For years June marked the end of the school year and the beginning of a time that seemed to stretch infinitely. Long, sleepy days were filled with lots of reading and plenty of boredom – I now struggle to remember what that felt like.
June also stated the beginning of the procession to Grandma’s house to pick vegetables from her garden. As soon as the humid heat of the Venitian countryside had settled in for the following three months, the garden started to go bonkers in all possible good ways. Tomatoes and courgettes were popping up by the minute, and required daily watering and harvesting. Green and runner beans could grow too big and stringy in a couple of hours, and the lettuce would turn tough and inedible if not cut promptly.
The cucumbers, as long as my arm and almost as large, were also pretty needy, and the aubergines and peppers would become all wrinkly under the burning midday sun in a matter of minutes. In a mad rush against time, I was there almost every day, right before sunset or as soon as the temperature of the soil had decreased to a simmer rather than a boil. Each time, I was getting enough produce to make a side dish or salad for our family’s evening meal, as well as for lunch the following day. Usually more. We certainly ate way beyond the five-a-day.
My favourite thing to harvest was lettuce: easy and straightforward, it would come off with one swing of the serrated knife. My least favourite: green beans. I found them tedious and requiring too much patience and discernment – was that one too small to pick still, or would it turn too fibrous if left on the plant longer? It truly took ages to make a bag full enough to feed a party of four, and as soon as the picking was done, there came the trimming, one by one, top and bottom. Not worth it. I thought runner beans (both white and green) were much less labour intensive – their larger size created more volume in my supermarket-branded plastic bag – and just as good as green beans. They quickly became my favourite.
Mum, just like grandma, used to steam them or boil them whole, usually cooking them until very soft – or shall I rather say ‘to death’, the Italian way. They were then served with oil and vinegar, and sometimes with some torn basil leaves, alongside some grilled chicken or fish. The addition of the vinegar was what always stroke me. Still lukewarm, the beans propagated a sour, pungent yet pleasant aroma mingling with the fresh sweetness of the basil. It smelled of summer in the best possible way.
Nostalgically, I have been making runner beans in a similar way ever since I left home. In time, though, I discovered that I love them topped with fresh tarragon even more than with basil leaves. I don’t really know why they go so well together. It might be the vague taste of anise and liquorice of tarragon, embracing the sweetness of the beans and saving them from the risk of monotony. All I can say is, it just works. Still, knowing that many people are not fond or tarragon – for anise is certainly a controversial flavour, just like fresh coriander – good young basil (the kind with small, tender leaves) is always a good alternative.
Runner Bean Salad with Tarragon
We have enjoyed this salad on a weekly basis these days, mostly as part of a quick dinner consisting of chunks of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, rarely some salami (in this case we had some), and boiled eggs. Some good bread, a glass of wine, and you are set for a good meal.
800g runner beans (white and green)
1 small bunch tarragon
6 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons EVO oil
Maldon or Kosher salt
Ground black pepper
Hard boiled eggs
Aged salami or saucisson
Wash the beans under running cold water, drain and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Trim the ends and cut them lengthwise, diagonally, in pieces of about 2cm. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the beans and cook them for about ten minutes. Taste them and judge the texture: you want them to have a bit of a bite and crunch still, but the fibres must have surrendered to the heat and there should not be any resistance under the teeth. Drain and cool under very cold running water. Alternatively, you can cool them in an ice bath.
While the beans are cooling, chop the tarragon very finely. Transfer beans and tarragon to a large salad bowl, season with vinegar, oil, a good pinch of salt and a couple of twists of the pepper grinder. Taste and add more salt if needed. Toss well to distribute the dressing evenly, then transfer to a serving platter and enjoy with your protein of choice and good bread for mopping the juices.