Despite my time living in Italy -- known for its impeccable cuisine and staunch culinary rules, where the expression "anything goes" has never applied when it comes to food -- I find that I haven't lost my appreciation for the, ehm, uniqueness of the classic Thanksgiving menu. You know what I mean -- potatoes and white meat turkey aside, the Thanksgiving meal is characterized by dishes that are traditional and beloved, yes, but also undeniably particular, kind of weird, a little odd, the sort of dishes that make any non-American raise a skeptical eyebrow upon learning exactly what the recipe entails. For example: Its not Thanksgiving without the much discussed, oh-so-very eccentric sweet potato marshmallow casserole, aka dessert masquerading as a side dish. You simply can't have Thanksgiving without a dish of (slightly puzzling) Ocean Spray cranberry sauce on the table, slices of fruity goodness -- lined with the telltale ridges from the can! -- served over unlikely slabs of turkey. There is stuffing, a quirky, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of dish -- mixing bread and sausage and other savory ingredients with sweet raisins or apricots, maybe even a few or walnuts or chestnuts -- plus the addition of breakfast-appropriate cornbread (maybe served with a bit of maple butter!) on the table, eaten alongside veggies, gravy, and everything else. To finish off the meal there are the pies, peculiar pumpkin (a vegetable based pie mixing said vegetable with cinnamon and ginger!) and pecan pie, which requires a handful of pecans and a whole lot of corn syrup, a rather controversial ingredient.
(Don't worry, we only eat all this on one day, once a year).
I may be okay with corn syrup rich pies and freely mixing savory with sweet, but there's one out-there dish that doesn't quite make my list: the 100% American Green Bean Casserole, a mainstay on Thanksgiving tables since 1950, when the recipe was published by the Campbell Soup Company. If you're not from the States: the typical Green Bean Casserole consists of green beans, from a can, mixed with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, from a can, topped off with a layer of crunchy French fried onions, also from, surprise surprise, a can. At the huge Thanksgiving dinners of my childhood, there was always a green bean casserole, contributed by some friend-of-a-friend (definitely wasn't made by one of my relatives!) and something about it -- the grayish soup? the sad, limp green beans? the garish sprinkle of brown "onions"? -- made it a side I consistently skipped in the buffet line, leaving my plate sadly devoid of any green vegetable. I won't let this happen to you -- we all need a little vegetable to counter the butter-rich mashed potatoes, some green to break up the beige of the turkey and gravy on your plate! -- which is why I've come to the rescue with today's Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots and Pancetta.
Think of this as an antidote to the heavy, sodium-laden green bean casserole of your youth, a breath of fresh air, a change of pace. The green beans are crisp and fresh and bright, countered nicely by the intensely sweet caramelized shallots and the salty richness of the pancetta (it is a holiday after all, a little indulgence is in order) and the final touch, a dash of bright sunny lemon zest, brings the whole dish together. If lemon zest with pancetta sounds like a strange addition, rest assured I thought the same thing -- How hard would it be to pick out all the tiny bits of lemon zest from the dish, if my culinary instincts were wrong?! I wondered -- but never fear, the bright citrus works here splendidly, giving your palate the jolt it needs and cutting through the heaviness of the other dishes that will be crowding your plate. Now that I think of it, it may even be the quirky touch this side needed in order to fit in with the rest of the already-odd spread on the Thanksgiving table. Welcome to the club, green beans.
A few notes: You could probably substitute red onions or yellow onions for the shallots with slightly different but still good results; I would caramelize a large-ish onion in place of the 3-4 small shallots suggested below. Note that in the photos below I put only two shallots but then changed my mind and added another 2 once I'd sliced them up. You could also probably substitute peas or even spinach or kale (sauteed) or any other green vegetable for the green beans, if you wanted.
Looking for some other sides for Thanksgiving? Here's a few of my other favorites: Sausage, Apple, and Apricot Stuffing, Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette, Herb Roasted Purple and Orange Carrots, Savory Squash Pancakes, and Asparagus with Prosciutto. Best ever Mashed Potatoes to be shared next week!
GREEN BEANS WITH CARAMELIZED SHALLOTS AND PANCETTA
1 1/2 pounds (700 grams) green beans, trimmed
4 ounces (112 grams) pancetta
4 ounces (112 grams) pancetta
3-4 small shallots, sliced
Zest of 1 small lemon
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper
In a large pot, bring salted water to a boil. Add the green beans to the water and cook them for about 2 minutes or until cooked through but still crunchy and crisp. Drain the beans and immediately immerse them in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. Set the green beans aside.
In a large skillet, heat a tiny bit of olive oil over medium-low heat and add the pancetta. Cook the pancetta until crispy and then remove with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Lower the heat in the pan. Next, add the shallots and the tablespoon of butter to the pan with the bacon fat (butter and bacon fat in one pan, I know!) Cook over very low heat until soft and caramelized, about 15-20 minutes. Add the pancetta back to the pan along with the green beans, and then add the lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste.
Toss the all the ingredients together and let the green beans heat up. Serve garnished with extra lemon zest and serve immediately. Serves 6.