When I was growing up my mom had a go-to vegetable side dish that originated from an Italian uncle who owned a restaurant in New York City. In other words, it had been stamped with the label “expert.” The dish’s true brilliance, however, was that it was easy to create, relied on pantry ingredients (green beans being just the kind of vegetable that get cooked year round in a place like Maine), and was truly delicious.
The basic concept of these beans was to partially steam them, and while they drained use the same pan to melt up some butter, add the beans back in, and then apply (liberally) powdered garlic, dried thyme, salt, and pepper, and cook until ready. Finito! I relied upon this simple dish in college, and impressed my friends with knowledge of how to artfully prepare a vegetable in something other than a salad or stir-fry.
When I moved out on my own, however, I ran into a little issue: I kept forgetting to buy the necessary powdered and dried ingredients from the supermarket. Could I just use real garlic? Or fresh herbs? I started to play around with the dish, as I did many other recipes I had learned over the years. Some of my improvisations worked better than others. I found that chunks of garlic were not ideal for a dish of oblong, buttered green beans. In this way the old dish with its coat of powdered garlic was superior.
That said, I discovered that the beans paired perfectly with onions. They added a nice flavor and were more likely to stick to the beans, especially if sliced thinly in strips (i.e., cut onion lengthwise, slice thinly from end to end to make half moons that will separate in the pan into cooked strips). And I have never, never favored a dried herb over a fresh one, so I didn’t lose any sleep over the replacement of dried thyme.
I found that the bean dish worked based on a simple principle or par-steaming, making a buttery “confetti,” and reintroducing the beans. One rainy Sunday reading spent the “fundamentals” section of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking informed me that this simple principle was not something of my own design, but one that Italian nonne have been following for centuries.
Battuto, Sofritto, Insaporire
So what secret do the grandmothers of Italy hold? According to Marcella, it’s all about the three-step process of creating flavor from the bottom up. Battuto, the first step, is the stage of chopping up the ingredients which form your flavor base. In the case of my beans, I prefer to make a battuto out of whatever is on-hand, and seems like a good combination. Lately I’ve been making a battuto out of onion and proscuitto with sweet red pepper.
Step two is sofritto. This is the stage where the cook adds the battuto to a hot pan prepared with a fat agent (butter, oil, lard). Battuti are usually cooked in stages, depending on how long individual ingredients need to cook through properly. For instance, when making a sofritto that includes both onion and garlic, the garlic should be held back because the onion will take longer to cook. For my beans I will add the onion and proscuitto first, then the sweet red pepper once the onions are translucent. If the mood strikes I will add a little fresh sage and more butter for a 30-second cook.
At last the already steamed beans are added back in – the beans representing the vegetable base upon which the sofritto will impart its flavor. This step is known as insaporire, or “bestowing taste.” This is the appropriate time to add in any fresh herbs (other than the sage, which I find benefits from a little heating in the buttery sofritto). Fresh thyme is just right for the beans. I also add any additional butter, salt and pepper, and allow the beans to cook for a few more minutes.
I have renamed the dish, not that it ever had a name I suppose, to party beans because they are colorful, festive, and good for a crowd. A handful of halved red and yellow cherry tomatoes on top will up the party feeling, and add a bit of raw sweetness to the dish. More than anything this dish is simple, allows you to use whatever you’ve got, and a great way to showcase the fresh summer and early fall flavors from your local farmer.
Party on and let me know what you think!