Tuesday, May 18, 2010


When I was growing up, my exposure to different kinds of vegetables was, shall we say, severely limited. We subsisted on the same parade of veggies: canned corn, canned green beans, raw carrot sticks, a frozen veggie mix that included lima beans (much to the dismay of my siblings and me), and occasionally lettuce in the rare form of a salad or on a sandwich. Now, don’t get me wrong. I had tried many different vegetables: Stringy celery with peanut butter, a dull-colored, limp, steamed broccoli, frozen corn on the cob that had been drowned in a bath of butter. One time my mom made steamed zucchini. It was limp and waterlogged and it kind of tasted like earwax. She actually didn’t make us finish that.
I tried canned spinach that my grandpa made, and carrots that had been cooked with honey and raisins. By this point, I had pretty much decided that I liked vegetables: Canned corn and canned green beans. Just about everything else I had tasted was bland and overcooked or smothered in something I didn’t like.
When I was five or six, I would get the salad bar when my family went to Sizzler. My parents thought it was hilarious. I really like salad. We never seemed to have it at home and I thought the wonderful buffet of bacon flavored bits, canned pineapple, black olives and cut up ham pieces was divine. It was a delightful experience to create your own masterpiece. When I became a teenager I started cooking meals for the family once every week or two. I really enjoyed it. I remember my first: mom’s turkey meatloaf, baked potatoes and salad.
My mom had always taught me that every meal needs vegetables to balance out the plate. She would buy flats of canned corn or green beans from Costco so those were the usual accompaniment to a meal. That or the very rare salad. I actually preferred salad, and if I was the one cooking I would load it with tomatoes, carrot shreds, olives and shredded cheese.
As I came into my teen years I enjoyed cooking more and more. My cream cheese pumpkin roll became a staple at church potlucks and I began to bake lemon meringue pies, pumpkin pies (from actual pumpkins that I cooked), pumpkin bread and an orange meringue pie that was my own creation. I began experimenting with foods more and more and making up my own recipes for things.
It was at this crucial point that I discovered an intense pleasure overwhelmed me when I went to the store and saw the produce aisle. There were so many things I had never tried and, to me, looking at the stunning rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables was like looking at the myriad of colors offered at an art supply store. My mind went so many places at once.
I loved loading those lightweight plastic bags with tomatoes, lemons, oranges and other similar fare. I didn’t venture too far, I was a little intimidated by things I wasn’t familiar with, and I had no idea how to cook any vegetable from its fresh state. I didn’t really progress much farther in my cooking experimentation until I got married. At just twenty we settled down into our little nest and different vegetables started making their way onto our table.
I think we had two different kinds of vegetables in addition to salad the first time we had my parents over for dinner. I started with a bamboo steamer that was given to me as a wedding gift and loaded it with vegetables. I simply dressed broccoli and carrots with salt and pepper and actually enjoyed eating them. My husband is a great sport and even though he declared he wasn’t very fond of vegetables, he soon began finishing his servings and asking for more.
My next big task was green beans. I remembered eating Thanksgiving dinner with friends and a woman had cooked who was a food editor for Sunset magazine. She made these green beans that had bacon and red onions in them and they were out of this world. I decided that I was going to make green beans that rivaled my memory of hers.

I tried a few different things, and, honestly, they were good to start with. Sautéed in bacon grease and braised in chicken stock, they were garlicky, still a little crunchy and absolutely delicious. How could I go wrong? I have made many variations and they have all been a hit with my family. I have to admit, I am a little leery of straying too far because, let’s face it, how could they get much better?
I have added several other vegetable recipes to my repertoire, some that were bestowed by somebody’s grandma (like Parsley carrots-so easy but out of this world!) and some that were discovered in magazines and cook books.
Whenever spring’s first offerings begin making their way to the produce aisle I get giddy with an excitement that is usually reserved for children around Christmas time. When I look at the gleaming plethora of fresh, perfectly ripe vegetables, I fantasize about new recipes and different combinations. I can’t wait to rush home and make roasted asparagus with tomatoes and bacon, my special green beans or simple new potatoes with butter. In the summer, fresh corn with lime, butter and cayenne pepper finds its way to our table almost once a week and my freezer begins to fill with fresh picked blackberries and strawberries, awaiting their transformation into jewel-toned jams or pancake toppings.
In summer, the Famer’s Market comes to our city and California’s Central Valley offers a stunning array of vegetables, fruits and nuts that are grown within this area of our state. Perusing the fresh zucchini, yellow summer squash, huge bunches of fragrant basil, rosy red tomatoes, crisp green beans, red and yellow onions, and heady garlic, I want to buy bunches of everything. This is the time of year I make pesto, and freeze it for later use. There are also tantalizing pickles of all kinds, roasted and flavored nuts, honeys, preserves and dressings that inspire and delight.
Even in late September, when the first, bright orange pumpkins, sweet butternut squash and garnet yams make the scene, to announce that autumn is truly here, regardless of what the calendar says, my mind runs wild thinking of soups, breads, desserts and muffins.
My fridge and freezers fill up with cooked pumpkin, shredded zucchini and butternut squash, and my fridge holds a store of broccoli, the years last asparagus and of course carrots, celery and green beans. Different lettuces crowd my produce drawer and tomatoes, apples and citrus sit in bowls on the counter and there is a special section of my kitchen for red potatoes, russet potatoes and onions.
One place stays free of vegetables, though.
My pantry.

Green Beans with Bacon

Serves 4

I TBS Bacon Grease

2 Slices Bacon

1 lb. green beans, trimmed and cleaned

¼ cup finely chopped shallot (or red onion)

2 cloves of garlic, minced

½ cup chicken stock, homemade preferred

1 tsp freshly ground coarse black pepper

Salt to taste

Melt bacon grease in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan over medium high heat. Cook bacon pieces until crispy. Remove from pan, reserve. Add green beans, shallot and garlic, tossing to coat with bacon grease and brown lightly on all sides. Raise heat to high. Just as the beans begin to darken, add chicken stock and immediately cover. Continue cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed, around five minutes. While the beans are cooking, chop the bacon into small pieces, reserve. Removed lid, toss beans in remaining liquid, add the bacon, black pepper, and salt to taste. Continue tossing until there is about two tablespoons of liquid left in the bottom of the pan. Serve immediately.

Variations: Add 5 oz. chopped mushrooms when you raise the heat to high

Add a half a chopped tomato after the beans have finished cooking (adds beautiful color!)

Drizzle a little balsamic vinegar at the end for a zesty flavor

Add ¼ cup orange or lemon juice with the chicken stock and reduce the chicken stock to ¼ cup. Add the finely grated zest of the fruit at the end and a ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes

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