Runner beans in my world have, until now, always meant two things: a stringy challenge that is like eating dental floss and a constant reminder of my grandparents’ incredible green-fingeredness. Not a summer went by when we didn’t either eat them or listen to a list about an hour-long in which every detail of every type of vegetable/fruit and what had happened to it (frozen, jammed or pickled) was shared. I have inherited neither my grandparents’ gardening skills nor their love for these ungainly beans and, until recently, would have never thought to order them. Then some friends and I went to Polpo, probably one of my favourite places to eat on the planet, and Claire chose these. It didn’t sound quite right to me, this restaurant which is all things London and trendy at the moment with a vegetable that is really, well, a bit old-fashioned. And if Claire hadn’t wanted them I never would have done. Which would have been a terrible, terrible shame since they rapidly became our favourite (which takes some doing with their menu).
When I got home I looked up the recipe which, like most of the others in the brilliant Polpo cookery book, was not only written in the sort of English the non-chef can understand but, also, bloody easy in terms of both ingredients and method. The best sort. And, apart from being simple, it is a joy on two other fronts: it transforms the unloveable runner into a thing of beauty and can also be used with most other green beans, as I did on Friday when I was in the company of someone who, like the old me, refuses to eat the stringy ones. If you don’t have/can’t find Pecorino, Parmesan is just as good. I advise eating this as soon as it’s made too, because though the leftovers are lovely, they are a dim reminder of the real thing.
For a big bowlful (so three small starters, two sides or one person’s main)
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
good olive oil
red onion, ½
runner or other long green beans (like French or bobby, a type I’ve just learnt about), 250g
Pecorino, or Parmesan, about 100g
1. Rinse the beans if necessary then top and tail them. If using runners, cut them into inch-long pieces along their length (the recipe says to run a peeler down their sides to remove the string but I didn’t).
2. Peel and top and tail the red onion half, then slice it very thinly (I find slicing it lengthways into ‘Chocolate Orange‘-size segments then horizontally across does this admirably well).
3. Put the onion slices with a pinch of sea salt into a bowl big enough to hold the beans.
4. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, shove in the beans then cook them for about 3-7 minutes (it will depend on the size of the beans, the size of the pan and all sorts of other things…) until just tender (so not crunchy or soggy).
5. Whilst the beans are cooking, slice or shave the cheese into thin, mouth-sized pieces.
6. Drain the beans then refresh them in lots of cold water.
7. Tip the beans in with the red onion and dress with some pepper and olive oil.
8. Add the cheese to the beans and season if necessary.