When Tim and I visited my family earlier this year, my brother loaned me the book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The story, if you don’t know it, is about a man who accidentally begins a long journey to a friend, and along the way, both he and everyone he knows is affected. I reached the last chapter on a Sunday night at Sevier Park, stretched out next to Tim on blankets beneath the setting sun. When I closed the cover, I turned to Tim and sighed.
“Did you like it?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said to him, my head propped up in my hand. “This book reminded me that people can change.”
And people, I need to be reminded of that.
It seems to me that one of the kitchen’s best gifts to us, aside from being a place to connect and find nourishment, is that it is a place that reminds us of truths we forget. Like the book I finished, the kitchen vividly demonstrates that life is dynamic. Things are in flux. Like the green beans we braise on the stovetop, we are, all of us, ever transforming and moving and being made new.
I think about this every time I roast vegetables. I thought about it when I braised these Roma beans last week. Roma beans are a particular variety of Romano beans, also known as Italian string beans. Before we got them in our CSA, I’d never had them—but the way they’re prepared here would work with any similar vegetable. They have flat, wide pods that make you think of shelling peas, and their firm bodies crunch like a carrot when you bend them with your hands. When a big bag of these flat-podded snap beans became, right before my eyes, wilted, oily noodles rich in garlic and bursting with a hot kick of spice, it was hard to argue that everything stays the same. Fresh, firm beans become powerful fragrance, soft bites, Italian-style dinner—not unlike the weather changes with the seasons or we change with the friends we meet and books we read or that person who seems so impossible softens over time to have a different heart.
Of course, the thing about kitchen changes is they happen fast—even two hours of braising Roma beans is faster and more measurable than the time involved in becoming a better writer, cook or friend. Because you can watch the process, start to finish, in a few minutes or a short afternoon, it’s easier to believe that changes do occur. You can’t argue with how braising changes beans; you can argue that Difficult Person will ever be kind.
But that’s exactly the point. The kitchen is a microcosm of the larger world. It is an easy-to-watch, tangible demonstration of what is always happening, everywhere, in the bigger picture every day.
And when you eat your plate of beans transformed by heat and time and garlic oil, you witness a basic principle true on earth: We are changing, all of us, all the time, sometimes in microscopic, infinitesimal ways too tiny to quantify, sometimes in broad, sweeping ways hard to miss. But it’s happening, when we can’t see it and when we can, like when we cook.
Braised Roma Beans
Serves two as a side
This cooking method is adapted from rough instructions I read on the Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens blog, which were adapted from Zuni Cafe. Reminiscent of Tim’s grandma’s Italian-style green beans, these soft and garlicky beans are pure magic. Either one of us could have eaten them all on our own.
8 to 10 ounces Roma beans, washed and dried
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon red chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large, crushed cloves of garlic
Snip off ends of beans. Place in heavy-bottom pot (like a Dutch oven). Drizzle and fold with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add a teaspoon of red chili flakes and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and toss the mixture together with clean hands. Drop the crushed cloves of garlic on top.
Place pot on stove over very low heat and cover. Cook for about 45 minutes, stirring once in a while during the first half hour.
Taste for salt; adjust as needed. Continue cooking for a total of 2 hours, checking every 30 minutes but not stirring (to avoid crushing beans). It will be hard to wait if you watch them; try to distract yourself with other tasks because the long cook is key here. Beans are done when they’re totally soft and wilty.