Romano beans (otherwise known as Italian green beans) were a newcomer to the farmers market recently. The barrel full of them sitting there, brimming proudly, was irresistible to me so I plunged my hand in and filled up a bag to take home.
I used them to make a side dish called Braised Romano Beans, from Smitten Kitchen one of my favorite food blogs.
It was delicious and simple, befitting these Italian green beans. And it reminded me so much of my grandma. Not because she ever made them for me. I’m not sure if she ever ate this bean in her life. It’s because it was just so quintessentially Italian – just like she was. I love being reminded of her, because I love thinking about her. She passed away 6 years ago this month and was one of my favorite people.
She never prided herself on her cooking, at least that I remember. But as seems to be typical of Italian grandmothers, she was of course a good cook just by virtual of her heritage and upbringing. And food is a big category of my memories about her. I remember her cookies and her meatballs and sauce – delicious. After she passed away, my mom sent me copies of a bunch of her favorite recipes with notes scrawled all over the pages.
On the other hand, I also remember the boxes of stale cereal that she used to send to us in the mail that she would buy on sale and save up for months before shipping our way. My mom would always remind us when we got these boxes that Grandma lived through the Great Depression! We never ate them, of course, but it is so funny and endearing in hindsight.
She also loved sweets. There was a famous time that I visited her and we ate a ridiculously large box of Russell Stover chocolates between the two of us. She got scolded later, because it actually really wasn’t good for her health at that point to eat that much fat and sugar, which she of course knew. But by god, she wanted those chocolates!
What she did pride herself on was how smart, political, and tenacious she was. She did a lot for her community. She was on more councils and boards than I could ever keep straight, and she was the first woman ever on her town’s school board. She encouraged me, pushed me every chance she got, to do well in school, to go to college, to write, to do great things with my life. She expected it of me.
She wrote me letters. Thin pages of paper covered with her slanting cursive. Often she would enclose newspaper articles about writers, scholarships, colleges. And just as often coupons for things like shampoo and deodorant – I mean, she was still a grandma after all.
As a teenager I sometimes found her overbearing (what isn’t overbearing to a teenager?), but luckily by the time I got to college I realized how special she was and visited her as much as I could. As I look back now I see her as one of the strongest influences in my life.
Unsurprisingly, I wish I would have had more time with her. Written more letters back. Asked more questions.
One of the last times I visited her – I have to think she knew, or thought, that her time was short. She told me to take all her old books that I had always spent so much time with whenever I visited – English major and aspiring writer that I was. Volumes of Shakespeare, an old set of classics, poetry. She wanted me to have them all, so that they would continue to inspire me.
We packed up boxes and boxes of them together and shipped them back to my tiny studio apartment in DC. I’ve moved with them six times now, sometimes cursing their weight, but never once thinking of giving them away. They are my most prized possessions. They are the physical embodiment of her hopes and dreams for me. At least that’s how I like to think of them.
I know she would be proud of me for going to graduate school, and for planning a career that encourages and helps people to read. I think she would not have been so sure about my love of the more “domestic arts” of cooking and baking that she eschewed for the most part. But then again, if I served her these green beans she would probably change her mind…
Braised Romano Green Beans
Barely adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes 4-6 servings
This dish is simple, but full of flavor – like the best Mediterranean food is. You could pair it alongside pasta that is simply dressed with olive oil or butter and salt and pepper. It would also go well with fish. These green beans are a bit tougher than their more common counterparts so this isn’t a dish to make when you’re in a hurry to eat. Save it for a night when you can simmer it for a good 40-45 minutes. Take the time standing there in front of your stove to think of someone you love – and if they’re still with us, give them a call after dinner.
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup celery, diced
- 1/2 cup carrot, diced
- 1 cup yellow onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 1 tsp tomato paste
- 1 cup ripe tomatoes, with their juices, chopped (you can remove the skins if you want, I didn’t bother)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 pounds Romano beans
- 1/2 cup water
Heat oil in a deep skillet. Add celery, carrot and onion and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables barely begin to brown, about 25 minutes.
Add garlic and rosemary and cook until fragrant, 2-3 minutes.
Stir in tomato paste and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until mixture is well combined, about 5 minutes.
Add beans, setting them in pan all in one direction. Add 1/2 cup water. Bring to a simmer.
Baste the beans with the cooking liquid a few times, season with salt to taste, and then reduce heat to low. Cook gently, partly covered, turning beans in sauce from time to time, until beans are very tender, about 40 minutes.
Adjust seasoning and serve immediately. They also make delicious leftovers. Enjoy!