Who wants some green bean casserole?

Is there anything good about green bean casserole? Not much beyond its association with Thanksgiving, so Katherine will be brief and just keep you company in the kitchen in case you are stuck assembling said casserole.

Since this year is the International Year of Pulses, we have been focusing on legumes, whether they count as pulses or not. Green beans do not count as pulses, but only because they are eaten as tender and fresh immature whole fruits. The very same species (Phaseolus vulgaris), when allowed to mature, could yield black beans, white beans, kidney beans, or pinto beans depending on their variety – dry seeds that are perfectly good examples of pulses.

This Thanksgiving week we are going to welcome green beans into the fold and give them a special place. It’s too bad that Thanksgiving so often presents them out of the can, overcooked, with funky flavors, and buried in a casserole. Even Wikipedia promotes this peculiar tradition : “A dish with green beans popular throughout the United States, particularly at Thanksgiving, is green bean casserole, which consists of green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and French fried onions.”

And once again, international observers ask themselves what on earth are Americans thinking? That cannot be good for them. But in the American spirit of inclusivity we invite green beans of all sorts to our tables and try to learn something from them. So if you are preparing green beans this week, take heart, take up your knives, and take a closer look.

The outside of the bean

If your beans have already been trimmed and packaged or will be sliding their way out of a can, you can skip ahead to the next step. If you are making fresh beans, though, then you have much to be thankful for, not the least of which is the bunch of flowers before you.

Fresh green beans still carry bits of the flowers that they outgrew

Fresh green beans still carry bits of the flowers that they outgrew

The end of the bean you normally discard – the stem end – still has tiny remnants of the flower that bore the bean fruit. Look closely and you can usually see a pair of tiny little wing-like sepals, the outermost whorl of flower parts. On very fresh beans, there is often a little bit of membranous stuff just right near the sepals, and this is of course what’s left of the petals.

While the stem end carries the floral bits, it is tough and should be removed. Some people insist on removing the opposite end as well because it instinctively makes them uncomfortable. That curved tapering end is the elongated stigma and style where pollen grains landed and grew down into the ovary, carrying sperm cells and stimulating fruit development. It is very soft and I always leave it on, but the more squeamish among us may in fact want to remove any whiff of plant sex from their Thanksgiving tables.

The inside of the bean

Even pre-cut and canned beans are good for dissections and anatomy demonstrations

Even pre-cut and canned beans are good for dissections and anatomy demonstrations

Whether your beans are fresh, pre-trimmed, or canned, you can appreciate the inside of a green bean. Open it up carefully and you will see immature seeds inside, clinging to the inside of the bean fruit. The connecting structure, much like an umbilical cord, is a funiculus, which connects the developing seed to the placental tissue lining the fruit. On a mature dried bean, the scar from the funiculus is visible as a little eye on the concave side of the seed.

Alternative recipes

The traditional green bean casserole calls for cooking the beans in a matrix of cream of mushroom soup and topping them with French fried onions. It is possible to get all of these ingredients from a can, making it a cheap and fast dish. If you are fortunate enough, though, to have tender fresh beans on hand, you can serve them very simply with a bit of browned butter on top. Herbs and chopped almonds make them fancy. And for traditionalists, canned French fried onions do lend a nice fatty crunch to balance the freshness of the beans.

Jeanne and I have lots of other Thanksgiving themed posts here. Have a great holiday!

7 thoughts on “Who wants some green bean casserole?

  1. Pingback: Who wants some green bean casserole? | The Adventures of a Christian Bookworm

  2. Pingback: Thanksgiving Reader 2016 – Food and Farm Discussion Lab

  3. mworden

    anything good about green bean casserole? Not much

    not much?

    Beans are great. In any form as long as they aren’t overcooked.


    1. Jeanne L. D. Osnas

      I would generally agree with you, but I do really like green beans braised for a long time with onion and tomato (I like collard greens this way, too). Maybe it’s the acid from the tomato (and lemon, if you add it) that helps remove or mask some of the unpleasantness of a long-cooked green bean, kind of like pickling, which is another way I like longish-cooked green beans. I guess I wouldn’t subject very tender, young beans to this treatment, but it’s great for older, tougher, larger beans.


    2. katherineapreston Post author

      I love beans too, and I completely agree! In my experience, though, their flavor does not shine through the canned soup and onions piled on top of them in the casserole. Plus, if the beans themselves are canned, they can have an overcooked flavor. I am spoiled, though. I eat little haricots pretty much every single night from May through early December or as long as they are available from my favorite vendor at the farmer’s market. Borba Farms, in Aromas CA, is the source of these magical little beans.


  4. Pingback: Closing out the International Year of Pulses with Wishes for Whirled Peas (and a tour of edible legume diversity) | The Botanist in the Kitchen

  5. Pingback: Chasing pickled peaches | The Botanist in the Kitchen

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