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In & Out of the Kitchen: Green bean casserole gets a revamp

We’ve all heard the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Nowhere does this seem to apply more than at Thanksgiving dinner. After all, there’s something comforting about eating the same delicious and filling foods every year, the same stuffing you’ve always had (every family has their own recipe, every family insisting that their version is the best), the same mashed potatoes and gravy, the same cranberry sauce (often from a can, either the kind with chunks of berries or the kind that’s shaped like the can).

For years, I’ve been trying to put my own spin on this family tradition, bit by bit, every year adopting one dish to contribute and making my own version. Every year, I’ve met with some resistance. And most years, the best feedback I’ve gotten was lukewarm.

It’s not that anything I’ve made was bad, really. One year, I made pumpkin pies that were almost as good as Mom’s, though I’ll admit they weren’t worth the extra work (my recipe was more complicated than hers). Another year, I made from-scratch dinner rolls, which were eyed with suspicion, then received with faint praise: “You mean you didn’t buy these? . . . You got them in a package, right, and then just baked them?”

The worst year, though, was the one when I tried to brine the turkey; it was a messy, cumbersome task, and the bird tasted about the same as Mom’s method (meaning that, again, I’d needlessly complicated something that could’ve been done the easy way).

Doing it my way

But the best thing I’ve made for Thanksgiving to date, by far, must be a revamp of that old standby, the green bean casserole.

Oddly enough, my family never had green bean casserole when I was growing up. I’d heard about it, of course, but I guess it never occurred to us to try making one, not when there’s already so much good stuff on the Thanksgiving table. But one year, I decided to try it, following the usual recipe, even though it sounded awful. One of my cooking rules is, “If if the recipe contains the line, ‘Add a can of cream of [insert flavor] soup,’ that’s not a good sign,” and usually, that’s about right. Sure enough, the standard green bean casserole tasted terrible, salty and artificial and pretty much inedible, save for the French-fried onions, which were salty, too, but in a good way, crispy and delicious and almost worth picking out of the otherwise inedible glop.

So alright, keep the French-fried onions. That’s one canned good worth keeping. But the rest of the recipe could surely be improved.

The family was wary when I said a couple of years later that I wanted to make green bean casserole again. But hey, the good thing about Thanksgiving dinner is that if you hate one thing on the table, you won’t go hungry, ’cause there’s so much other good stuff to be eaten. So sure, they humored me. If I wanted to waste my time and groceries, fine.

Getting the right beans

The first problem was the beans. The usual recipe calls for canned green beans. Canned beans? Really? They’re briny and soft and certainly can’t stand up to casserole cooking. Instead, I picked up a pound of fresh green beans, cleaned them and snapped off the ends, then boiled them just a bit, so they were only half-cooked, and put them into a bowl of ice water (this stops the cooking process, so the hot beans don’t end up overdone).

As for the cream of mushroom soup, we can see what they’re going for there: a mushroom cream sauce. So why not just make that instead? Sure, it’s easier to open a can and dump out the contents, but it’s not all that much harder to melt a couple of tablespoons of butter in a pan, then cook some sliced mushrooms and a little bit of minced garlic. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of flour over the butter, whisk together and cook a minute or two, then pour in a cup of chicken stock and a cup of half-and-half. Cook until thickened, add a bit of salt and pepper and there you go, mushroom cream sauce.

Mix this with your beans and maybe a third of the French-fried onions, pour it all into a greased casserole dish, sprinkle the rest of the onions on top and bake until bubbly.

As for the rest of dinner, well, I think I’ll just study up on Mom’s recipes instead. After all, if it ain’t broke . . .

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