Exploring Green Beans (Not Just a Creamed-Soup Side Dish)

Updated on August 11, 2017
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Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

Green Beans, or string beans as they are usually called, must be done [boiled] till very tender -- it takes nearly an hour and a half.”

— Sarah Josepha Hale, 'The Good Housekeeper' (1839)

I Can Still See Them, Pale and Lifeless...

The above quote from "The Good Housekeeper" was obviously taken to heart by every school cafeteria cook in the 1950's and 1960's. I can still those miserable vegetables in my mind’s eye— hopelessly flaccid and purged of every molecule of chlorophyll.

Mom didn’t serve green beans in our home, and for this I was thankful, thinking that 'limp and gray' was how they were meant to be.

It was about this time in American history that the side dish “Green Bean Casserole” became an ubiquitous fixture in every Thanksgiving Day spread. In my estimation, green beans with “cream of clump soup” didn’t seem like much on an improvement over the lunchroom fare.

Origin of the Green Bean Casserole

Long before the internet, where recipes and cooking tips for any and all imaginable foods can be found, there were few sources of knowledge for the new home cook. Sure, there were cookbooks, but they were expensive, large, and cumbersome. Family favorites jotted down on time-worn (and stained) note cards often gave unclear or imprecise measurements and had few if any directions.

Here is where ingenuity and marketing genius came to the rescue—food manufacturers (General Mills, Hershey, Heinz, Kraft Foods, and dozens others) produced small, inexpensive (and often free) pamphlets filled with recipes that featured their products. The Campbell Soup company produced many of these booklets—promising tasty, balanced meals for the thrifty, time-conscious housewife.

According to the Wikipedia:

The green bean casserole was first created in 1955 by the Campbell Soup Company. Dorcas Reilly led the team that created the recipe while working as a staff member in the home economics department. The inspiration for the dish was "to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup." In 2002, Reilly presented the original recipe card to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

In 2015 it was estimated that more than 20 million households prepared this dish on Thanksgiving—that one recipe accounting for 25 to 30 percent of the company’s sale of cream of mushroom soup in November.

But Long Before We Had a Thanksgiving...

There was the green bean. Food historians believe that the green bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) originated in South America. No one can ascertain when the green bean was actually domesticated, but radiocarbon dating of seeds from Peruvian digs estimates that they were cultivated around 7,000 years ago.

In 1493 green beans traveled across the Atlantic on Columbus' second voyage home. The people of the Mediterranean soon learned that beans are relatively easy to grow and have a short growth cycle, reaching maturity in as little as 60 days from planting. And so the popularity of green beans spread quickly; by the 17th century they were being cultivated throughout Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

What About Today?

Worldwide almost 21 million metric tons of green beans are produced each year. China is at the top of the list, producing about 48 percent. The United States is No. 15 on the list. Fresh green beans are available fresh or frozen all year.

How to Select and Prep the Best

  • Look for beans that are firm and bright green in color
  • They should be free of blemishes, and certainly no soft spots
  • Bigger isn't always better--plump pods will also contain larger bean (seeds) inside.
  • Don't wash and/or cut them until you are ready to cook, and cook them within 48 hours of purchase

Do You Want to Grow Your Own?

How to Grow Green Beans

There are two basic styles of green bean plants--pole beans and bush beans. As their names might indicate, pole beans love to climb and perform well along fences, trellises, or vine tepees. On the other hand, bush beans are shorter and can stand without support and so are a good choice for the small garden or balcony.

Your beans will need these conditions to be happy and produce well:

  • full sun
  • well-drained soil
  • plant at least an inch deep
  • plant after soil warms and all danger of frost is past
  • keep soil evenly moist (mulching helps)

Green Bean Fast Facts

  • Also known as French beans, string beans, or snap beans.
  • They are the unripened fruit of the common bean—harvested before the seeds enclosed in their protective pods have matured.
  • There are more than 130 varieties.
  • Each pod contains 4 to 6 beans (seeds).
  • China is the greatest producer of green beans, exporting 15 million tons of green beans each year.

Recipes

Pasta with pesto, potatoes, and green beans
Pasta with pesto, potatoes, and green beans | Source

Northern Italian Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans

Several years ago I wrote a hub about my introduction to this amazing dish. If you have the time to make your own pasta, please read that story and follow my step-by-step directions. I guarantee that you won't be disappointed. Even if you don't have the time to make fresh pasta, read my story anyhow. It will put you in the mood for Northern Italian dining at its finest.

Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes and Green Beans (the Easier Version)

I recognize that some days there just isn't enough time to make your own pasta. You can still make this dish for your family by using dried pasta. It's almost as good.

ingredients

  • 12 ounces troffie or penne pasta
  • new potatoes (Yukon golds are wonderful)--enough to make 2 cups sliced
  • fresh green beans--again, enough to make 2 cups sliced. Look for green beans that are thin and young
  • about 1 1/2 cups pesto (home made is best)
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

directions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (at least 4 quarts).
  2. Drop in the potato slices and cook until almost tender--about 2 minutes. Lift out with a skimmer and set aside.
  3. Next, drop in the green beans. I remove the stem end and cut them in half--leaving the blossom end in tact. Cook about 2 minutes or until tender-crisp, and remove with a skimmer and set aside.
  4. Add the pasta to the simmering water and cook according to package directions until al dente.
  5. Return the cooked potato slices and cooked green beans to the pot--wait 15 seconds, and then drain the pasta.
  6. Put pasta/potatoes/green beans back in the pot and mix with the pesto. Pour into a serving bowl and top with grated Parmesan. Toss and serve.

This side dish is a study in contrasts--crisp slightly sweet green beans are paired with the creamy texture and sharp flavor of blue cheese. Olive oil lends a buttery texture and walnuts provide a pop of umami savoriness.

Crisp Green Beans with Walnuts and Gorgonzola


INGREDIENTS

  • 3/4 pound whole green beans
  • 2 teaspoons good quality olive oil
  • 1/3 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese (or other blue cheese)
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts
  • salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

  1. Trim green beans (remove stem end). Steam until crisp-tender.
  2. Drain and return to pan.
  3. Add olive oil, cheese, and walnuts. Toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper.

Source

Oven Baked Parmesan Green Bean "Fries"

Think you can't get your kids to eat green vegetables? What if those veggies are french fries? And what if those fries are not really fried at all, but are oven baked? Sounds to me like a truce--both sides are happy.

Gayle of PumpkinnSpice.com created this recipe that both parents and kids can agree on. And, if you do make these, please send Gayle a photo via Instagram (tag @pumpkin_n_spice and #pumpkinnspiceblog).

The New (And Improved) Green Bean Casserole

This recipe from the Food Network replaces canned cream of mushroom soup with fresh mushrooms, chicken stock, and heavy cream. And the canned french-fried onions are replaced with home crisped shallots. Perhaps a bit more work, but so worth it.

Note that this recipe was rated 4.5 out of 5 stars. The few reviewers who did not like the recipe complained that the flavor of cayenne pepper was overpowering. If you know that you don't like the flavor (or heat) of cayenne, I would recommend cutting back to 1/8 teaspoon--or simply leave it out.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Lum

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      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 17 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Lawrence - My husband spent some time in Hong Kong, Japan, and Guam during the Vietnam war, and so returned with a great appreciation for stir fry. I agree that stir-fried green beans are wonderful. I do hope that you will try some of these recipes, and if you do, please give me your feedback.

      • profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 17 months ago

        Linda

        No veggie garden is complete without some form of beans!

        Mine are dwarf beans (string).

        My wife hates boiled veggies, I don't like roasted so we enjoy stir fried (delicious and crisp!).

        Some of these dishes sound yummy.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 18 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish - We don't have a Penzy's in this corner of the world, and I've never heard of 'mural of flavor'. Would love to know what spices are included.

      • profile image

        FlourishAnyway 18 months ago

        I've wanted to try green bean fries for a long time so thanks for the article. I love string beans and cook them as often as they are available. A combination spice called mural of flavor that I get from Penzy's plus a little butter and salt make them magic.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 18 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Bravewarrior - I will certainly try to do so, but my family might stage a revolt waiting for me to get "just the right angle" while they "patiently" wait to eat.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 18 months ago from Central Florida

        That will definitely be the first one I try, Diva. It sounds delicious! Can I make a suggestion? When you post one of your own recipes, will you please include a photo? You know we all eat with our eyes first....

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 18 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Bravewarrior - If you use only one of the recipes, I do hope you will choose the pasta with pesto, potatoes, and green beans. It is hands down one of my favorite meals and tasting it immediately transports me back to that idyllic time and place.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 18 months ago from Central Florida

        We never had green bean casserole growing up. My mom's a scratch cook and would never dream of using a can of soup as a seasoning for a Thanksgiving dinner side dish. I never had it until I was married to my second husband and his son, who was home on leave from the Marines, requested it. Frankly, I wasn't impressed. The FoodNetwork version sounds much better, but I doubt I'll ever make it.

        However, the other recipes you feature in this article sound absolutely mouthwatering. I'll have to try all three of them. In fact, I'm printing this page to add to my 4" three-ringer binder of recipes I've collected over the years.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 18 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Rachel - I had never thought of putting green beans in scrambled eggs, but that sounds really interesting. Anything to get in more veggies. I'm glad you liked my hub, and thanks for stopping by.

      • Rachel L Alba profile image

        Rachel L Alba 18 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

        Hi Carb Diva. I love your hub about green beans. We do grow them in our yard, green and yellow ones. They have to be watched though, because the rabbits love them too. lol The green bean parmesan fries look amazing. My husband likes them with eggs. I boil them for 10 minutes then saute them for a few minutes then pour in a couple of eggs scrambled then cook them stirring them along with the beans. My girls like them that way too. Thanks for this hub.

        Blessings to you.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 18 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, you're a keeper. Don't want to lose you.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 18 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Wow Linda you are full of great info. Thank you for taking the time to set me straight. My body thanks you.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 18 months ago from Washington State, USA

        RTalloni - Thank you for your comment about kids in the garden. I had totally forgotten about that. Yes, beans reward quickly--one of the first things to sprout. Little ones are always amazed that so much can be stored in one little seed (actually, I am too).

        Thanks for stopping by.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 18 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Good morning Bill. I'm glad you enjoyed the recipes. As for how I feel, typing requires no real movement and unless I read one of your hubs I probably won't laugh (or cry) so thanks for your concern; I'm healing nicely.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 18 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric - I too like to eat green beans raw (just a few), but while researching this hub I learned that raw beans contain a substance called lectin. Lectins are glycoproteins that are present in a wide variety of commonly-consumed plant foods. Some are not harmful, but the lectins found in undercooked and raw beans are toxic.

        While you might assume that consuming raw beans would provide better nutrition, you’re wrong. Beans actually have a better nutritional profile after they are cooked. Beans must be boiled to destroy the lectins.

        Lectins are thought to exist to discourage animals and other pests from eating the raw beans or seeds of the plant. Animals are apparently able to smell the toxic lectins. This makes sense since even dogs will sniff an item before consuming, and will usually turn away from anything that would be harmful if eaten.

        Unfortunately, humans have no such olfactory sense. The article went on to state that lectins are highest in broad beans--the ones we grow for the seed inside (i.e. kidney beans, limas, favas, etc.) and those should always be cooked. The amount of lectin in string beans is much lower, and so eating a few of them raw should cause no harm, it is best to cook them, even if just briefly. When they are cooked (correctly) their green color intensifies and they still retain that wonderful "snap".

        Stay well my friend.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 18 months ago from Olympia, WA

        This just happens to be one of the few vegetables I'll eat on a regular basis, so I can say, with all honesty, thanks for the recipes. :) Hope you're feelings better, my friend.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 18 months ago from the short journey

        Green beans really are so easy to grow, making them a great first garden project for kids. You've surprised me with the fact on China being the biggest producer! Thanks for highlighting how versatile they are with these recipes.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 18 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        As usual, deliciously written. Very cool recipes. But as I read it I felt guilty, as I eat mine raw. Very fibery but it has never caused me problems.

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