Back in the 70s, the nouveau riche parents of Yugoslavia suddenly could afford large quantities of animal protein and children gorged on meat at every meal. Remembering the scarcity of their childhood and youth, our immediate ancestors showed their love for their progeny by grilling, braising, curing, and roasting big chunks of pork, beef, or lamb, depending on the local dietary preferences and availability.
In the process, vegetables suffered. They were pushed away from the leading roll and given only an occasional cameo appearance, with the mighty potato holding the flanks. The exceptions were tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage which continued to be exalted, served raw in season, brined, pickled, and canned for the winter.
Carrots were sold in tight bundles with parsnips, parsley, and celery root, destined to end up as aromatics, softly boiled in soup with a charred onion and a hefty hen. Peas had their fortnight of celebrity shows in spring, starring every day, until everybody tired of them, and they retreated to freezers, awaiting spring cravings during the gray days of November. Zucchini were everywhere for a month, loved for a very short time and them shunned, pawned off on the city-dwelling relatives, forgotten in the fields on purpose, left to rot despised and devalued. Spinach and cauliflower rarely graced the dinner tables, and if they did, they were hidden behind slabs of meat, cowering in a measly pile next to the mountain of golden, glistening roasted potatoes.
String beans came in various shapes and colors, from pencil thin, green ones, to yellow, buttery wide ones, to purple-striated and flat ones. Simmered with onions and carrots in a tomato broth, they were the the summer favorites of mothers, and clandestinely hated by most children, including my sister, who could not find anything endearing about beans and spent hours finishing their servings, moving the individual pieces around hoping they would disintegrate from constant prodding. Mother was creative with beans, as usual, and cooked them in various ways. I was pretty indifferent to any of string beans’ incarnations, choosing to bestow all my loathing to the odious potato soup with smoked pork.
As adults we have moved on from irrational dislikes of food, enabled to laugh about our past by the luxury of nicely developed and indulgent palates. In the summer time I still prepare the beans the way Mother had taught me, especially treasuring the rare Romano beans available only at the Farmers’ Market. Serbs prefer their meat completely done, and their vegetables soft and yielding. But I have learned to recognize that specific taste that comes forth only when the beans are swiftly blanched, drained, and swirled around in hot oil or butter, enhanced by toasted almonds, minced garlic, scallions, or tomatoes, and finished with a sprinkle of sea salt. Father gave me a nod of approval recently when I served the emerald-colored haricot verts as a side dish, not elevating them above Mother’s recipe, but acknowledging their excellence nevertheless.
The last bastion of string bean haters was my oldest, College Kritter. When she was here for winter break, she grudgingly admitted that she had started eating the beans in small quantities, and on rare occasions (At this point I am extremely optimistic: lamb – check; cabbage in salads – check; mushrooms – check; green beans – check. She has only to conquer peas and Brussels sprouts). If she had not crossed over from the dark side already, the green beans with pancetta that I made last night would have definitely won her over.
This was another one of Dorie Greenspan’s recipes form the book Around My French Table. I served them with Chicken Francese and Aioli pasta. The chicken was beautifully seasoned, touched by a sauce made velvety by lemon juice and white wine simmered with garlic and chicken stock. Farfalle were lightly coated with freshly made aioli, mirroring the lemon and garlic from the sauce. But the Green Beans with Pancetta stole the show. The beans were cooked perfectly, crunchy and spackled with sea salt, still verdant, but not grassy. The pancetta was crispy and salty, its aftertaste bringing out the best attributes pork has to offer.
Preparing this dish was like an afterthought. Each ingredient was showcased and brought to perfection in its simplicity. And even though pancetta is fairly expensive, the two ounces necessary for the recipe were barely noticeable on our extremely frugal wallet. The Beasties concluded that pancetta is the same as bacon, and polished off every speck on their plates.
Looking at my girls embracing green beans without a second thought made me think that the French might have a right approach: everything tastes better with crunchy lardons. If a handful of crispy pork cracklings left over from rendering lard had ended up on top of a modest pile of green vegetables, some naive friend of mine back in the 70s might have actually enjoyed his allotted dose of vitamins.
There are some wonderful people who participate in French Fridays with Dorie and I am so happy to be a part of that group.