We’ve been done a disservice by the cult of al dente vegetables.
While there’s no doubt that many vegetables are at their best very lightly cooked – all types of peas spring to mind – the idea that every veggie is at its best steamed for 30 seconds is as misguided as the thought that they should all be boiled for an hour. Flavors develop during cooking, and while some of those flavors can be unpleasant (like the classic funk of overboiled cabbage), some are wonderful.
The idea that less-cooked veggies are better for you doesn’t always hold up either. For instance, the beta carotene in carrots is more bioavailable when they are well cooked than when they’re eaten raw. The same is true of the lycopene in tomatoes.
Of course, how you cook your vegetables will always be largely a matter of taste: I prefer my broccoli to be soft and yielding, while my mom likes broccoli that fights back. Neither way is objectively better than the other.
This recipe, based on Crescent Dragonwagon’s “Greek-Style Green Beans” from Passionate Vegetarian, is a beautiful demonstration of how long, slow cooking can bring out the best in a vegetable that most assume should be lightly cooked. True, these beans trade the vibrant green of quick steaming for a less beautiful khaki, and they are the opposite of crisp. Cooked for at least 40 minutes, their fibers break down so they nearly melt in your mouth. Any bitterness is transformed to a sweet, luscious complexity.
Braising is a particularly good choice for mature, end-of-season green beans – or sturdier varieties like Romano beans – that can be tough and downright unpleasant when lightly cooked. But I would use the method on any green bean, except maybe the needle-thin babies of spring.
You can cook these with just a little oil, but they are especially melting and toothsome with more. I provide a range in the recipe.
Slow-Braised Green Beans with Tomato
Serves: 2 to 4 Time: 50 to 70 minutes Hands-on: 10 minutes
2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound fresh, peeled tomatoes, or a 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained (I prefer Muir Glen)
1 to 1.5 pounds green beans, stems cut off
Combine the oil, garlic, and salt in a medium skillet with a lid. Turn the heat to medium and heat until the garlic starts to sizzle and smell good.
Add the tomatoes and stir. When the tomatoes start to boil, add the green beans, stir to coat with sauce, and cover. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
After 30 minutes, if the sauce is too thin for your liking (I like it to be very reduced so it really clings to the beans), increase the heat to medium and remove the lid. If it’s thick enough, put the lid back on and leave the temperature at medium-low.
Cook for 10 more minutes, then taste a bean. Most beans will be done at this point, but if there’s any remaining fibrousness, stir and let simmer for another 10 to 20 minutes, covered.
Add salt to taste and serve warm, with a sprinkle of feta cheese if desired.