Sunday, August 9, 2009

Schnippel Beans

Most kinds of beans that are commonly eaten when their pods are still unripe or ‘green’ are thought to have originated in the tropical and subtropical latitudes of the Americas. You can find the modern varieties of green bush beans in my Mid-American garden every summer and on some hot and humid August days it feels like the subtropics.

Growing up Mom and I planted, weeded, picked, tipped and tailed, blanched, and served green beans fresh or froze the extra. I love their fresh crunch and sweet green flavor raw or lightly steamed. My dad preferred his beans cooked with bacon, or smothered in sauce, or in salad with vinegar dressing. I recall one summer dinner that included green beans. My Dad, his face, forearms, and hands burnished by the summer sun, was gathering a fork full of green bean salad from his dinner plate.
Addressing my Mom with a wistful tone to his German accent he announced,

“My Mom used to schnippel (meaning to cut) beans in long thin strips. She used to do big pots full. Why don’t you fix beans like that?”

My Mom gave him ‘the look’. ‘The look’ is only understood by women who have had to listen to their husbands explaining a dish their mother prepared when they were growing up. If it was a particular favorite some of us go to the trouble of getting the recipe from our mother-in-law but in my Mom’s case it was too late, my grandmother Emma had passed away and taken the secret of how to schnippel beans with her.

As far as I can tell Grandma Emma spent her life growing and preparing food. I use the same garden that she did and I imagine I could be walking in her footsteps as I pick green beans. Her kitchen was in the basement of the farm house in which I live now. She cooked on a wood fired stove and served meals on a big walnut table. I still use some of her kitchen tools; her flour sifter is one of my favorites. She used a dark alcove in the basement to store her canned goods. When I was a girl I remember my Mom pointing out a dusty quart jar on one of the shelves in that alcove. It was packed full of French cut green beans and it had a paper label dated 1952, the year before Grandma Emma died. My mom marveled at how thin and uniformly the beans were cut and how well preserved they were considering the jar was at least fifteen years old.

“I’m afraid to open the jar to throw out the beans. I don’t know what sort of ‘bugs’ are growing in there after all these years.” Mom said turning off the light in the basement.

Almost forty years after Grandma Emma canned that jar of beans I found myself back in the same basement cleaning up in preparation for new furnace ducts. I was standing on a step stool when I noticed that something was stuck between an old duct and the first floor joists above my head. I reached up and pulled down an odd sort of wooden box. It was a narrow rectangular shape with a handle attached to a wheel on one side and two narrow tin tubes set into the opposite side.

It had four “feet” on the bottom that extended like sled runners. I took it outside to brush away the dirt and cobwebs and noticed that there were three razor blade-like insertions in the wheel that was attached to the handle.

My only thought was that I had found some sort of antique food processor. I took the gadget to the kitchen and set it on the counter then continued with the basement clean up. But I couldn’t stop trying to figure out for what purpose that contraption was once used.

It was about three hours later when I was steaming green beans for dinner that it hit me. It was Grandma Emma’s green bean slicer! The two tubes would have consistently fed green beans into the blades—now hopelessly rusty—at the perfect angle to turn out the slices I saw in that jar when I was a girl. I had solved the mystery of how Grandma Emma schnippeled all those beans. But even if I could have figured out a way to sharpen the blades it was too late to prepare a dish of schnippeled beans for my Dad because he had passed away a few years earlier.

This is my favorite green bean salad recipe. I think my Dad would have liked it in spite of the fact that the beans aren’t schnippeled.

Four Bean Salad

1 pound fresh green beans, tipped, tailed, and blanched

1 small white or red onion, chopped

¾ cup Edamame, (green soybeans) thawed if using frozen

¾ cup canned black beans, rinsed

¾ cup canned Garbanzo beans, rinsed

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

½ teaspoon salt

Fresh ground pepper to taste

Put all the beans and the onion in a large bowl. In a small bowl whisk the salt and pepper into the vinegar then whisk in the olive oil. Pour the oil and vinegar over the beans and toss to combine. Serve now or store in the refrigerator up to two days.

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