Fennel is a new addition to my local farmers market. That’s the great thing about the rise of these local markets. Customers ask, farmers grow. Last year, it was a few experimental bulbs, this year it’s big bins of them. When I saw them last year, I was quick to pick up as many as I could and start experimenting. I love adding fennel to the vegetables that start a soup or casserole or sauce – a bit in with the carrots, celery and onion. It adds an interesting undernote. But I had never really ventured into featuring fennel as a main ingredient until I found it tender and fresh and fragrant on the farmstand.
I have had a roasted fennel gratin at a restaurant that was basically wedges of fennel tossed in olive oil with a shower of breadcrumbs. Not interesting enough for me. The recipes I looked at were mostly similar and the ones with cream sauce seemed to have a lot of cream sauce – the fennel would be swimming. So I fiddled around for what I was imagining. When I have the freshest fennel, I want to highlight its unique flavor, so I ignored recipes that had additions of mustard, onion, garlic and shallot. I want the bracing flavor of fennel to really shine. A touch of the acid tang of white wine complements the fennel and a slight dusting with salty Parmesan rounds it out. Cooking mellows the fennel, rendering it sweeter but still with that special flavor.
This dish is lovely. I’ve eaten it on its own with a chunk of bread, but it pairs so well with a grilled steak or a delicate piece of fish. The smell of sliced fresh fennel is spectacular.
Creamy Fennel Gratin
I prefer the Parmesan and breadcrumbs to be very fine, like a light dust on top of the gratin. I grate day-old bread on a fine grater.
6 cups thinly sliced fennel (see note)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon flour
½ cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tablespoons chopped fennel frond (the feathery leaves)
¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
¼ cup fresh, finely grated bread crumbs
salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter an 8 by 8 inch baking dish
Cut the thick stalks and fronds form the fennel bulbs and remove the tough end and any tough, blemished outer leaves. Slice the fennel bulb thinly using a mandolin or the food processor, about 1/8 inch thick.
Melt the butter in a saucepan large enough to hold the sliced fennel. Whisk in the flour until you have a smooth, pale paste. Pour in the wine and heavy cream (measure them together in the same jug) and whisk until the sauce begins to thicken. Stir in one Tablespoon of the chopped fennel frond and cook until the sauce is thick and coats the back of the spoon. Stir in the sliced fennel and a few generous pinches of salt and stir to coat. Scrape the fennel into the prepared baking dish and spread it out into an even layer.
Mix the breadcrumbs, parmesan and remaining chopped fennel fron together. Sprinkle evenly over the top of the gratin. Bake the gratin for 30 – 40 minutes until a knife slides easily into a piece of the fennel. Serve hot.
Serves 4 – 6
Note: I created this recipe to make the most of fresh, young tender fennel. I use about 6 bulbs that are pale green and about 4 inches across. If you use the mature, white fennel common at grocery stores, you will probably need about 3 bulbs. The young fennel can be sliced right through, but the larger white bulbs need to be halved and the triangular hard core cut out. The large bulbs may need a longer cooking time as well.
The first spring weekend of farmers market season is exciting. I am ready for all that fresh produce with a new treat arriving each week and little surprises on every visit. I know that I am closer to juicy strawberries, my first tomato in months, bright, sweet corn and so many things. I know it is all about to start. But in reality, that first Saturday is a little sparse. The greens lingering from winter, a few spring flowers, but not the spectacular array soon to come. S on the first market day this year, I came away mostly with baked goods and a restock on pastured meat. Not a huge haul, but still a fun trip.
As I unpacked my oilcloth market bag at home, I took stock of my purchases and realized I had leeks, bacon, eggs and goat cheese. Flamiche! In the fridge I had some local milk and cream, and with a quickly made piecrust, I was ready for a very elegant, locally sourced spring lunch.
This quiche-like tart is a traditional Belgian dish, with the old-world flavors of smoky bacon, salty goat cheese and jammy leeks. When I buy leeks fresh from the farmer, there are sometimes a few very thin pencil leeks in the bunch. I like to press them into the top of the filling before baking, because it is such a lovely presentation. You can slice right through them or pull them off before serving. I like the look of my square tart pan, but round is beautiful too.
Belgian Leek, Goat Cheese and Bacon Tart
If you buy your leeks from a farmers market and they are thinner than grocery store varieties, you will need more.
1 pie crust for a 9-inch pie
2 large leeks or 3 medium (4 cups sliced), white and pale green parts only
¼ cup butter
½ cup water
8 strips of bacon
5 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled
½ cup whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Fit the prepared crust into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
Slice the white and pale green part of the leeks in half lengthwise, then slice each half into thin half circles. Place the leeks in a large bowl of cold water and swirl around with your hands, shuffling to separate the layers of leek. Leave for a few minutes to let any dirt settle to the bottom of a bowl. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium low heat. Scoop the leeks out of the water and shake to drain somewhat (do not pour the leeks and water into a strainer, the dirt will just fall back on the leeks) then add to the melted butter. Stir to coat and then stir in the ½ cup water. Cook for a few minutes, until the leeks begin to reduce in bulk, then cover, lower the heat to low and cook for 20- 25 minutes until the leeks are soft and semi-translucent. Stir occasionally during cooking and add a drop or two more water as needed. Do not let the leeks brown. When the leeks are soft and pale, uncover and cook a few minutes more until any liquid has evaporated. Set aside to cool. (The leeks can be made up to two days ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered, until ready to use).
While the leeks are cooling, cook the bacon until crisp and drain on paper towels. Preheat the oven to 400°. Spread the cooled leeks evenly over the bottom of the prepared tart crust, smoothing the top. Crumble the goat cheese and sprinkle over the top of the leeks. Chop the bacon into small pieces and sprinkle in the tart. In a small bowl or 4 cup measuring jug, whisk together the milk, cream, whole egg, yolk and pepper. Pour this custard over the filling in the tart. Carefully transfer to the oven and bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until the center is set and the top is golden brown.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
I doubt this a traditional Irish dish at all, but when I was whipping up a pot of Irish Stew, I wanted a nice, cheese-y accompaniment. Welsh Rarebit is the great British snack of a beer-laced cheese sauce on crusty bread, so I figured I give it a go with Guinness. These are perfect with the stew, but also make a nice treat on their own as a snack, or a light lunch or supper beside a big salad. And they’d be pretty good with Corned Beef and Cabbage Cooked in Beer.
½ cup Guinness or other stout beer
2 Tablespoon butter
2 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ cup milk
¼ teaspoon English mustard powder
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
14 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese (preferably Irish), grated
8 slices crusty white bread
flaky sea salt, like Maldon
Pour the Guinness into your measuring jug and let the foam settle. You want ½ cup minus the foam.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then whisk in the flour until you have a smooth paste and it is pale in color. Whisk in the milk and Guinness and stir until thick, smooth and creamy. Stir in the mustard powder and Worcestershire. Add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring to melt completely after each addition. When all the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth, set it aside to cool down and firm up a little.
Preheat the broiler to high. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Slice the bread into thick slices. Use a spoon to spread a thick layer of cheese sauce on each slice. Sprinkle the tops with salt and place on the baking sheet. Broil the rarebits until the cheese is bubbling and browned in spots, about 6 minutes. Watch very carefully.
Let the rarebits sit a few minutes, then slice each piece in half and serve.
Part of the joy of Thanksgiving for me is the leftovers. I cook a turkey bigger than my family could ever eat on the day, I make huge amounts of dressing, I even cram some in a loaf pan to bake so it can be sliced to fit on a sandwich. My shopping lists include good bread, cheese and condiments for next day sandwiches. I’ve made Fig, Bourbon and Vanilla Bean Jam and Rosemary Pear Butter months ahead to spread on those sandwiches. After the fun of a formal meal, it’s nice to gather the next day (usually at someone else’s house, lucky me) very casually, in jeans and comfy sweaters, to enjoy our own sandwich creations.
If the leftovers are a big part of your tradition, or if you have guests around the house through the weekend, add this salad to your plans. As long as you are buying (and peeling) all those sweet potatoes for the big meal, it’s worth the little extra effort to have this stashed in the fridge. It is an absolute dream next to a turkey sandwich, better than a bag of chips, and looks like you really went that extra mile. Earthy sweet potatoes, crunchy pecans, tart cranberries and rich maple syrup create a symphony of fall flavor. If your fridge is full to bursting, you can store this in a ziptop bag in a crisper drawer to take up less room.
A word about process. Don’t be tempted to do that TV chef-y thing and put the potato cubes directly on the baking sheet, casually drizzle over oil and roast. When you do that, there is inevitably too much oil, and the potatoes steam rather than roast, so they don’t get those nice, crisp edges, but are mushy and soft. Lightly toss the potatoes with a small amount of oil in a bowl, rubbing around with your hands to get a little coating on each cube, then lift the potatoes out of the bowl onto a baking sheet (I line mine with non-stick foil for easy cleaning), leaving any extra oil behind. I do this with all my roasted vegetables,
Autumn Sweet Potato Salad
2 ½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 4 medium)
1/3 cup plus 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
¼ cup maple syrup (grade B amber)
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 – 4 fresh sage leaves
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Ground black pepper
4 green onions, white and some dark green parts, finely chopped
2/3 cup chopped pecans, lightly toasted
2/3 cup dried cranberries
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into ½ inch pieces. You want them to be bite-sized and roughly the same size so they roast evenly. Toss the potato cubes with the 2 Tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of salt. Use your hands to make sure every potato cube has just a slick of oil on it. Lift the potatoes out of the bowl onto a rimmed baking sheet. Roast them for 25 – 30 minutes, until a knife easily slides into a potato piece. You want them to be cooked through but not mushy. They should still hold their shape and have a little bite. Cool the potatoes to room temperature.
Put the mustard, maple syrup, vinegar, sage, cinnamon, salt and pepper in a blender and blend until smooth. With the motor running, drizzle in the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil until you have a creamy, emulsified dressing.
When the potatoes are cool, gently toss them with the chopped green onions, pecans and cranberries. Pour over the dressing and toss until all the potatoes are coated. It’s fine if you prefer not to use all the dressing, but reserve the remainder in case you want to add some later.
Refrigerate the potato salad, tightly covered, for several hours or up to a few days.
Sweet potatoes are a foregone conclusion on the Southern Thanksgiving table. I would never consider serving mashed white potatoes at the big meal. For most of my life, I only had sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, though a pie may have snuck in at some other time during the year. I have now discovered the joy of sweet potatoes, though, and eat them year-round in all sorts of ways, sweet and savory. But on Thanksgiving, there is just no question.
I grew up with the marshmallow topped version, which never really did much for me. I think that may be the reason I never explored sweet potatoes much further. When it came my turn to contribute to the Thanksgiving feast though, I worked out a dish of Sweet Potatoes with Cider, Maple and Orange that has been the standard on our table for many years. But every once in a while, change is good. There is however, a strange feeling that comes up. I’ve made that same sweet potato dish for a decade at least, and everyone always tells me how much they enjoy it. And when I presented this new version, it got raves. “Best sweet potatoes I’ve ever had.” I love it when the family enjoys what you cook and take great pleasure that I have done right by them. But then there is that niggling sense in the back of your mind…”What was so bad about the ones I’ve been cooking you for all these years….”
Southern Candied Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Streusel
Yes, these potatoes are rich. I don’t want to hear it. It’s Thanksgiving, live a little!
For the Sweet Potatoes:
8 medium sweet potatoes
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup bourbon
¼ cup cane syrup or sorghum
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup cream
For the Streusel:
1 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
2/3 cup white sugar
6 tablespoons dark brown sugar, packed
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the Sweet Potatoes:
Peel the potatoes and slice them ¼” thick ( a mandoline or food processor makes quick work of this). Melt the butter with the brown sugar, bourbon, cane syrup and salt in a large skillet that will hold the potatoes, stirring frequently. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, drop in the potato slices and stir to coat. Layer one half of the potato slices in a well-greased 9 by 13 inch baking dish. Pour over half of the syrup from the skillet. Layer the remaining potatoes in the dish and pour over the rest of the syrup.
The potatoes can be cooled, covered tightly and refrigerated overnight at this point. When ready to bake, remove form the fridge for at least 15 minutes.
For the Streusel:
In a food processor, process the sugars, the cinnamon, salt and flour for about 1 minute. Add butter; pulse 10 to 15 times, until the mixture is crumbly. Stir in the pecans. Refrigerate the topping, covered, in a medium bowl until ready to use. It can be made up to a day ahead.
When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350°. Pour the ½ cup cream over the potatoes, drizzling it into all the nooks and crannies. Spread the streusel evenly over the top of the potatoes. Bake the casserole for one hour, until the potatoes are soft and you can slide a knife easily through the center, the sides are bubbling and the streusel is golden brown. You can cover the dish loosely with foil if you feel the top is getting too brown too early.
Serves 8 – 12, depending on how much food is on the table!
There is perhaps no better accompaniment to a summer barbecue or picnic than a good potato salad. But there are a lot of bad potato salads out there. And I have never been a huge fan of mayonnaise-only potato salads. To me, they tend to be heavy and gloopy and no one wants to eat one that’s been sitting around in the warm weather. And I also prefer a minimum of add-ins. I have seen potato salads over the years with so many extra ingredients it’s hard to find the potatoes. Good potatoes, good dressing and a little texture and color are all that’s really needed.
The small potatoes I find at the farmers market are creamy and lovely and perfect for salad, as they retain their shape and are packed with flavor. A tangy mustard dressing with just a hint of cream is perfect with a sprinkling of herbs. And what can I say about bacon? Perfect with potatoes for added crunch and smoky flavor. Vinegar in the cooking water and drizzled over the cooked potatoes adds a level of flavor and saltiness it’s hard to achieve after the fact.
Mustard and Bacon Potato Salad
4 pounds small potatoes (I like to use a mixture of red-skinned and yellow potatoes)
1 cup white vinegar, divided
8 strips of bacon
3 Tablespoons chopped chives
3 Tablespoons chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 Tablespoons whole-grain mustard
4 Tablespoons bacon drippings
4 Tablespoons heavy cream
Salt to taste
Scrub the potatoes well and cut them into bite-sized pieces, all about the same size so they cook evenly. Place the potatoes in a large Dutch oven and cover with water by about 1 inch. Add ¾ cup of the vinegar and bring to a boil. Cook the potatoes until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, about 15 minutes. You want your potatoes cooked through and soft, but not falling apart.
Drain the potatoes in a colander, and return to the pan. Pour over the remaining ¼ cup vinegar and gently stir to coat the potatoes. Leave to cool.
Cook the bacon until crispy, drain on paper towels and reserve 4 Tablespoons of bacon fat. Chop the bacon into small pieces and add to the cooled potatoes in the pot. Toss in the chopped chives and chopped parsley and gently stir to combine. Be gentle so the potatoes don’t get roughed up.
In a small bowl whisk together the mustards. Add the bacon fat and whisk until combined. Add the heavy cream and whisk until completely combined and smooth. Pour the dressing over the potatoes, scraping the bowl, and stir gently to coat thoroughly. Taste and add salt if you think you need it.
Spoon the potato salad into a serving bowl, scraping all the good stuff out of the pot and give it one last stir. Refrigerate for at least two hours to chill and allow the flavors to blend, but the salad can be made up to a day ahead and kept covered in the fridge.
I was standing in my kitchen, on a Saturday after my farmers market run, putting everything in its proper place while I made my plan of attack for the day. Stacked up on the counter were a dozen ears of corn, destined to be blanched, stripped and frozen in little baggies. Next to that was a lovely bag of freshly ground Delta Grind grits, also destined for the freezer. It was such a lovely tableau. As I went about my business, peeling tomatoes for tomato butter, soaking field peas to be pickled and starting a batch of peach-basil jam, with fig, bourbon and vanilla bean jam already simmering in the crockpot, I just kept thinking about that corn and those grits and how good they would be together. I decided I’d whip a batch of plain grits and stir in some kernels for dinner. But as the day progressed, I just kept thinking there must be some really creative way to meld the flavors. As I peeled peaches, diced onions, chopped basil, shucked corn, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I went to the freezer to make room for my next additions and realized I already had quite a lot of corn in there, so maybe I should whip up a batch of fresh corn buttermilk biscuit dough for the freezer. That’s when it hit me. My secret to those lovely biscuits – pureed fresh corn – would add that layer of corn freshness to a pot of grits. I was right. I started with a small portion, just to serve myself, and frankly ate that for dinner with some field peas the next weekend, and another night as well. So I set to work refining and codifying the recipe, and here it is.
These grits have the wonderful, soft creaminess you look for in grits, with that lovely texture and bite that comes from traditional stone-ground varieties. I highly recommend you seek them out. Adding the pureed corn to the cooking liquid creates a sweet, fresh undertone that is bright with corn flavor. The kernels stirred in cook just enough to release their own sweet secret, while adding an extra layer of texture and bite. Serve these for breakfast or as a side to a roasted or grilled pork loin. And I can’t help think these would make a truly special base for shrimp and grits.
Fresh Corn Grits
4 ears fresh corn, shucked and silked
1 ½ cups whole milk
2 cups chicken broth
¼ cup butter
1 Tablespoon salt
1 cup stone ground yellow grits
Butter, for serving
Cut the kernels off two cobs of corn and place them in a blender with 1 cup of the milk and blend to a fine puree. Really give it some time in the blender; you want it as smooth as you can make it. Pour the puree through a strainer into a large Dutch oven, pressing to get out all the liquid. Stir in the remaining milk, add broth, butter and salt and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Be generous with the salt, it is hard to get grits properly salted after they are cooked. Whisk the grits into the boiling liquid, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer stirring frequently. Cut the kernels off the remaining 2 cobs of corn, and stir them in while the grits are cooking. Cook, stirring frequently to keep the grits from sticking until most of the liquid is absorbed and the grits are tender, but with a little bite. Be careful while you are stirring, grits spit, so stand back aways.
Serve immediately with a good pat of better melting over the top.
Serves 4, or 6 as a side
It’s no secret that I love the farmers market. My Saturday morning trips followed by a day of canning or putting things by, are the highlight of my week. I am so inspired by all the produce and the people who love food. And I have found it is an amazing source of advice and ideas, from farmers and customers alike. I cannot count the number of times I have been standing at a booth, ogling the farm-fresh beauty, when a conversation starts about the best ways to make use of the produce. Farmers always have great ideas and, of course, know their stuff, but once you start talking recipes, other people are bound to join in. That’s where this recipe comes from. I was eyeing some gorgeous zucchini, and asking the farmer for some ideas on how to use it when she started reeling off onions in butter, sliced tomatoes, a little sugar. Another customer chimed in with the oregano, and yet another talked about making with all overlapped slices – and that she had a casserole dish that she thought of as her zucchini dish because she makes this so often in the summer. A further discussion ensued about sliced verses cubed versus wedged. Clearly, this is a recipe a lot of people know, but the first time I ever came across it was that day at the market. I scribbled down some notes (on an egg carton because that’s all I had), picked up a basket of zucchini and went to work.
My conclusions are the result of experimentation and all that advice and discussion. I prefer wedges of zucchini and tomato because it’s attractive and a little bit different, and I think they retain a touch of firmness. I chop the onions instead of slicing, which makes the dish a little easier to eat and serve, and I use a generous amount of oregano from the garden instead of any dried version. The brilliance of this is that it is not messed about with. Fresh vegetables and herbs, a little bit of sugar to bring out the natural sweetness, and a small shower of parmesan cheese. No cream or breadcrumbs or unnecessary thick globs of heavy cheese. Just simple and beautiful and summer. Oh, and now I carry a notebook and pen in my market bag.
Baked Zucchini and Tomatoes
I truly recommend using a wedge of good Parmesan and grating it directly over the vegetables. It melds beautifully without overpowering. The pre-grated stuff doesn’t do that.
2 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
3 medium zucchini
2 medium firm tomatoes
2 teaspoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2 Tablespoons butter
¼ cup parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Pour the melted butter into a 1 ½ quart baking dish (square or rectangle is best) and swirl to cover the bottom. Spread the onions over the butter.
Slice the stems off the zucchini, then in half, trying to make each half about the length of the tomatoes. Cut each half into quarters. Cut each tomato into eight wedges. Arrange the zucchini wedges and the tomato wedges in rows on top of the onions in the baking dish. Evenly sprinkle the oregano over the vegetables.
In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, salt and pepper. Sprinkle over the vegetables. Thinly slice the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter and arrange over the vegetables. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake for 25 – 30 minutes. The vegetables will have softened a little and released some juices, but will still be a bit firm. A knife should slide easily into a zucchini wedge. Sprinkle the cheese over the hot dish.
Serves 6 – 8
Maque Choux distills the essence of summer into every bite. Admittedly, its first attraction may be the fun name. Pronounced mock shoe, it is a corruption of a French word or an Indian saying, or just straight up Acadian, depending on whom you ask. It is a traditional Cajun dish which occasionally makes it onto the menus of New Orleans-style restaurants, but more often than not, as some dressed up, modernized version – with herbs, no bacon, named heirloom tomatoes. All of which is fine, but when you stop de-constructing and re-constructing and cook up a big, simple skillet-full, the very taste of ripe, sweet summer corn and fresh, juicy tomatoes is so clear, I don’t see why we need to mess about.
Like classic Wash Day Beans, this is not a quick, lightly cooked preparation. The slow, mellow braising of corn kernels with onion brings out a sweet richness that will make you think someone snuck in a dash of sugar while you weren’t looking. Salty smokiness from good bacon and a touch of sweet-tart freshness from full, ripe tomatoes round out one of my favorite expressions of summer’s bounty. Serve maque choux beside a hearty piece of grilled meat, but I’ll be honest, I usually eat it by the bowlful all on its own, maybe with a biscuit to sop up the juices.
Maque Choux (Cajun Stewed Corn and Tomatoes)
6 strips of bacon
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
6 ears of fresh corn, husked and silked
2 large or 3 medium tomatoes, chopped, juices reserved
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the bacon into small pieces and cook in a large, deep skillet with a tight fitting lid until crisp. Remove half of the bacon to paper towels to drain, leaving the rest in the skillet.
While the bacon is cooking, cut the kernels from the corn and scrape out as much milk as possible. Lower the heat on the bacon grease, add the onions and green peppers and stir to coat. Cook for a few minutes, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. When the onions are beginning to soften add the corn and stir to blend. Scrape in the chopped tomatoes and their juices, stir well and bring to a bubble. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover the skillet, and stew for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. If needed, add a dash of water here and there to keep things from sticking. Maque Choux can stand up to longer cooking if you get distracted and can be gently reheated a few hours later.
Serve warm, with the remaining bacon pieces sprinkled on top.
Wash Day Green Beans in progress
Wash day beans are an old tradition, one that has taken on many forms in many places. The story goes that laundry day was once a week, usually a Monday, back when doing the wash meant heating up vats of water on an old wood stove to dump in the wash tub, then scrubbing the clothes by hand on that old washboard. The practical housewife was not likely to plan an elaborate meal to add to her work load, but the menfolk who spent the day laboring in the fields still needed a hearty meal. So, with the woodstove already fired up, our smart lady would put a pot of beans with some piece of meat on the back burner to simmer away while she got on with the washing. As I understand it, this is the origin of red beans and rice and many other slow-simmered bean dishes, and the tradition of eating red beans and rice on Monday still persists in Louisiana and around the South. But for me, wash day beans always conjures up this classic, old-fashioned sweet and tangy green bean dish. I buy gorgeous green beans at the farmers market, or pole beans take to this method wonderfully.
I have often thought that the tendency in the modern kitchen for quickly cooking vegetables misses a real trick. “Crisp-tender” is the buzzword for vegetables now, but the common assumption that vegetables cooked long and slow are overcooked is a shame. There is a transformative point in the cooking when the beans turn into something magical, wholly apart from their quick-cooked cousins. I attended a food conference recently where John Egerton, a master of Southern cuisine and cooking, stated that “slow-cooked green beans get a bad rap.” I couldn’t agree more. And it had me rushing home to rustle up some wash day beans.
Wash Day Green Beans
I usually cut the beans into pieces about 2 inches long for ease of eating, but it is not necessary. These shrink and turn a deep, mellow green.
12 strips of bacon
6 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
6 Tablespoons sugar
2 pounds of fresh green beans, washed and trimmed
Ground black pepper
Cut the bacon in to small pieces and drop into a large skillet with a lid, preferably black cast iron. Cook the bacon until it is crispy, then remove to paper towels with a slotted spoon to drain. Take the bacon drippings in the skillet off the heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. If you add ingredients while the grease is hot, everything will splash and sizzle and burn.
When the bacon drippings have cooled off, add the cider vinegar and the sugar and return to medium high heat. Stir until the sugar is melted. Add the green beans and about ¾ of the bacon pieces and stir to coat. Cover the pot, lower the heat and cook on low for 2 – 3 hours, stirring occasionally, until you are ready to serve.
Sprinkle with ground black pepper and the remaining bacon pieces. Serve immediately.
Serve 6 – 8