String ’em up
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String ’em up

A primer on Thai long beans, string beans and Lubia, coming to a grocer near you

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A basket of long beans in a Singapore supermarket (photo credit: David.Kcdtsg at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)
A basket of long beans in a Singapore supermarket (photo credit: David.Kcdtsg at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve been in green-bean purgatory for the last three months. It’s not necessarily a place between heaven and hell, but with an ongoing, weekly delivery of Thai yard-long beans in the organic CSA box all summer, it’s been something of a challenge to find the right recipes for these long, crispy green beans.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Asian Lubia, or black-eyed peas as they’re also called; the green pods are home to those black-and-cream-colored beans. We’ve been receiving the Southeast Asian version of these long beans all summer — they can reach one meter in length — and, as I know now, ripen before the “short,” classic black-eyed pea (which is still longer than the average green bean).

The beans are crunchy, but chewier and less sweet than the average string bean, and we even saw them growing on the vine at Chubeza, our CSA farm of choice, ripening in long bunches along the trellis. I have a particular soft spot for the beans, having read and reread “Jody’s Beans” this spring with my kids, about a little girl and her grandfather growing beans from seeds in rural Ireland, watching them blossom with red flowers along the trellis before they develop into beans.

The folks at Chubeza tell me that the beans can be harvested until winter, so it looks like I’ll be receiving them for a good few months. I’ve learned that the beans can be prepared like fresh green beans, but do best when first sautéed and then cooked in a sauce of some kind, which helps soften their slight chewiness. And definitely refrain from steaming them in water; they just get waterlogged and soggy. They don’t benefit from a slight blanch, either.

Lubia or Thai yard-long beans, growing in the fields (photo credit: Chubeza)
Lubia, or Thai yard-long beans, growing in the fields. (photo credit: Chubeza)

This week, the top five ways to prepare Thai yard-long beans. Note that all these recipes are suitable for more standard green beans, as well as the thicker, wider, local version of long beans, called Lubia, which is already starting to filter into local supermarkets and greengrocers. When preparing the Asian/Thai version of the beans, just tip the stems and cut each one into three.

1) One country that’s very familiar with the Thai bean is Indonesia, where green beans cooked with coconut milk are a regular part of the menu. I’ve been using this recipe for Mae Karal Curry to great success at the dinner table, where the coconut milk provides a pleasing sweetness to the beans, without overpowering them.

Mae Karal Curry (serves 4-6)

  • 3 cups long beans (Mae Karal), cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1-2 green chillies, chopped
  • small piece of cinnamon stick
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • salt to taste
  • Curry leaves (optional) (I’ve never included curry leaves)
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  1. Mix all the ingredients, except the coconut milk and oil, in a bowl.
  2. Heat a medium-size pan over medium fire. Add oil.
  3. Add the mixture from above and stir.
  4. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Stir every 2 minutes or so. Next add the coconut milk, cook for another 5 minutes.
  5. Serve hot with rice.

An assortment of squashes (photo credit: Californiacondor (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0)
An assortment of squashes (photo credit: Californiacondor /GFDL http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
2) Food blogger Chichi Wang likes to join the green-bean-and-coconut-milk pairing with Kabocha squash, since the orange-fleshed fruit holds up well in the plentiful liquid. I’ve also been doing the same with my green beans and squash — another familiar vegetable in the CSA box — and have felt free to substitute any kind of squash — often called dalorit in these parts — in the recipe, which I was following from a similar recipe in an Indian cookbook.
    • 1 pound yard-long beans, cut into 2-inch slices
    • ¼ pound Kabocha (or any squash), cubed into ½-inch segments
    • 1 tablespoon curry powder, optional
    • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
    • 2 teaspoons cooking oil
    • 1-inch piece ginger, crushed and sliced
    • 1 teaspoon shrimp paste (I skipped on the paste, but added a hot chili paste for some flavor)
    • ½ cup coconut milk
    • ¾ cup water
    • 1 teaspoon brown sugar (I used honey instead)
    • ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Add the Kabocha, curry powder (if using), ginger, and turmeric to the pot and stir, letting the cubes of squash lightly brown. Add the shrimp paste (if using), and cook for a minute longer.
  3. Add the beans and cook for another 2 minutes, until the beans are lightly browned.
  4. Add the coconut milk, water, sugar, and salt to the pot and let the liquid simmer for 20 minutes, until the beans and squash are tender, but not mushy. Serve warm.

Pakora, or fritters, easily made with string beans (photo credit: By Damien Ramon Naidoo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Pakoras, or fritters, easily made with string beans (photo credit: Damien Ramon Naidoo/CC BY-SA-3.0)
3) This idea came from Tasha Depp, a formidable kitchen garden grower and blogger who’s also been struggling to “retain enthusiasm for the vegetable,” weeks into string-bean season. She opted recently for fried string bean pakoras, a slightly more labor-intensive process of frying string beans in chickpea flour batter. She based it on a recipe from Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey, and recommends buying chickpea flour at a local health food or Indian grocery store.

String-bean Pakoras

  • 1½ cups chickpea flour
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ¼ tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ¾ tsp ground coriander
  • ¾ tsp whole cumin seeds
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
  • Oil for frying
  • String beans, and other vegetables for frying
  1. Sift the flour, salt, and baking soda together in a bowl. Add all the other spices for the batter. Very slowly and gradually, pour in 1¼ cups water, beating with a fork as you do so. You should have a smooth batter.
  2. All you need now is vegetable oil for deep frying and the assortment of vegetables prepared for frying: green beans with ends removed, potatoes peeled and cut into ⅛-inch thick rounds, cauliflower florets, hot Italian peppers.
  3. Heat the oil until a drop of water sizzles in it, or when the temperature of the oil reaches 350°-375°F. Fry the coated items slowly, for about 7 minutes on each side. When the outside is golden brown and crisp, remove the fritters with a slotted spoon and leave to drain on a mesh rack, or on a plate lined with paper towels.
  4. Serve with tamarind chutney or mint chutney.
The lubia flower (Courtesy Chubeza)
The Lubia flower (photo credit: Courtesy Chubeza)

4) One of my standard, go-to string bean/green bean recipes is Mollie Katzen’s Szechuan String Beans, from her cookbook, “Still Life with Menu.” It’s essentially a dry stir-fry, and works best with regular string beans, but as long as the Thai beans are cooked for long enough, gaining that really seared, blackened edge, they attain a softness that augments the sweet garlic flavor.

Szechuan String Beans

  • 2-3 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 2 pounds string beans, cleaned
  • 8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 Thai chile, minced
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  1. Heat a wok over medium-high heat. Add the oil. Wait for the oil until it just begins smoking, and then throw in the beans.
  2. Turn the heat to high and stir-fry — that means constant tossing! Keep this up for 5 minutes or more, until the beans are seared and blistered.
  3. Add the garlic, salt, and chile. Keep on tossing, and stay at it for another 2-3 minutes until the garlic is cooked. Be sure to toss so that the garlic doesn’t burn.
  4. Serve beans warm or at room temperature.

Black-eyed peas, the interior of the lubia long green bean (By Toby Hudson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Black-eyed peas, the interior of the Lubia long green bean (photo credit: Toby Hudson/CC BY-SA-3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/Wikimedia Commons)
5) And finally, when you don’t have time to cook the beans ahead and just want to throw something together, this Bon Appetit long-bean salad recipe handles the bean’s chewy texture by grinding them down a bit, and macerating them with lime juice and fish sauce, which, again, can either be left out or substituted with another kind of paste.

Long-bean, Cucumber and Tomato Salad

  • 2 dried Thai chiles, soaked for 2 minutes in warm water, drained
  • 3 small garlic cloves, crushed
  • ¼ lime, cut into three wedges
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar or granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dried tiny shrimp (easily left out)
  • 9 long beans or green beans, trimmed, cut into thirds
  • 2 Kirby cucumbers or 1 English hothouse cucumber, coarsely chopped into chunks
  • 2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tablespoons crushed roasted, unsalted peanuts
  1. Place first four ingredients in a clay mortar and pound with a wooden pestle until mashed into a fine paste, about 5 minutes (If you don’t have a clay mortar and pestle, another option is to place the ingredients in a plastic bag and pound with a hammer… really). Add shrimp; mash until pulverized and well combined, about 2 minutes. (Alternatively, process in a mini-processor until finely chopped.) (Editor’s note: I leave out the shrimp and don’t substitute anything.)
  2. Add long beans to mortar; lightly crush with pestle to bruise. Add cucumber pieces, fish sauce, and lime juice. Mix well. Add tomatoes, lightly crush, and mix in. (Alternatively, place beans and tomatoes in a resealable plastic bag. Roll a rolling pin over bag to bruise vegetables; transfer to a bowl with the cucumber, fish sauce, lime juice, and chile dressing.)
  3. Let marinate for 10 minutes. Stir in peanuts and serve.
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