Recipe: String Beans with Pancetta and Lemon Breadcrumbs
Have you ever noticed how awful supermarket string beans are? What kind of question is that, you’re probably asking yourself, since they’re usually so obviously dry, bitter, woody, faded, and starched over? But somehow I got used to them. That’s really sad. I needed the Greenmarket to refresh my memory, reminding me how lovely these vegetables can be in July, when they’re fresh picked and piled up high, dark green, crisp, moist, and gorgeous. They’re an entirely different creature. Unbelievable. With all the boring and now somewhat embarrassing talk from food types about eating seasonally and locally, this is one time it’s so apparent the difference is startling. The vegetable isn’t dreary. It’s exciting and inspiring. I rushed a big bagful home yesterday and invited my sister, Liti, over for dinner.
I knew I needed a quick-cooking approach to preserve their green, moist beauty. I tried to recall how my mother usually prepared my father’s summer garden string beans, but I couldn’t remember ever eating them. I must have. We had tons of them. I guess it was with garlic and olive oil, but how could I not remember? They must have been good. Maybe she overcooked them so they tasted like the supermarket version, even though my father obsessively tended to them in our back yard. That’s not fair of me, and in any case it was my grandmother’s job to hammer vegetables to death. I pride myself on remembering just about everything I ever ate, going back years. Maybe my mother just boiled them.
I might put that dish out of my mind. I do remember her making string beans simmered in tomato sauce, sometimes with potatoes, but not in the summer (that was a dish, and a good one, that was definitely done only with the supermarket supply). Oh,well. Let me think about it. I’m sure it will eventually come back to me.
In the meantime I decided to go with my original instinct and employ olive oil—but really good olive oil—and garlic. Then I thought about breadcrumbs and lemon and giving the results a gentle toss with my fingers instead of a spoon (it seemed quick and easy, maybe a little scalding, but I’m used to that, and enjoy it, even). Maybe this is how I ate summer string beans when I was a kid. Doubt it though. I think I would have remembered it. These are really delicious.
String Beans with Pancetta and Lemon Breadcrumbs
(Serves 4 as a first course or a side dish)
For the breadcrumbs:
½ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
The grated zest from 1 lemon
½ teaspoon sugar
1 pound string beans, trimmed
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup small diced pancetta
1 shallot, minced
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A squeeze of lemon juice
In a small sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil with a tablespoon of butter. Add the breadcrumbs, and sauté for a minute or so, just until they start to get crisp and golden. Add the lemon zest, the sugar, and salt, and sauté a few seconds longer, just to season them uniformly.
Set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add a little salt, and throw in the string beans. Blanch until tender-firm, about 2 minutes. Drain the beans into a colander, and then run cold water over them to stop the cooking and bring up their green color. Drain well.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and sauté until crisp. Add the shallots, garlic, and string beans, and sauté quickly, just until the shallots and garlic give off flavor and the string beans are well coated with flavor. Season with salt and black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Pour the string beans into a large serving platter, scatter on a heaping tablespoon of the breadcrumbs, and toss gently. Top with the remaining breadcrumbs and a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot.