Snap beans, green beans, string beans and wax beans all refer to the same vegetable: Phaseolus vulgaris. I find the name green beans limiting, since the pods also come in beautiful dark purple and wax beans are yellow. Hence, I prefer to call them snap beans, a name that refers to the sound made by a freshly harvested pod when bent. The Italian name is fagiolini, literally "small beans."
Green beans get their color from chlorophyll but yellow wax beans have been bred to have none of this pigment. As is the case with other vegetables, plant pigments called anthocyanins give beans their purple skin. The pretty color fades to green during the cooking process.
When purchasing seeds or seedlings, an important characteristic of snap bean varieties is whether they are bush or pole beans. If the plants need support to grow, they are classified as pole beans, while if they can grow without added support, they are classified as bush beans.
Green, purple or yellow, the pods of snap beans are harvested when young, fleshy and tender (and the seeds inside are small and underdeveloped). They are one on my favorite summer vegetables. This has been the case since I was a child, when the list of vegetables I enjoyed eating was quite short. The task of trimming the pods prior to cooking was usually assigned to me. The important part of this process was the removal of the string along the seam — that is no longer necessary nowadays as modern varieties are string-less.
Snap beans are also connected to my first vacation away from my family, when I was 16 years old. I spent a fortnight with a friend in her hometown of Rossano, in the southern Italian region of Calabria. Many of the foods I ate were either new or prepared differently from the way my mother prepared them. The latter group included snap beans, which my friend's mother boiled and dressed like a salad, not unlike my mother, but with the addition of red onion from the Calabrian town of Tropea.
I had never eaten a raw onion before, so the juicy, sweet rossa di Tropea was a revelation. There are two varieties of Tropea onion, round and elongated. The latter is known (and grown) in the U.S. as torpedo onion.
Here is that seminal salad revisited to add ingredients that bring additional flavor: mustard, black pepper and dried cherries. The last is optional but quite good.
Green Bean and Torpedo Onion Salad
Serves 3-4 as a side dish.
1 pound snap beans (any variety), preferably organic
1 ½ tablespoons chopped dried cherries (unsweetened), optional
2 tablespoons finely sliced and chopped red torpedo onion, red spring onion or shallots
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon mustard, whole-grain or stone-ground
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the beans then trim them: snap off the very end of each bean (where it attaches to the plant) with your fingers or snip it off with a knife. (Lining up a bunch of beans before applying the knife will speed up the process.)
Steam the beans approximately 5 minutes until tender to your liking — the time depends also on the thickness of the beans, so test them.
Cool the beans in a bath of ice water. Drain the beans and place them in a salad bowl to cool thoroughly.
Place the cherries in a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon of lukewarm water. Stir and let sit before stirring again 15 minutes later. Set aside until ready to use.
Cut the beans into bite-sized pieces approximately 2 inches long. Add the onion and toss. Put the rest of the ingredients, except the cherries, into a small glass jar. Screw on the lid tightly and shake well. Distribute on the salad and toss gently. Sprinkle on the cherries, if using, then toss again. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking, then serve.
Simona Carini (she/her) also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com.