“I’m gonna grab an espresso. Any else want one?”
Sam’s raises his hand, then continues dragging a giant crate of string beans over to one of the long wooden tables in the cortile. He lifts the crate and dumps them out in front of Cybelle, who is sitting and waiting patiently for us to join her.
“I’m good, thanks.”
We’re three cooks coming off our lunch shift at the American Academy in Rome. It’s a late afternoon in early May. By now the daylight has started to expand and extend like a bird stretching its wings, and my cheery moods have elongated with it.
This is the best time of day during the spring in Rome. It’s warm, but not so hot that clothing feels impractical. The sun is still round and ebullient but beginning its descent. At this point in the day, I can still be anyone.
I grab our espressos from Alessandro, the surly evening barista, and return to the cortile. Like most Italian villas, the Academy is built around a central courtyard. There are four brick paths jutting out from the fountain in the center like the spokes of a wheel. The fountain in the center is a statue of a child with her hand outstretched, balancing a plate filled with water for the birds to bath in. We snap off the tails of individual green beans and listen to the mellifluous sound of water tumbling down the fountain.
A crate of green beans is an intimidating sight. Even with several hands, it takes us almost an hour to get through the crate. But we have coffee, and good company. In that way, tailing the green beans doesn’t feel like an arduous task so much as a necessary piece of the day. Without it, I would go to bed feeling like I missed something.
The table is slightly too high for me, so I lift my elbows to rest on the unfinished wood surface, forcing my biceps to engage. For some reason, I find the small bulges of muscle cresting over the skin of my upper arms impressive.
Sam shows me how to grab fistfuls of beans at a time and flip my hand up and down to artfully and efficiently snap away the tails. This is a stark contrast to my initial strategy of grabbing one bean at a time.
“We’ll be here all night if you roll that way with it,” he says to me, smiling through his wire-rimmed glasses.
By the end of a lunch shift, my feet are tired and the sound of the chef’s voice grates on my nerves. I want to sit down, but I don’t expect to. Most kitchen tasks aren’t suited to sitting down. Once, while I was staging at Chez Panisse, I walked past one of the newer prep cooks resting on a stool in the back as he cleaned lettuces. He was whistling as if he were enjoying a leisure cup of coffee on a Saturday. I walked back to the dairy cooler a little while later and noticed him standing on two feet, his back ram-rod straight. Professional chefs just don’t sit down. It’s not part of the schtick.
The kitchen at the Academy has a slightly different flavor. The work is no less rigorous or principled than a professional kitchen, but numbers for lunch and dinner are pre-set, which means the workflow is more relaxed and less frantic than that of a line cook at a restaurant.
Somedays, the final prep tasks are done outside in the open air where I listen to the birds singing and remember that I’m a part of something much bigger than the pasta dish I made earlier that day. This is one reason why this will be my favorite kitchen job of all time. Yes, the work matters, but it doesn’t take precedent over living in the world. These are not two opposing truths, but rather two essential truths that affirm each other. We cook because we live in the world, and cooking teaches us how to live in the world.
My espresso cup is empty, and we’ve run through the entire pile of beans.
“We did it!” I raise my fist in the air in triumph.
“There’s another crate in the kitchen,” Sam says.
“I’m gonna need another espresso.”
Here’s a recipe for string beans that has all the essentials from an August farmer’s market in the Midwest: frying peppers, string beans, garlic, and basil. You could use fresh cherry tomatoes here, but I like the liquid that comes along with the canned version. You can also use canned San Marzanos if you can’t find canned cherry tomatoes.
There are two ends to green beans (obviously). I like to leave the long, feathery tops and snap off the tails, which are the ends that attach to the plant. To remove them, you can use a paring knife or simply pinch just above the tail and snap it off.
Lessi means boiled, which is a nearly accurate description for the cooking method in this recipe. Rest assured that this recipe will not require you to tail green beans for over an hour, but depending on the time of day, you might enjoy sitting outside with an espresso and a friend while tailing the green beans.
- 1 pound string beans, tail ends snapped off
- 2T extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, smashed
- 3 anchovy filets
- Pinch chili flake
- 2-3 mild frying peppers, such a Jimmy Nardello or cubanelle, diced
- ¼ C white wine
- 1 14-oz can of cherry tomatoes
- 2T red wine vinegar
- 1 large bunch basil, torn by hand
- Shaved ricotta salata to garnish
- Kosher salt, to taste
Set a medium pot of water to boil. Season enthusiastically with kosher salt. Don’t be shy; the beans won’t cook in the water for more than a couple minutes. The water should taste like the sea.
In a medium-sized sauce pot, add the olive oil and garlic cloves. Set over medium heat and let the garlic soften, 3-5 minutes. You don’t want the garlic to color too much. Turn down the heat if it starts to brown.
Add the anchovy and chili flake and cook another 30 seconds. Add the peppers and cook over medium heat to soften and color slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and turn the heat up to deglaze, about a minute. Add the tomatoes, a large pinch of salt, and ½ C water (I add the water to the empty can of tomatoes to make sure I get all the tomato goodness out). Cook over medium heat, crushing the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon to encourage the them to break down. Cook the sauce on its own for about 10 minutes before adding the beans.
Once the water has come to a boil, add the beans and blanch for 2 minutes. Strain and add to the tomato mixture. Cover and cook until the beans soften completely and the tomato mixture starts to thicken, about 15-20 minutes.
Uncover and reduce until the tomato mixture has thickened, about 5 minutes.
Season with red wine vinegar and fold in the torn basil. Garnish each bowl with long ribbons of shaved ricotta salata.