The Green Bean Debacle

Green beans are one of those quintessential Southern foods. Like okra or grits, most around here grew up eating them and love them. With the recent overindulgent, food fantasia, eat-fest that is Thanksgiving, the serving of the classic green bean casserole prompted my sister-in-law to apologize twice for making me have to be in the same room with the thing. She knows I hate green beans. Everyone I know knows that about me, because I make a point of making a scene anytime they are served to me so that no one ever forgets how I feel about them! All in good fun of course, but in using that tact, I’ve been quite successful in training everyone to never place that item on the menu where I’ll be served.

I recently came across this story written several years ago about my aversion to that green legume. I told someone I’d post it, so here it is:

The Green Bean Debacle, by Terri Burney-Bisett

Green beans, string beans, Kentucky wonders; they’re all the same to me, the dreaded green bean.

My mother loved them. In fact, I think everyone in my family ate the things. I learned to hate them. It started with just a dislike for the taste and grew into a psychological battle between mom and me. They appeared on the family dinner menu every week, and the rule in my home was you had to eat everything on your plate. There was no being excused from the table if you hadn’t eaten something. It was different if you’d had a large portion of say potatoes that you liked, and you just couldn’t finish. That was okay. But, if you refused to eat something you’d been served, there was no-way you would be allowed to whisk it into the trash at dinner’s end. You had to eat at least a bite.

And every week that one bite would be served onto my plate. I tried mixing them with other food. I tried eating them first and not prolonging the agony. I tried waiting it out, sitting at the table for an hour after everyone had cleared the table and done the dishes; Just me and my cold green beans. They stuck in my craw, and I would gag and have to force myself to finally swallow the nasty mass.

Understand, this was the 50’s and 60’s when the only thing my mom bought were the canned variety of green beans. Later, as new things became available, she tried the canned “French Cut Green Beans” (cut small like haricot vert, but not at all the same). Frozen green beans made their appearance at the table as well.

Then one day she announced that she had bought fresh green beans, and that I would surely like them. She had me help “snap” and string them. I was game. I wanted to please. But a green bean by any other name is still a green bean. And Mom’s beans were always the same – boiled in water with a little salt, drained, then seasoned with more salt, butter and pepper. I guess that would be nice if you liked them. Didn’t work for me.

By this point the psychological factor of hatred toward anything named “green bean” had kicked into high gear. There was a certain taste that to this day can still trigger a gag reflex in me that is unstoppable.

Mom accused me of over acting.

She refused to give up though. Even into my late teens and college days, whenever a green been was cooked at Mom’s house, that one bite was served onto my plate. Finally, fed up, I vowed that when I left Tara, I would never have to eat another green bean as long as I lived.

I was in my early 30’s when David and I met and we started going together. We spent every evening having dinner that we’d cooked together. After a long while of never being served green beans, he mentioned that he liked green beans and why didn’t I ever cook them? I said it was because I didn’t like them. He said I could cook them for him and I wouldn’t have to eat them. I was game. I wanted to please. But still, in all these 25+ years, anytime I have cooked green beans for David, he has accused me of sabotage.

For someone who knows how to cook, and likes to cook, I for the life of me cannot cook a decent green bean. I even grew some in our garden once just for David. They were attacked by aphids and didn’t produce. David thought I had a hand in that somehow, but really, God did it. Really!


Tamale Time

It’s autumn! That means this San Antonio girl is thinking about the Tamalada – a weekend with family and friends gathered ‘round the table rolling tamales – almost non-stop, except to eat and gossip.

I’m not Hispanic and have no family members that are, and Tamaladas are usually a family event. I knew my probability of being invited to a tamalada was pretty low, so I started teaching myself how to make tamales. That first time I tried rolling tamales was long before the internet (1970′s), so my resources were limited. I was living in an old house on San Antonio Street in San Marcos, Texas. (I know, right? I moved from San Antonio to San Marcos where I lived on San Antonio Street!) On a weekend visit home, I picked up some masa at my favorite tortillaria. I rolled those pork tamales all alone using nothing but the photos in an old Sunset cookbook, titled “Mexican Cooking,” to guide me. My crude little kitchen had a roof leak right over the stove, and, of course, it rained that day.

That first tamale, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite the same flavor profile I remembered from growing up in San Antonio. As time went by, I used chili powder and pork broth to flavor my masa and filled them with a seasoned pork. They were just alright, gringa tamales, i called them; but once I learned to soak dried chilies, puree those, then push ‘em through a sieve to extract the chili paste, I was on my way to a better tamale.

And, silly me, I thought it might be better to use vegetable shortening instead of lard. What was I thinking? I was rolling tamales one day with my friend, Elizabeth, and I ran out of my butter flavored shortening, so I used some of her lard to mix up the next batch of masa. The minute I smelled that masa I knew I’d found the other part of that flavor profile that my tamales were missing.

Being out in the boonies where I live now, I had to drive 20 miles to the big grocery store in San Marcos to buy the lard, chilies, and MaSeca (love that they coined their name from masa seca). It was a stellar moment when someone mentioned a wonderful little Mexican grocery in San Marcos with it’s own carniceria (meat market). I was in hog heaven – literally! They sold quarts of their own lard from the carniceria really cheap, and it was so much better than that box-o-lard Elizabeth and I had been using.

That set me to thinking, why aren’t I making my own lard? Duh, that’s what all those packages of pork trimmings must be for at the big H.E.B. grocery store! I noticed they would start showing up in the case about this time of year. Now I’m rendering the pork myself to make my lard. I even try to buy from local farms that don’t use antibiotics or hormones – whenever I can afford to do that.

The Mexican Market is also a great place to get dried chilies. They’re usually fresher, better priced, and with a larger selection of varieties. Ancho and guajillo are the two I typically use to make chili paste. For me, it’s the quintessential flavor ingredient for all things Tex-Mex. That chili paste is great not only for tamales, but also for enchilada sauce, chili con carne, and soups.

Without an all-knowing abuelita (Mexican grandmother), it took me a while to recreate the “real deal” tamale, but once I mastered it, I didn’t hesitate to clue everyone in on what I knew. I’ve taught my friends, nieces, daughters-in-law, sisters-in-law, and they’ve taught their friends and families. That means I no longer have to roll tamales all alone!

Now’s a good time to put up some supplies in the freezer to have for our Tamalada, which is usually in December, and just to have on hand whenever the need arises. Here’s a basic recipe for the chile paste. It will make about a cup of paste (quantity varies based on size of chilies and the amount of water used). Keep in mind, if making a bunch of tamales, you’ll need a lot more than this recipe, so quadruple the amount a few times to have enough . . . I’m not kidding – you’ll need to at least quadruple this! As you can see in the pictures, I’ve made way more than a single recipe. And the beauty of a Tamalada – everyone brings supplies – like chile paste, lard, corn husks, fillings, Maseca, and Margarita makings!

CHILE PASTE

INGREDIENTS:

5 whole dried ancho peppers, stem and seeds removed
5 whole guajillo chile (or as some stores call it – cascabel) stem and seeds removed
2 cloves garlic, peeled
salt, to taste
1 cup water, or as needed

INSTRUCTIONS:

Chile paste is the essence of many Tex-Mex and Mexican favorites. Experiment with different combinations of chiles or pick just one until you find your favorite. I sometimes make a batch of chipotle paste to add to my pork filling so it has that extra kick my Cajun husband likes!

Cover chiles and garlic with water. Add some salt (1/2 teaspoon to start then add to taste). Bring to a simmer for 10 minutes, then turn off heat and let soak for another 10 or 15 minutes until soft and reconstituted. Puree the chiles and garlic in a blender with just enough of the cooking water to make a thick paste. Press this paste through a sieve to remove those pesky skins. Taste for salt and add a little if needed.

*Chiles can be confusing, because different regions call them by different names, and a chile can be called one name when fresh and have another name for its dried version (as in pablano/ancho or jalapeño/chipotle). The guajillo chile is an elongated chile that has a smooth dark reddish skin. Another name is chile mirasol, but it’s also called cascabel. There is another chile called cascabel that is round in shape. (Cascabel – “jingle” or “rattle” – If you shake the chile, you can hear the seeds rattle inside!) This round chile is not the same as the one called for in this recipe.


Daddy’s Chili

Since I posted the jalapeño escabeche recipe, I thought it only follows to include the venison chili recipe that my Dad use to make. I still have his original recipe in his hand writing on a piece of note paper with chili stains on it.

This is a good, rustic, South Texas chili, but I’m giving you my girly version. You see, Dad’s way, you just add everything to the skillet – whole onion, whole jalapeño, whole anchos – stems, seeds, and all. The skin of the anchos would break up into small, rolled up bits, and all of the seeds from the chiles were in the chili. Growing up, we just ate it that way. Not that that’s such a bad thing, and it takes a tiny bit more effort to do it my way, but you won’t be picking the bits and pieces of skin and seeds out of your teeth for the remainder of the day.

In the absence of venison, I substitute Thunder Heart bison (can be ground) or locally raised beef. I try to avoid store bought meat unless it is raised without hormones or antibiotics, and prefer pasture raised beef. If there is any bit of fat on the cut you’re using, include it as venison and bison are both very lean. That added fat along with the fat in the recipe will give it proper mouth feel. Otherwise, it can be dry and chewy.

The original recipe calls for “a fist size piece of beef suet.” If your cut of meat has no fat, use the full amount of pork fat given in the recipe. If your cut has some fat, then cut back proportionately on the amount of fat given in the recipe. The fat used in the recipe can be trimmed from any cut of pork, even thick bacon, or salt pork. I’ve tried them all, and they all work well.

I’ve always called this Daddy’s Chili, but back in the 90’s when I was printing it off for a friend, I thought he might wince at the name, so I titled it “Dead Man’s Chili.” I knew Dad would like the reference since he’d been gone for 25 years at that time, and it would be a cool name to use if I ever entered a Chili Cook-Off.

DEAD MAN’S CHILI . . . sure to warm you on a Winter’s night

1 cup pork fat, diced (the original recipe calls for “a fist size” piece of beef suet)
2 pounds venison, cut in 1/2″ cubes
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 whole small onion
1 tablespoon paprika
1 whole jalapeno pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon cumin seed

1 1/2 quarts boiling water, divided (1 quart & 2 cups)
5 large, whole, dried ancho peppers, stemmed & seeded

In a large cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, render the diced fat until crisp. Add all the ingredients, except the water and the ancho peppers. Cook until the venison is browned, then add 1 quart of the water. Bring to a low simmer and make the chile paste:

Soak the seeded anchos in the 2 cups of boiling water for about 15 minutes, transfer, liquid and all, to a blender. Puree.

At this point you can add all the pureed chile and liquid to the simmering chili. There will still be a few tiny rolls of chili skin, but much, much smaller than Dad’s version. For me, those just need to be there to make it Daddy’s chili, but you can push that chile pulp through a sieve or food mill to remove the pesky skins if you like. I often have chile paste in the freezer because I use it for enchiladas and other things. In that case, I use about 1 cup (or to taste) in the recipe instead of the whole anchos.

Let all the ingredients simmer together for a couple of hours. Don’t let all the water cook off. Add more if needed (or a little chicken stock), and cook it to the consistency you like.

We usually had this on cheese enchiladas. We never, ever put beans in our chili; beans on the side maybe, but not ever in the chili. But you can do whatever you like.


In a Pickle

I like my jalapeños pickled.

My family often made Mexican food on Sunday nights. Especially during hunting season, because if Dad got a deer, he’d always make his venison chili that we would put on top of Mom’s cheese enchiladas. Us kids got to make the nachos. Right after learning how to scramble eggs, nachos were the first thing I learned how to put together.

It was the 1950′s. The only store-bought chips available were Fritos, but we lived in San Antonio, so dad would go down to the Mexican restaurant on San Pedro just a few blocks from our house and purchase fresh made tostadas. We’d lay them out on a cookie sheet, top them with slices of cheese, then top each one with a piece of pickled jalapeño. There was always a jar of pickled jalapeños in the fridge at our house. Hence my affinity for:

JALAPEÑOS ESCABECHE
Yield: 1 Pint Jar

oil, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan, about 2 teaspoons
1 small yellow onion, sliced into rings
6 large jalapeños, sliced, see *Notes
1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup vinegar, see *Notes
1 teaspoon salt, to taste

In a non-reactive (see *Notes) 10-inch saute pan, heat the oil then saute the onion and jalapeños over medium heat, turning occasionally for 1 or 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one more minute.

Add the water, vinegar, and salt. Increase the heat to bring it to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer about 5 minutes, stirring and turning the jalapeños occasionally.

Pack everything, including the liquid into a clean 1-pint jar. Let cool, then store in the refrigerator. Give it a day to develop flavor before using. The jars look really pretty if you can add one or two red jalapeños.

*NOTES:
The jalapeños can be sliced any way you like. I prefer seeding them first so they can be added right in to whatever I’m making.
FOR LONG, THICK SLICES: This is easiest – Slice off the stem end, then slice slabs by cutting down the side, from stem end to tip leaving the pith and seeds behind. From there, they can be chopped or sliced into thinner strips.
TO SEED THE JALAPENOS BUT KEEP THEM WHOLE: Slice off the stem and open the jalapeño by slicing down one side. Then, using a knife with a narrow tip, cut around the inside of the pepper to loosen the pith that holds the seeds, being careful not to break the chile open. Pull out the pith and shake out or rinse out any seeds.

THE VINEGAR used is important because it will flavor the finished product. I prefer a non-seasoned rice wine vinegar for its mild flavor and acidity. I sometimes mix that with some white wine vinegar. If the vinegar you have is harsh, a little bit of sugar, even just a pinch or a teaspoon, will help balance it and tone it down.

NON-REACTIVE PAN – A pan made of a material that will not react with the vinegar in this recipe. Stainless steel, enameled pans like LeCreuset (as long as there are no scratches/chips in the enamel), glass, and non-stick are all non-reactive. Copper and cast iron will react with vinegar and can give the food a metallic taste.
Jalapeños Escabeche