Last week I listened to an interview of Alice Waters on NPR (by Terry Gross on Fresh Air). It was so inspiring that it got me dreaming about opening a place of my own all over again. (This is a recurring fantasy... which shouldn't surprise you too much). I spent last night in my Dream Café, welcoming patrons with delicious yet simple, healthy, affordable food made from the freshest ingredients, presented in a short, ever-changing seasonal menu, and featuring a fun selection of small plates for children, and a place for them to quietly play and read after their meal, so grown ups can have a few minutes of respite. Sigh...
As I was listening to Alice, two thougts came to mind. First, she mentioned that she stopped seeing her friends when she got into the chaos of opening Chez Panisse. She also said that she stopped cooking there when she had her daughter... So this dream business of mine sounded quite incompatible with my dream life of the moment. Unless maybe I could have a cafe that required work only from 9 to 5 week days (i.e. preschool hours)? Sigh... My second thought, which alleviated my disillusion, was that as far as focusing on the quality of ingredients, I was definitely, albeit modestly, following Alice's path. Nothing is more pleasurable to me than eating vegetables and fruits (and meats and fish) that taste like themselves. In her interview, Alice said that finding the ingredients was 85% of cooking, and that the Bowl of Fruit was the item she was the most proud of on her menu. I found that comment truely admirable.
All this got me thinking about the vegetables that my family used to grow in France. We didn't have a garden, but my grandparents and several uncles and aunts did. All were growing, among many other delicious plants, green beans. I don't know if green beans are still in fashion in France's vegetable gardens. They certainly were 20 years ago. The kind that my family grew was what is called "haricots verts" in the US: small, thin, dark green beans, which are both firm and juicy and barely require any cooking at all. Just a few minutes of steaming or boiling in salted water, then you can eat them warm with a piece of melting butter on top. This is how we ate them most of the time—and they rarely made it to the table: we would snack on them as soon as they were ready. Another favorite was to add boiled potatoes to the beans and season either with butter (and decorate with lemon wedges) or vinaigrette dressing.
Summer is nearly over but I found organic green beans last Saturday, so there is still time to try out this recipe, which I prepared a month or two ago. As a matter of fact, I will receive filet beans (another name for haricots verts) in my CSA box tomorrow.
- 1 lb green beans (preferrably thin, tender ones)
- 8–10 small potatoes (about 1 lb). New potatoes of any variety, or small Yukon Gold for example. I prefer silky rather than starchy potatoes, but both make great warm salads.
- 1 small shallot
- 1 1/2 Tbsp old-style Dijon mustard (with whole grains), or regular Dijon mustard (Try to find a French brand, such as Maille or Amora, for a more authentic taste.)
- 1 Tbsp Jerez vinegar (sherry vinegar from Spain), or regular red wine vinegar
- 2 Tbsp sunflower oil, or other mild-tasting oil
- 2 Tbsp olive oil (Try to find oil made with olives from only one country1—e.g. Greece or Italy—, extra-virgin, cold pressed)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Start with the potatoes: peel them and boil them in salted water until cooked but still firm (stop cooking as soon as a knife can go through easily), about 15 minutes.
Hull the beans2 (unless they are very thin) by carefully snapping each end and pulling the string that runs along the bean (which is only a problem in more mature beans). Rinse the beans.
While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the dressing. Place all the ingredients in a small sealable container3. Close tighly with a leak-proof lid. Shake well until homogeneous.
Thinly chop the shallot and place at the bottom of a large salad bowl.
As soon as the potatoes are cooked through, drain them and place them in the salad bowl. Pour 2 or 3 Tbsp dressing on them and toss. The warm potatoes will absorb the oil and flavors of the dressing and shallot.
Steam or boil the green beans in salted water for no more than 5 minutes in a pressure cooker. They must be firm but not crunchy, soft but not floppy. They loose the brightness of their green color without really tarnishing...
Drain the beans and add to the salad bowl. Pour a couple more Tbsp dressing if all has been absorbed by the potatoes. Toss gently (avoid breaking the beans).
1 To me it's an indication that it was made in smaller, maybe more artisanal batches. But I don't know for sure. And the taste should be more distinct (unique to the country of origin) than if olives are mixed.
2 This is a social time in a French kitchen—at least it is in my family. Everyone grabs a few handfuls of beans to hull and chats around the kitchen table.
3 I use a recycled jam jar. If there is any left-over dressing, I just put the jar in the fridge. If there is very little left in the jar, I still keep it (French mustard is expensive over here!) and add more ingredients (in the quantities listed above) in the jar next time I need dressing.