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

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Crisp and flavorful green beans.

Crisp and flavorful green beans.

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 1950s and 1960s. 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.

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.

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Read More From Delishably

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.
Pasta with pesto, potatoes, and green beans.

Pasta with pesto, potatoes, and green beans.

Northern Italian Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans

Ingredients

  • 2 cups sliced Yukon gold potatoes
  • 2 cups sliced fresh green beans. (Look for green beans that are thin/young and free of blemishes)
  • 2 cups medium-size pasta (trofie, penne, fusilli, or gemelli) uncooked
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup pesto (homemade is best)
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (at least 4 quarts). Season heavily with salt.
  2. When the water comes to a simmer drop in the potato slices and cook until almost tender—about 4 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 intact. Cook about 3 minutes or until tender-crisp, and remove with a skimmer and set aside with the potatoes.
  4. Add the pasta to the pot, give it a stir and cook according to package directions until the pasta is desired tenderness. It should be supple with a little bite.
  5. When pasta is cooked, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water and then drain.
  6. Add the olive oil to a large saute pan over medium heat. Toss in the potatoes and green beans and the freshly cooked, drained pasta. Cook for a minute or two to reheat. Stir in the pesto and continue to cook and stir until everything is coated with pesto and is heated through. If the dish seems "dry" stir in some of the reserved pasta cooking water.
  7. Serve and garnish with the grated Parmesan.

Green Beans With Walnuts and Gorgonzola

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.

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

Instructions

  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.
Tasty green bean "fries."

Tasty green bean "fries."

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).

Fresh green bean casserole.

Fresh green bean casserole.

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.

© 2016 Linda Lum

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