This Southern Staple Is Pure Gold

When Scotty Scott was about 8 years old, his aunt Yvonne made him stem pounds and pounds of green beans for a big holiday dinner. Young Scotty figured that if he intentionally left on some of the ends and kept most of the pods long and floppy — in other words, did a bad job — he’d never again be tasked with such an arduous responsibility. But Aunt Yvonne caught on quickly. “What are you doing, man?” she asked when she saw his pile of odds and ends. “No, no, no, no — get back in there! You know how to snap beans.”

Recipe: Braised Green Beans and Potatoes

Now, many years out, Scott can describe the metrics of green-bean snapping by the inch. It is, for him, always a judgment call. “If the bean is five inches long, then you can keep it whole,” he says. “But if it’s, you know, seven inches, then you break it in half.”

Frankly, I’d rather sift flour into a small bowl, peel potatoes with a dull paring knife or winkle out pomegranate arils wearing a white T-shirt than sort through green beans. That’s how much I love Scott’s take on the vegetable, from his debut cookbook, “Fix Me a Plate.” Slow-braised in rich, savory chicken stock, fortified with ham hock, paprika, garlic, onion and bay, this stewy Southern staple feels at once homey and celebratory. And, like the most reliable articles of clothing, it can transform depending on the need: from side dish to soup lunch to the most nourishing leftovers. When you’re eating a bowl of this on a cool afternoon, each succoring spoonful is a reminder of how hard you worked to get to that point — especially if you took the time to stem your own beans.

Botanically, a green bean is the unripe fruit of a common bean, whose young pods we can eat; its inner seeds darken in color and its sugars turn to starch when left (or forgotten) on the bush or pole. Of course, you could buy green beans, already stemmed, even washed and “ready to eat,” but they’ll have been slowly molding in their wet plastic bags, sitting on the grocery-store shelf. Buying them fresh, as from a farmers’ market, is worlds better, and the effort never more apparent than when you braise them. Not only do fresh beans keep their structure, but they also imbue the simmering liquid with an inimitable goldenness that comes from coaxing out their greenness.

There’s a time and a place for crunchy haricots verts (with slivered almonds, which Scott calls “skinny nuts”). Cooked just a bit longer — all the way through — a green bean can become its fullest self. A little oxidized and browned, sure, but what’s wrong with age and experience? When you prepare them this way, their underappreciated sweetness comes through, injecting whatever dish you’re cooking and seasoning everything with its essence.

One recent day, after begrudgingly stemming a pound of green beans for a curry, I had to resist my temptation to do what I’ve always done: throw them into the pan toward the end of cooking so that they remain tender-crisp. But remembering what Scott taught me, I plunged them in at the start and let them simmer away as I happy-houred over a bowl of potato chips with my partner. The resultant sauce was rich and deep, the same kind of magic that’s in a bowl of Scott’s braised green beans and potatoes.

In that simple but powerful recipe, bean and broth are alpha and omega, enhanced by onion and garlic powders, in addition to fresh. Here, the muskier dried versions of these alliums aren’t redundant; they lend fortification to the savory structure that only onion and garlic can build. The potatoes, simmered until soft and fuzzy at the edges, make this holiday side dish — served, please, with a slotted spoon as part of a buffet plate — feel more like a complete meal. The ham hock (or smoked turkey leg) isn’t just an afterthought, he says. Picked off the bone and chunked into a bowl with the green beans and their rich broth, the meat is a reminder of the soft but important boundary between special and ordinary.

Scott turned 50 this year, but he’s still the same latchkey kid who watched his mother come home from work to put on a pot of green beans, only to leave for a second job. “Will you stir these while I’m gone?” she asked him, so that dinner would be ready by the time she got home. These might just look like regular old beans to a stranger, but to those in the know, they contain the work of three generations of cooks, who started as bean stemmers and graduated to pot stirrers. Like a green-bean plant, the life cycle of a recipe — a good one — can last forever, so long as you keep picking the fruit.

Recipe: Braised Green Beans and Potatoes

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