Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Last of the Summer... Beans

The days grow shorter.  The sun rides lower in the southern sky. No more birdsong cacophony in the morning.  All that breaks autumn's silence is the chirping of a multitude of crickets - more background noise than nature's song.  No more cicadas droning on... Summer is past. It's time to harvest the last of the summer garden.  Time to finish off the beans.

I picked last of the green beans - stripping the bushes of most of their beautifully-green last gasps.  I had enough beans for a batch of something good for dinner.  I love green beans. It surprises me that I do because as a child I was often up to my neck in them. My mother was a green bean fanatic. She adored them.  I recall the summers of my youth spent in a darkened hot room, the floor fan blasting me with hot muggy air, it's motor noise droning me into a stupor as I sat for hours and hours, mindlessly breaking bushels and bushels of beans -- for my mother.  Over the years we would can thousands of jars of green beans.

Each summer I, along with my older brother and sister, dutifully broke, broke, and broke those darn beans. There were literally bushels of them... never ending bushels. My mother, a true daughter of the Great Depression, felt one could never have enough food put by. So my siblings and I broke beans until our fingers were sore. We protested.We complained. We whined. We collaborated in a bean-snapping go-slow.  Mom was unimpressed. Our bean-avoidance tactics had little effect on her.   She would simply command that we get busy.

But on one particularly miserable hot and muggy summer morning Mom sensed the spawning of true rebellion amongst the bean-breaking ranks. She was no slouch, realizing that, in these horrible worst-of-summer conditions she had to bring something more than mere authority to the bargaining table.  We peons were starting to realize just how much power we held in our grubby-nailed, green stained, bean-bruised hands. So, she promised us that if we broke the entire mountain of beans rising before us, that day, she would take us to the municipal swimming pool the next day. Sensing a rare  opportunity, we three put our heads together and agreed to Mom's terms. Snapping, and breaking until we had waded through the lot, we finished in late afternoon.  We were proud, we were pleased.  We were a bit smug, feeling we had finally gotten one up on the old girl.

Next morning, we rose and shone, making our beds, washing our faces, eating our breakfast - filled with the anticipation of the cool, refreshing, super-chlorinated, friend-filled,  water wonderland that awaited us as soon as it opened at 11:00.

Around 9:00 a.m., Mom started him-hawing; talking about how many quarts of beans she had to can, how she just didn't know how she would get through all of them before that pool opened...  Plain and simple she reneged! After the previous day of sweaty, green-bean-hell and our keeping our end of the bargain, she welshed on the deal! We were shocked. We were outraged, We felt cheated (which we were). We cried and protested. No no avail...

I suppose, in time,  we forgave her but we never forgot.  For years, at every summer backyard barbaque or fall Thanksgiving dinner when we all gathered at mom's to eat home-canned green beans, someone would invariably remind her of what a welsher she was during the summer of 1963 and that she still owed us a trip to the pool! She would just smile slyly. She never did make good on that deal... But there's never a time when I break a green bean that I don't think of my mother, remembering,  with a smile, that hot muggy summer of the mountain of green beans and how she cheated us out of that cool, refreshing, and much deserved reward for all our hard work!

In the summer, one of my family's favorite meals is green beans with ham - turkey ham when I'm feeling the need to eat healthier (which is most days the older I get).  Add some large chunks of potato to cook in the bean pot-likker (it's called likker around these parts but you may call it liquor if you prefer...) or served with corn, either on-the-cob or cut off the cob and added right to the beans, it is an excellent summertime favorite dinner.

But we've eaten beans and ham a bunch this summer.  My single tablespoon of Top Crop seed beans planted this past spring produced and produced and produced, leaving me scrambling for creative ways to serve the harvest.  Ham and Green Beans, Green Bean Salad, Three Bean Salad, Steamed with butter, Sauteed... you name it, I've tried it. Seems like every Sunday I was picking beans!  I'm not complaining mind you.  I wish I'd had the room to plant about a quarter cup of green beans. Then I 'd have had enough to pressure can rather than having to drive down to Augusta Kentucky (George Clooney's home town, btw) to buy a bushel of beans to can.

But the end is finally here for the progeny of my tablespoon of seeds.  Like my Top Crop seeds, I generally purchase most of my garden seeds at a nice little nursery/garden shop called Minges' (pronounces Meen-gus-is) located in a beautiful old bank barn with green houses attached. It's a fun place with a turtle pond, seeds, implements, trees, hostas, mums, bedding plants, garden statuary - not to mention throwing a kicking good pumpkin festival in October. Minges' is one of those places you just like to poke around looking for treasures. They have rows of seeds in mason jars - photos of the mature plants pasted on the outside of the jars. It's fun to peruse the pictures till you find what you want. Then the clerk measures it out. There are also some seeds already measured out by teaspoon and tablespoon-fulls, hanging from nails in tiny little ziplocks.

But this year, I decided to try to save some bean seed for next year's garden. Top Crop is not a hybrid variety of bean, rather an open cultivar.  Its seeds will  reproduce the parent plant so they can be saved for the next season. So I pulled up the last of the plants and dried them upside down.  The seed pods dry on the plant, then are harvested and saved in a dark, dry place for next season. I'll test the seeds in moist paper towels to make sure they will germinate.  Nothing worse than planting a bunch of seeds only to have them fail to germinate.  It's a big bummer, not to mention a colossal waste of space in a very tight little garden space.

For this final green bean harvest I decided to cook Greek Green Beans.  Tasty, tangy, savory - it's an old favorite recipe adapted from James Villas' wonderful cookbook My Mother's Southern Ktichen. This book is a treasure trove of wonderful Southern recipes! I picked it up years ago in the mark down bin at Borders and couldn't believe my luck. For $3 I struck the mother lode of Southern culinary delights! Villas wrote this book, and several others with his mother.  And believe me, Martha Pearl Villas sure knows her way around a green bean not to mention shrimp, grits, rice, biscuits, crab cakes and other Southern and Low Country specialties. My copy of this first Villas et Villas collaboration is dog-eared and spattered with use. (I wonder if James Villa's mother hoodwinked him into breaking bushels of beans?)

After the still-green bean harvest and the dried-bean gleaning comes the green bean cooking.  Greek Green Beans is easy preparation requiring just a few ingredients straight from the pantry.  It can be made very successfully with three or four cans of your favorite cut green beans, or fresh beans without any prior cooking.  Just break the fresh beans, wash, and add the remaining ingredients.  Cook for about five additional minutes and you're all set. In a pinch I've used french cut beans but it's really best made with cross cut beans.  The frenchies are a little too limp and mushy for me - I prefer the chunky bean.

These beans are a perfect accompaniment to lamb chops, great with pork chops or any other entree. So try Greek Green Beans and get your last-of-the-season home-grown green bean on.

Greek Green Beans:  (adapted from James and Martha Pearl Villa's My Mother's Southern Kitchen
Makes six servings.
1-2 pounds of fresh green beans, broken or 3-15 ounce cans of cut green beans
2 cups whole crushed tomatoes with juice
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
2-3 cloves of garlic sliced thinly
1 Tbs fresh oregano chopped finely, or 1 scant tsp. dried 
2 Tbs olive oil
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper (or to taste)
If using fresh, break beans, wash and place in large pot.  If using canned, drain and place beans in pot.
Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Bring to a boil.  Turn down flame to med low and simmer for 45 minutes to one hour.  Serve hot and don't forget some bread to sop up the pot likker!


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