Pole Beans and Childhood Memories

The unseasonably warm weather tricks us into thinking that summer will never end and fall isn’t just around the corner, but the farmer’s markets quickly remind us that we’ll be saying “goodbye” soon to the late summer tomatoes, peppers, green beans and corn and “hello” to apples, pears, pumpkins and winter squashes. I woke up this morning to a lot less humidity and just enough of a chill in the air to get excited. Yes! Thank goodness for the seasons. At the end of winter I crave salads, grilled foods and cold fruity drinks, but by the end of summer I start to crave soups, stews, stick-to-your-ribs meals and warm mugs filled with hot spiced cider.

I went to my neighborhood farmer’s market this morning looking for not only inspiration, but produce to confirm the fact that fall is upon us. I was immediately struck by the tables filled with colorful tomatoes and peppers, but fewer and fewer bushels of corn and, definitely, no melons. Generally, the newest seasonal item is plentiful, piled high and displayed front and center on big wooden tables, so the shoppers can grab bagfuls from all sides.

Today, one of the big wooden tables before me held piles of memories—memories of my grandmother sitting in a lawn chair on the porch with one bowl on a table to her right, another between her knees and a brown paper bag on the ground. The bowl to her right held long, crisp, flat beans that looked like they were filled with peas too big to swallow, and the bowl between her knees held the beans that had been snipped at the end and broken into 1- to 2-inch pieces. The bag on the floor was just for the strings and the tips she broke off. I can still hear the snap of the beans as her fingers worked quickly through the pile. At the market, these beans were referred to as Italian beans, but you may know them as pole beans. As a little girl, I thought these beans came from Catalpa trees, also known as “Cigar trees.”

So now I have my inspiration—Italian/pole beans. I also bought sweet Italian peppers, tomatoes, garlic and basil to pair with them. I’m going to make a flavorful chicken stock with smoked pork, onions, garlic, vinegar and chili flakes. The stock is just as important as the beans. Let this cook for at least 40 minutes. If you don’t eat pork, you can easily substitute the pork for smoked turkey, and vegetarians can take the meat out all together. An important tip for cooking pole beans is to really cook them. These beans are tougher and more fibrous than string beans and haricot verts. Simply blanching them and tossing them in butter or oil will result in a mouthful of strings, and chewing until the cows come home. I would say they need at least 45 minutes to an hour in the pot, or until they are tender. I used a pressure cooker to cut the time in half. Growing up, my grandmothers served these beauties with onions, bacon and potatoes. Today I’m going to make a ragu of the peppers and tomatoes and serve it over the beans. I can’t wait. This would be quite yummy with rice, as well.

As you can see, inspiration can come from anywhere and strike at any time. It starts in one direction and a name or word can quickly take over. Just remember, there are no mistakes. You are creating new memories from your old ones.

Until next time … cook with love.

Carla Hall was a finalist on Top Chef: Season 5 and runs Alchemy Caterers in Washington, D.C.

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