Beans: Adding nitrogen in your garden, options in your marriage

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Crescent Dragonwagon. Now there's a name you won’t forget.

Her food is pretty unforgettable too. Dragonwagon, the author of Bean by Bean, makes a point in her book that the bean is the most democratic of food. A world of people eat beans, no matter where they live and who they are. And for gardeners, beans are practically magical.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Why are beans magic for gardeners?

Crescent Dragonwagon
Crescent Dragonwagon (Photo: Walter Fogg/Brattleboro Food Co-Op)

Crescent Dragonwagon: Magic and beans go way back to Jack and the Beanstalk. Beans are one of the only plants -- I used to say the only plant, but I just read about a tree in Africa -- that give back to the soil. In other words, when you raise them, they don’t deplete the soil of nutrients during their growing phase. They actually give back; they enrich the soil by adding nitrogen.

They are also beautiful and magical in that they germinate quickly. What is the first thing that a child grows in a paper cup in kindergarten? A bean! Because it sprouts big, fast and dramatic. You see it. And that says nothing about their fecundity, their variety, the ways that you can cook with them. That’s just a few of the things that I find magical about them.

LRK: There are lot of bean books out there, but I’ve seen very few that have talked so much about green beans. What do you do with green beans?

CD: Green bean: green meaning not only green the color, but green as in immature or young. So, a green bean is a fresh or immature bean. Although we say green, a green bean may be yellow or it may be a yellow wax bean. They can also be purple; there is a beautiful purple one called violetta and another one called trifecta. The sad thing about those beautiful purple green beans is that when you bring the water to a boil and drop the purple green beans in, you can stand over the pot and watch them turn back to green as they cook.

LRK: You hope that they are going to be purple in the final stages, and they turn green. What are some of the things that you do with those green beans?

CD: I lived in the South for a long time, and although there are some recipes that I still like to use tender and crisp green beans for -- you know various stir-fries -- I have really fallen in love with slow-cooked, meltingly tender, green beans.

[Crescent Dragonwagon's recipe for Greek-Style Green Beans]

One of my very favorites is to skim a nice, heavy, cast-iron skillet with olive oil, and have the skillet cold, not hot. Scatter a couple of tablespoons of chopped, not crushed, garlic over that. Pack tipped-and-tailed green beans on top of that, dice up a tomato and sprinkle that over the top. Cover it. Turn the heat on very, very, very low -- as low as you can get it -- and then just kind of forget about it. Maybe check it 45 minutes later; if there is a lot of liquid, leave the lid off and raise the heat very slightly, but you might even need to leave it there longer. You want the beans to get meltingly tender. At no point does the garlic burn, but after a while, the beans kind of caramelize in this garlic and olive oil and tomato -- if we wanted to be fancy, we could say confit -- jam of their own juices. Forty-five minutes is the minimum; you might even do 1 hour or 1 hour and 15 minutes. At the end, they don’t look very pretty; they look a little shriveled with brown on the edges. I season some of them at the end with a little coarse salt, black pepper, dried dill (fresh dill is too dominant a flavor), and the kicker: a few shakes of cayenne. You very gently turn it so you don’t break those beans up.

They are so good. Once, I served them and a man made me a proposal of marriage on the basis of my green beans.

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