Awesome Green Bean Festival

The concept behind this strange culinary adventure was born during the January iteration of the Rat Pack's monthly Thursday night outing to Sullivan's steak house. While perusing the menu over an early round of martinis, one of our party, perhaps a bit weary of the standard creamed spinach and horseradish mashed potatoes, asked our waitress, Melinda, for her asessment of the green beans. Her unflinching reply is indissolubly recorded in the Rat Pack archives: "The green beans," Melinda bubbled, "are awesome."

Of course, we were all more or less familiar with this nonstandard usage -- intended, as I understand it, to mean "possessing some unspecified positive quality." Nonetheless, the very idea of an awesome green bean was intriguing. For me, it revived a distant memory of a Thanksgiving dinner in the mountains of West Virginia, where I enjoyed an intensely flavorful pot of beans cooked slowly in bacon fat, a treatment to which the tough variety indigenous to that region lends itself especially well. Reed, meanwhile, was reminded of a spicy Schechuan rendition that he had once encountered during his travels, and Bevier's thoughts turned to Chicago's Greektown. Naturally, after a session of swapping stories along these lines over another round of martinis, our reaction to the rather ordinary plate of beans that Melinda finally delivered from the kitchen was something less than awe.

The entire incident could easily have been lost forever, like so many other drunken Thursday night discussions, if not for Tim's proposal to host a gathering to which each us who were in attendance that evening would be invited to contribute a dish of green beans of his own creation, with Melinda's hyperbole serving as inspiration. Thanks to Tim's vision and persistence, the event finally took place at his home on the evening of February 23. He and Teri provided wine, hors d'oeuvre, and rack of lamb, Susan made a nice assortment of chocolate truffles for dessert, and the rest of us did our best to meet Tim's lofty expectations, as expressed in the title displayed above. With a nod to Melinda, our recipes are collected below for public enjoyment.

Aztec Green Bean Salad (Reed)

Cook some green beans and slice into about 1-in. lengths. Combine with some avocados, cut into 1-in. arcs, chopped tomatoes, chopped onion, and minced chiles (Serranos and/or Jalapenos) to taste -- I prefer plenty of chiles, and they lose some kick so add more to compensate. Throw in a bunch of chopped cilantro -- more than you think.

Mix with a vinagrette of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and lime juice (approximate ratios: 5:2:1). Note that oil and vinegar are Hispanic additions.

Lebanese Green Beans with Lamb (Russinoff)

I use lamb shoulder chops for this, so that I can use the bones to make a stock for braising the beans. Starting with about 1 1/2 lb. of chops, remove the meat from bones and chop (do not grind) the meat . Cover the bones in a small pot with 2 cups water, add a bouquet garni, and reduce slowly to 1 cup of stock.

Melt 1/2 stick of butter in a sauté pan, add a large onion, chopped, and the chopped meat, and cook over medium heat. Trim 1 lb. green beans and add to the pan with the reserved stock, along with 1 tbsp. salt, 1 tbsp. ground black pepper, and 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more water as necessary.

Salade Niçoise (Russinoff)

This is one of those classic recipes that call for canned tuna, all of which are improved immeasurably by using grilled fresh tuna instead.

Make a vinagrette with good olive oil, white wine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. Coat a 1-lb. tuna steak, sear over charcoal, and slice thin.

Trim and steam 1 lb. green beans; boil and slice 1/2 lb. small new potatoes; slice 1/2 lb. small roma tomatoes; mince a bunch of scallions and a bunch of basil. Some oregano couldn't hurt. Toss the vegetables, herbs, and tuna with the vinagrette and arrange on a platter.

Cover with 1/2 cup nicoise olives, 1/4 cup capers, and as many anchovy filets as your wife will allow. Line the platter with quartered hard-boiled eggs.

Braised Green Beans (Bevier)

I remember eating something close to this many times at The Parthenon on Halsted Street in Chicago. The essential ingredients are a large onion, 3 or 4 roma tomatoes, as much garlic as you like, 1 lb. of green beans, tomato paste, olive oil, and some seasonings.

Slice the onion and garlic. Peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes. Trim the stems off the green beans.

Boil a pot of salted water. Cook the green beans until barely tender.

Sauté the onions in some olive oil. Once the onions have browned, deglaze the bottom of the pan with a little white wine if any crust has formed. Throw in the tomatoes, 1 tbsp tomato paste, and most of the garlic. Season with salt and pepper. A hint of cinnamon doesn't hurt. Cook this mixture down until the tomatoes have softened.

Add the green beans to the tomato mixture. Add enough liquid to allow the beans to finish cooking. Use water, chicken broth or white wine. Maybe some of each.

Now's the time to add more garlic if you want. Perhaps a splash of balsamic vinegar. Maybe some chopped parsley. A little more olive oil? Cook until the beans are soft and the tomatoes are not watery.

No doubt The Parthenon's beans sat around for a while before they showed up on my plate. I remember them as being well-done and oily. If this appeals to you, go for it. Cook the hell out of the beans. Add as much olive oil as you can stand.