Scrumptious southern green beans
Updated: Jul 26, 2021
For most of my time as a little Viking, vegetables were generally treated as a necessary evil. After all, Mom and Dad weren’t forthcoming with the dessert unless I finished the veggies on my plate and I was a fiend for ice cream (I still am and do my best to gracefully accept the belly that accompanies it). But this wasn’t easy. Eating vegetables at home was an arduous task, as my parents didn’t cook much with salt, pepper, and fat.
Aside from corn in all of it’s varieties and preparations (Seriously, if you don’t like corn, there’s probably something wrong with you.), there was one vegetable that I dare say that I even looked forward to: green beans. Not just any green beans, mind you. These were seemingly magical green beans from an establishment in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC called the K&W Cafeteria.
As indicated in the name, this is a cafeteria. After making your way through a line that vaguely resembles that of an amusement park ride, you get a tray and make your way down the line of salads, entrees, sides, desserts, and breads, taking whatever tickles your fancy. At the end of the line, you find the obligatory cashier whom you pay for the privilege. Then you locate an open table in the dining room to eat your meal. It’s a lot like lunchtime at school, except with food that you enjoy and no bullies to contend with. And while, due to living about 500 miles away, I haven’t returned to K&W in around two decades, I still occasionally daydream about my childhood visits there. (In addition to inspiration for the recipe I’m about to impart on you, this cafeteria also served as inspiration for my macaroni and cheese, which will be making an appearance in a future post).
It took me a while to figure out an approximation of the magic delicious green sticks of vegetable that I enjoyed as a child. But here’s the short short version: Cured pork, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and a whole lot of patience. I’m not kidding about the patience part. When I make these, I try to allocate about 12 hours (8 at a bare minimum). Does that sound excessive? Yep. Is it? Not if you like delicious food!
Viking’s note: This is more of a guideline than a recipe. At various steps along the way, you’ll have some decision points based on what you like or have available to you. Get your Bob Ross on and make your world whatever you want.
Porky is coming to dinner
½ lb bacon or salt pork
I’m going to keep beating the drums of my belief that to really make most things delicious, you need some manner of fat. In this case, we’re going to use a half pound of cured pork. I suggest either bacon or salt pork. Salt pork generally comes with skin attached, so you’ll need to remove that with a sharp knife. Dice your pork of choice into pieces a little larger than the size of kernels of corn or green peas. Small things cook faster and we want to be able to render as much of the fat as possible during cooking. To make this easier, you can put the meat in the freezer for 15-20 mins before slicing.
The star of the show
4 Standard sized cans of kitchen cut green beans, 1 24-32oz bag of fresh green beans, or whatever you can get from your garden
The last pot of these that I made was with green beans that grew in my own garden. #NextLevel If you aren’t an aspiring backyard to table cook, store bought is fine. In fact, throughout most of my adult life, I made this with drained cans of green beans. Obviously, you’re going to get a tastier and healthier result if you use fresh ones. But as a strapping young bachelor that was making his way up the corporate ladder, I couldn’t argue with something that can sit in the pantry for months on end until you finally get around to using it.
If you’re going with fresh green beans, snap or cut each bean so that it ends up in about 1½” to 2” pieces. Also make sure you discard any stems, strings, or misshapen pieces. You gotta roll like Snoop Dogg: no stems, no sticks.
Don’t cry, it’s just an onion
1 large white onion
Dice the whole onion into small pieces. Don’t worry too much about how big or small, Most of the onion will more or less melt away into nothing while it’s cooking. That’s all I’ve got for this step. It’s not complicated.
Assemble and apply heat
4-6 cloves garlic (minced or mashed through a press)
4 tbsp kosher salt
2 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp black pepper
For this mission, I usually opt for my 6 quart heavy bottomed stock pot. An appropriately sized crock pot or dutch oven would also suffice. In your chosen vessel, place your pork, then onion, then green beans. I’m not sure if the order actually matters since we’re going to cook for so long. But I like to think that putting the pork on the bottom gives it a head start on rendering. Add your garlic, salt, pepper, and sugar on top of that. Finally fill up your pot most of the way with water.
If you’re using a crock pot, cover and throw that bad boy on high. If you’re using a pot on the stove, apply a lid and use high heat until you bring everything up to a boil. Then reduce to a rolling simmer.
Periodically during the cooking marathon, you’ll probably want to give things a stir. You may also find that the water level in the pot starts to get low. That’s fine, just add some water as needed to compensate for evaporation.
Finally, just be patient. After the first few hours, your house will start to smell absolutely heavenly and you may be tempted to cut the cooking time short. Don’t do that.
The fat is going to take a long time to fully render. However, your patience will be rewarded with a bunch of delicious little bits of meat floating around in your veggies. After all, who said veggies need to be vegetarian?!
Once you’re on the home stretch, you’ll want to taste for seasoning and adjust your salt and pepper accordingly. A bit of advice on long term cooking endeavors such as this is to keep your seasoning a bit on the lighter side when you start. Part of why we cook certain things for so long is to let the flavors emerge, develop, and make friends with each other. There’s also a texture component. You’ll end up with very soft green beans that are close to falling apart. That’s okay, that just means that they worked hard to become delicious for you.
At this point, you should have green beans that even a picky little Viking will enjoy. Plate up with your favorite protein (Country style steak is a good option, recipe here) and maybe some kind of starch to cut the salty, savory, sweet, rich goodness.