Nine years ago today I taught my first cooking class. At the time I was working as an on-call assistant chef at The Culinary Center of Kansas City. The owner approached me and asked if I would consider teaching a cooking class. It was not something I had thought about, but since I was looking for ways to expand my professional career outside the bounds of the restaurant kitchen, I agreed to give it a try. As I think about it now, I am astonished at how radically this decision altered my life. Teaching cooking classes now makes up a good portion of my work. Even this blog was started as an extension of and support for my classes.
I have never taken too much notice of this anniversary. I am always vaguely aware that this is the time of year when I first took the plunge—my first class was a Thanksgiving class. The class was a primer of sorts for those who wanted to cook the holiday meal, but had no idea how to organize the food preparation schedule. It was called "Don't Let the Turkeys Get You Down" and was so well-received that it became an annual staple as long as I was at The Culinary Center. Some years we even offered two sessions. Fear and trembling are apparently a perennial problem as new generations of cooks face the daunting task of preparing the Thanksgiving spread.
The reason that I thought about this anniversary this year is that I finally decided to develop a recipe for Green Bean Casserole to teach in my new Holiday Side Dishes class. The first time that I became aware that there was a need for a version of this recipe that didn't involve canned soup or canned onions was during that first class. I have a vivid memory of making an off-hand comment about "that dreadful green bean casserole" as I was discussing "do-ahead" techniques for green vegetable side dishes. There were lots of raised eyebrows as well as a few surprised murmurs and rueful chuckles. Apparently people actually like the green bean casserole. This surprised me. I thought people made this casserole because it was easy...not because they thought it tasted good.
Of course, from my perspective, the really sad thing in all of this is that everyone knows what I'm referring to when I say "the green bean casserole". It is amazing to me that this dish, made almost entirely of processed "food", holds a traditional place of honor on so many Thanksgiving tables. I have joked for several years now that I'm on a campaign to eradicate that casserole. But because I appreciate the value of family traditions, I'm really not. With this recipe, what I hope to do is provide an option for people who are trying to rid their diets of processed foods, but who at the same time want to prepare something that will be enjoyed by their families and will be in keeping with their traditions.
If you are looking to replace that casserole, there really are lots of options out there—and most of them taste much better than the canned soup version. Besides my recipe, there are a couple on the Martha Stewart website. Ree Drummond has one up on her Pioneer Woman blog. I know there are others. All can be made ahead and baked right before you serve them on Thanksgiving day...just like the "original".
As far as the original is concerned, there really isn't much to it. It contains green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, milk, soy sauce and fried onions. In other words, a lot of salt, fat and MSG—all things that enhance flavor. Any version you make must be filled with ingredients that are treated in such a way that they pack a flavorful punch.
In general, anytime you have a recipe that calls for a can of "cream of" soup of some kind, you can replace the can of soup with a thick velouté. For those not familiar with the term velouté, it is similar to a béchamel (or white sauce), only it is made with part stock. Use 3 T. of butter, 3 T. flour, 1/2 cup of stock and 1/2 cup of whole milk to replace a can of soup. Salt and pepper to taste...be generous with the salt.
Since the soup called for in the original green bean casserole is cream of mushroom, I added sliced sautéed mushrooms to my version. If you have people in your family who will object to large pieces of mushrooms, you could chop the mushrooms finely in the food processor and cook them exactly as described for the sliced mushrooms. Either way, make sure that you cook the mushrooms until there is no liquid remaining in the pan. To add another dimension of flavor, I deglazed the pan with Sherry (something drinkable—not "cooking sherry"), but you could use white wine, vermouth or even just some water, if you prefer. After adding the liquid, once again, cook until the pan is dry. You don't want any liquid from the mushrooms to water down the velouté.
Since I don't like to deep fry food in my kitchen (everyone has culinary tasks that they like to avoid...deep frying is at the top of my list), I decided to replace the flavor of the fried onions with a large quantity of caramelized shallots and the crunch of the fried onions with buttered coarse breadcrumbs. I caramelized the shallots in the butter I used as the base of my velouté. This takes some time. Don't short cut this step—it results in intense, sweet, onion-y flavor.
For the breadcrumbs, make your own. Purchase a nice artisanal loaf of bread that has a large open crumb...focaccia, ciabatta or a country French of some kind are all good choices. The bread will grind best if it is a day old. If the crusts are hard, cut them off. Cut the bread into large chunks and process in the food processor until you have coarse crumbs. The bread crumbs may be made ahead and frozen. Tossing them with melted butter before putting them on top of the casserole helps them to crisp nicely and of course adds flavor.
Finally, I added some finely grated Parmesan cheese to the casserole. There is no cheese in the original version, but who doesn't like vegetables dressed in hot cheese sauce? You can leave it out, but I think you will like the flavor that it adds. An aged Pecorino would be another good choice.
When it comes to the green beans, I prefer fresh. The recipe is given for a weight of green beans after trimming. At Thanksgiving, this is how the stores tend to sell them. When you cook the green beans, make sure you cook them until they are quite tender (in plenty of boiling, salted water). This casserole is not about bright green, tender-crisp green beans. I also find that the sauce adheres to the green beans better if they have been spread on a towel and allowed to steam dry as they cool. If they are rinsed in cold water or submerged in an ice bath, there will be water clinging to them that will water down the sauce. The point of "shocking" green vegetables is to stop the cooking process and set the bright green color—neither of these things is really an issue for this casserole. Just make sure that the green beans are spread out in a rough single layer and not in a big compact pile.
I guess given my feelings about the Thanksgiving holiday and this casserole, it's surprising that I waited nine years to develop a scratch version. And, to my gratification, the recipe was very well received by my class. It might have even been the most popular recipe of the five that I taught...which was a big surprise to me. You see, I didn't grow up with this casserole (I had to look up the recipe for the original on the internet). But I do like this version. I hope you will too.
Green Bean Casserole with
Caramelized Shallots & Mushrooms
1 lb. of trimmed green beans, cut on the diagonal into roughly 2-inch lengths
6 1/2 T. unsalted butter, divided
1/2 lb. button mushrooms, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 T. dry sherry
1 1/2 c. coarsely ground fresh breadcrumbs (about 2 1/2 oz.)
3/4 c. finely diced shallots (3 1/2 oz.—about 4 medium shallots)
3 T. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 c. chicken stock or canned low-salt broth
1 c. whole milk
3/4 to 1 t. kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 c. finely grated Parmesan (1 1/2 oz.)
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the green beans and cook at a rapid boil until tender—about 6 to 9 minutes. Drain and spread out on paper or kitchen towels to cool. Set aside.
Melt 2 T. butter in a wide sauté pan. Increase the heat to moderately high and add the mushrooms along with a pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until the mushrooms have reduced in volume and any liquid they have given off has evaporated. The mushrooms should be tender and caramelized in places. Add the sherry and reduce to a glaze. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.
Toss the bread crumbs with 1 1/2 T. melted butter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside. If making the casserole ahead, cover and refrigerate the buttered breadcrumbs. Bring to room temperature before using.
Melt 3 T. butter over medium heat. Add the shallots, along with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally until soft and evenly golden brown. This will take 15 to 20 minutes. Don't shortcut this step, it adds a lot of flavor to the final dish. While the shallots cook, combine the stock and milk and heat to a simmer. Keep hot. When the shallots are caramelized, stir in the flour. Cook stirring constantly for a minute or two until bubbly all over and straw yellow in color. Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot liquid, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately. Add the remaining liquid and whisk until smooth. Return to the heat and stir constantly until the velouté returns to a simmer. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Set aside. If making the casserole ahead, cool to room temperature before combining with the mushrooms, cheese and green beans.
In a large bowl, toss together the green beans, mushrooms and parmesan. Fold in the velouté. Taste and correct the seasoning. Transfer to a buttered 1 1/2 quart baking dish. The casserole may be baked immediately, or covered and refrigerated for up to a day. If refrigerating, bring to room temperature before proceeding.
Place the casserole in a 350° oven and bake until bubbling around the edges—about 20 minutes. Scatter the buttered breadcrumbs over the casserole and return to the oven for 10 minutes, or until the casserole is hot through. Slide the hot casserole under the broiler for a minute or two to finish browning and crisping the crumb topping. Watch carefully to make sure it doesn't burn. Serve immediately. Serves 6.
Note: This recipe easily doubles for larger groups of people. Use a 3-quart shallow baking dish (like a 13x9-inch casserole) rather than a deep dish—the casserole will heat more quickly and more uniformly in a shallow dish. Make sure that the casserole is hot throughout before serving.