountered by everyone, every day, and everyone has his or her own opinion on just what tastes good. However, as with effective spiritual practice, good cuisine requires both intelligence and wisdom, both individual experience and a willingness to trust the classics and the experts. Instead of The Gospels or the Dhammapada, you’ve got Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, you’ve got Harold Mcgee.
2. Sure, people can cook without ever having cracked open a book on the subject. Some people can cook intuitively with very little need for recipes or measurements, but the food they cook tastes so good because of the processes described in the books they don’t read. If I intuit that searing a lamb shank and then slow-roasting it in liquid makes for a delicious lamb shank, it doesn’t make my process any more “valid” than a recipe for “Braised Lamb Shank” in The Joy of Cooking. Studying what the experts have to say give you a foundation for your own practice.
3. This doesn’t mean you have to follow what Jacques Pepin says to a “t”– indeed, the best instructors are the ones who teach you how to improvise every now and again. But, this improvisation isn’t “making stuff up,” it’s personalization. Myths are recipes for spiritual practice, and deviating from them here and there should be encouraged. However, you can’t make hollandaise sauce using rum and tuna fish, any more than you can make enlightenment using Ken Wilbur and ayahuasca.
4. Just as with spiritual practice, if you don’t try to figure out what you’re doing when you’re cooking something, you’re gonna end up screwing up. You can substitute baking soda for baking powder all you want because you think it’ll work, but you’re gonna end up with some nasty cookies. And you’ve got a bunch of nonsense out there, too– no matter how many dumb jerks in restaurants are trying to pass off tilapia as Chilean Sea Bass, there’s a huge difference for those who choose to take the time to understand it.
5. Cooking depends to a great extent on the imperfection of the world, on the need to kill to survive, no matter if you’re killing animals or plants. Nonetheless, it’s also the perfect example of the spiritual seed hidden in all things that can manifest in the simplest form: a perfect brioche, a melt-in-your-mouth grilled sirloin, a piece of raw salmon wrapped in a thin layer of nori.
6. There’s a reason so many food critics describe eating as a “revelation,” or “sublime.” As far as I’m concerned, if the flavor of the tenderest slow-cooked forkful of corned beef with a little caramelized carrot and potato isn’t enlightenment, I don’t know what is. For you, it might be the first bite into a hand-picked tomato fresh off the vine, or a swallow of a perfect Italian vino rosso that doesn’t even have a label.