Peeling back the layers of influences on my styles of cookery is difficult; while it is true that for the most part, my childhood was filled with typical southern Appalachian farm food, I was also exposed to the culinary wonders of the Mediterranean world early on.
My mother’s best friends when I was very young was Pete, an older man from Greece, and his much younger (and I thought, completely elegant) wife, Claudia. They owned a tiny diner in downtown Charleston where they served typical American diner fare, but they also cooked Greek foods as well. And my first taste of Greek food was a bite of baklava that Claudia gave me while I was sitting on her lap. My next taste was a dolmathe–grape leaf roll, which was popped into my mouth by Pete in a similar circumstance. It got to the point with those two that I was like a little bird–popping my mouth open whenever I sat on one of their laps at the counter of their diner.
And like a baby bird, I was always fed.
My Aunt Nancy, as I mentioned previously in “The Cook Next Door,” also introduced me to the glories of Italian, Syrian and Portuguese foods. She not only cooked delicious foods that I always felt priviledged to eat, but she also took me to the fundraising dinners that the Greek Orthodox Church held annually.
By the time I had my first restaurant job at the age of seventeen, I had already developed a taste for the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
I ended up working however, not at a Greek restaurant, but at a place that was changing its concept from regional Italian to Texas barbeque. Which is a hell of a change, and the clientele didn’t much care for it, either, but it was surmised that the purpose of the place was to lose money to give the owner a tax break. Besides, he owned four other restaurants, all of which were quite successful.
The owner and his wife were a middle-aged Lebanese couple, and while I was always somewhat wary of the owner, his wife, Claudette, was another matter entirely. She was very like my beloved Claudia of childhood–lovely and elegant, funny, sweet-tempered and friendly.
And she liked to cook, besides.
She would come in once a week or so, in the lull between the lunch rush and the madness of dinner, and would “mess around in the kitchen” as she liked to call it. She’d cook the employees wonderful meals, and then would present them self-depricatingly as, “nothing, just something I felt like cooking.”
Though she touted these dishes as “nothing,” my tastebuds told me they were something, and I told her quite earnestly that she shouldn’t bad-mouth her cooking so–it was fantastic. She blushed and shrugged–it turned out that she missed cooking. All of their sons were grown, and so she and her husband ate out every night–usually at one of thier own restaurants–because he thought that now that they had the money, she shouldn’t have to cook again.
What he didn’t seem to understand was that she wanted to cook. And in fact, I think she needed to cook. And when he was out making deals and building a new segement of his empire, she was sneaking off to his restaurants in order to satisfy that need to cook and feed others.
I understood, and I became her co-conspirator in the kitchen. I’d finish my sidework as a waitress quickly, so I could help her in the kitchen instead of sitting around gossipping with the waiters and bartenders.
I remember in particular, a dish of green beans she made one afternoon. It was high summer, and string beans and tomatoes were in season, and she came dashing in the kitchen door laden with parcels from the farmer’s market. She pinned up her hair and tied on an apron, then grabbed me and dragged me behind the line with her, putting a cook’s apron on over my waitress uniform.
“Come, come–we are cooking loobia today,” she said, dumping a grocery bag full of pencil thin Blue Lake bush beans into a strainer. I rinsed them, and at her direction, stringed and snapped the ends off of them, while she peeled and minced garlic, and sliced a pile of onions.
From another bag came plum tomatoes, and a handful of fresh herbs. She directed me to core and cut the tomatoes in half longways and then into chunks, and then to take the leaves of the thyme and rosemary from the stems, and mince them.
All of the prep work was done quite fast, especially with a couple of line cooks helping. They all treated Claudette with deference, not only because she was the owner’s wife, but because she was a lady who also was a wizard in front of the stove. All of the rough sexual horseplay and tough talk vanished when she swept into the kitchen and the most unshaven, swaggering, sexist pigs would smooth their hair, keep their eyes lowered and call her nothing but “Ma’am,” or “Miz Claudette.”
She had me watch closely while she cooked the beans–she heated a lot of olive oil up in a skillet and added the onions, and cooked them until they were a medium golden brown. At that point, she added the garlic and herbs, and cooked them all until the garlic was just turning golden. At that point, she added the green beans, salt and enough water to barely cover them and, keeping the heat on high, let the beans cook until they were tender and a deep velvety green. By this time, most of the water was cooked away, and she added the tomato chunks and a good lashing of black pepper. She let the rest of the water cook out, and the beans and tomatoes cook down until the tomatoes started to fall into a sauce and the green beans released a bit of their own juices.
We ate it hot that day, with some simple rice pilaf, and shredded chicken from the smoker. It was amazingly good, and when I told her so, she answered me, “And you can eat it cold, too. Either way, it is good–when it is hot out, it is really nice straight from the refrigerator.”
Over the years, I have cooked many pansful of Claudette’s loobia, and have made many variations on it. While one can use canned tomatoes in the winter to make the dish, it is best to use fresh tomatoes in season. Roma tomatoes are still preferred for thier ability to fall completely apart in a sauce, but really, any good vine-ripened tomato will taste good with the beans.
I have since created my own version of Claudette’s beans, one in which the beans are cooked until tender-crisp, which is how Zak prefers to eat them. The flavorings are all the same basic idea, however, and while the texture is completely different, I have found that the crispness of the beans really adds to the refreshing quality of them, particularly if they are served cold.
2 pounds fresh string beans, strung, with ends snapped off
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced thinly
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 large sprig fresh thyme, stemmed
2 large sprigs fresh rosemary, stemmed and minced
10-12 fresh cherry tomatoes, halved (I used red cherry and yellow pear tomatoes for color and flavor contrast)
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil (I used Greek columnar basil which has a sharper flavor than regular Italian lettuce leaf basil)
Bring salted water to boil in a large dutch oven or stockpot. Add beans and cook at a boil until they are a brilliant emerald green and are tender crisp. Drain immediately into a colander and rinse in cold tap water to stop cooking. The blanching softens the skin of the beans to allow more flavor to penetrate the beans and cuts down on the amount of olive oil you will need to cook the beans.
Allow beans to become mostly dry–if a few drops of water continue to cling to the beans, don’t worry. You just don’t want them to be soaking wet when you throw them into the pan with the olive oil.
Heat up olive oil in a heavy pan on medium heat. When oil shimmers, add onion and cook until medium golden brown. Add garlic and thyme and rosemary and continue cooking, stirring until garlic is pale gold in color.
Add beans and toss and stir to mix beans completely with flavored olive oil. Allow to cook for about two or three minutes, then add halved tomatoes, and continue tossing and cooking until tomatoes wilt slightly and release some of their juices, the beans are tender crisp and the onions, garlic and herbs cling to the tomatoes and beans. Sprinkle with basil in the last minute of cooking.
You can serve it hot, immediately, or let it cool to room temperature and serve it. Or, you can chill it and serve it as a cold salad.
You can add a great quality feta or goat cheese to this right before taking it off the fire. I prefer Mt. Vikos sheep and goat milk feta. It is, quite simply, the freshest tasting feta I have ever eaten–it has a clean, milky flavor with just the right balance of salt and acid, and the texture is soft–not chalky and harsh like most feta I have had. Adding the cheese can make it an outstanding part of a simple vegetarian meal.
Instead of basil, add chopped fresh mint at the end of cooking.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.