Kim O'Donnel is a freelance food writer and the author of the Meat Lovers' Meatless Cookbook and Meat Lovers' Meatless Celebrations.
In 1971, I was five, Richard Nixon was in the White House, Captain Kangaroo was on television and green bean casserole was on the dinner table. Originally concocted in 1955 by a home economist at the Campbell Soup Company, the infamous casserole – an unforgettable mixture of beans slathered with a can of cream of mushroom soup, a crunchy topping of French friend onions and baked until congealed just so – is all so many of my fellow Americans knew of this vegetable. Back then, our beans came either canned or frozen, known as green beans or string beans from the Green Giant or Mister Bird’s Eye.
That one could buy green beans fresh in the produce aisle was lost on me until I was in college, home on summer break. Larry the house painter offered me some of his stash from a plastic bag, which were in need of a good rinse. We'd sit in the kitchen during his lunch break, snipping off the ends and eating out of hand, talking about the meaning of life. They were slightly sweet and pleasantly crunchy in a way that got me wondering why the celery stick was still dominating the crudite platter.
That summer of snapping beans out of a bag set me on a new path, leaving behind the frozen pouch and discovering the world of tender seed pods that I later discovered come in a variety of colors.
A Brief History/Factual Nibbles
The family name is Phaseolus vulgaris, also known as the common bean. When the pod is young, tender and edible, it’s called a snap bean. As the pod hardens, the seed inside develops into what we know as a shell bean. Dried versions include kidney, navy and black beans.
- The snap bean is thought to have originated in Central and South America; the Aztecs referred to it as ayecotl, which morphed into the word haricot when the French got a taste of it.
- Native Americans have traditionally grown snap beans along with corn and squash, a planting trio known as the “Three Sisters.” Together, they are a complete source of protein.
- The snap bean’s fibrous “string” on its side earned it the name “string bean,” but in the 1890s, a string-less variety was bred. Although the bean is best characterized by its audible snap, the name “string bean” lives on in many parts of the country and the name “snap bean” has been very slow to catch on. Even more curious, not all snap beans are green, despite the “green bean” nomenclature; they're available in shades of yellow, purple and speckled violet.
Of the green snap beans, the most commonly known variety is the Blue Lake, which has a fairly meaty texture. Its slender, often spendier sister is the haricot vert, aka the French green bean.
The Italians have the Romano bean (aka Italian flat bean) which comes in green as well as yellow. They are more difficult to find, but the intrepid shopper will be rewarded with one of the meatiest snap beans in the bunch.
What looks like a yellow “green bean” is the wax bean, which isn’t waxy at all but a delightfully tender and sweet morsel, raw or cooked. Also available in purple (which by the way, revert to green when cooked).
Jackson Pollock was probably inspired by the Dragon Tongue bean, a long, bumpy cream-shaded pod with what looks like splashes of violet paint. (Those splashes of color do fade when cooked, sadly.) You're most likely to find it at farmers' markets.
The snap bean is one of the Dirty Dozen Plus crops, as assessed by the Environmental Working Group. This new category refers to crops that continue to be sprayed with organophosphate, a controversial pesticide linked to damage of the nervous system. At the supermarket, buy organic; at the farmers' market or farm stand, ask the grower how the beans are grown and if they're sprayed. (See our veggie rule of thumb, below*.)
The snap bean season is fairly long, extending to early fall, depending where you live. If you know you'll be jonesing for a fresh snap bean “casserole” at Thanksgiving, consider blanching and freezing a batch of beans.
The snap bean is super low in calories, clocking in at 31 calories for one cup of raw beans. It’s a terrific source of fiber and vitamin C (10 and 20 percent of RDA respectively), plus folate, calcium and iron.
What to Look For
No wimps allowed. A snap bean must oblige with a snappy crispness when bent in half. It should be free of blemishes, mold and the pod should be not be hard or drying.
What To Do With It
Snap beans are fairly perishable; they need to be used within two to three days of purchase. Otherwise, boil for 1 to 2 minutes, drain under running cold water, pat dry, then place in a Zip-style bag and freeze.
The snap bean is easy going and likes to play with others. If all you've ever done is boil or steam a bunch of snap beans, try roasting for 8 to 10 minutes at 400 degrees (slathered with olive oil and sprinkled with salt) or stir frying for 3 to 4 minutes until charred. It loves a splash of soy sauce or fresh lemon juice, a sprinkling of chopped mint or basil. It also loves to be tossed in a bowl with walnuts and halved cherry tomatoes. Just last week, I tossed some yellow snap beans with a few tablespoons of basil pesto. Heaven!
Impromptu Snap Bean Salad
1 pound yellow wax beans or other snap beans
1 tablespoon olive oil or unsalted butter
1⁄4 cup walnuts, chopped roughly (almonds are great here too)
1 handful small tomatoes, sliced in half (grape, cherry or sungold varieties are all tasty choices)
A few teaspoons fresh chopped herbs (mint, basil, parsley or oregano would all work great)
- Rinse the beans and trim ends as necessary. Boil in salted water, uncovered, until tender but still firm, about 5 minutes. Taste before removing from pot. Pour beans into a colander and drain well. Cut into 2-inch pieces.
- In a skillet, melt butter or heat olive oil over low-medium heat, add the nuts and coat them with the fat. Add the tomatoes and beans and toss with tongs, about 2 minutes, until tomatoes slightly soften. Pour the salad into a serving bowl and add the herbs. Taste for salt and add accordingly.
Serve warm or at room temperature. You can also squeeze some fresh lemon just before serving.
*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)