In honor of the Chinese 10/10 Day I am retelling one of my favorite stories based on an ancient Chinese 'legend."
My grandmother lived with us when I was growing up and did all of the cooking. As a child, I disliked most food and considered eating to be a chore I did to please my anxious mother and grandmother, who, it seemed, would go to any lengths to entice my reluctant appetite. A typical pre-dinner dialogue would go something like this: Grandma (with a hopeful expression shining on her face): "Rosie; I made string beans tonight!" Me (mildly threatening tone): "Did you burn them?" Grandma (plaintively): "It's so hard to wash the fendle (Yiddish for pot) when they're burned." Me: (unimpressed and openly threatening): "You know I won't eat them if they're not burned."
How this all got started was, of course, by Grandma's having accidentally burned the string beans one night. It reminds me of Charles Lamb's "Dissertation on Roast Pig." (The story of how roast--read burnt--pig was discovered in ancient China.) It wasn't until many years later that I discovered Chinese "dry fried string beans," a recipe in which the string beans are intentionally browned (lightly burned). But I will always miss my grandmother's version. You see, the string beans burn to just the right degree only when the cooking water is allowed to evaporate (inadvertently) and the beans start to burn just to the point when suddenly you smell them.
I was always reassured that the string beans would be perfect when I heard my grandmother cry out: "Oy! The string beans are burn't again." God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
Updated Burnt String Beans on the Grill
My dear friend Elizabeth Karmel, who has written several excellent grilling cookbooks, made string beans on the grill for me that put all thoughts of other past ones almost entirely out of my mind. Her method is simply to toss the washed and trimmed string beans with salt and olive oil and then to toss them on a hot grill rack and continue tossing them with tongs until they are deliciously browned, partially blackened, and beginning to shrivel. My method, based on hers is to bar boil them in salted water for 3 minutes, drain them, and toss them in the olive oil and salt though sometimes I use melted bacon fat. Being a baker more than a griller I like to toss them in a grill pan with holes (preferably a disposable foil one) before placing them on the grill to ensure that I won’t lose a single of the more skinny beans to the flames below the grill rack. Either way, season with lots of freshly ground pepper.