Those of you who are home gardeners, or who are old enough to remember “when green beans were green beans”—stringy, large, and grown vertically rather than in bushes—will remember the Kentucky Wonder. I remember my father, a suburban dweller and an occasional gardener with a country man’s heart, raving about them.
Originally called “Old Homestead,” the Kentucky Wonder has been around for over 150 years and is enjoying renewed interest as an heirloom variety. While the venerated Blue Lake variety is more popular, especially in the East, the Kentucky Wonder is being rediscovered. In the South, it was never lost, and remains the choice bean for stewing with a little smoked pork.
While not nearly as smooth, straight, and beautiful and deep green as Blue Lakes, Kentucky wonders certainly take the prize on size. This is a major reason for their name, but another is their wonderful true green-bean flavor. Yes, they can be stringy (unlike Blue Lakes) or a bit tough, but only if they are old. If you grow them, or locate them very fresh, you will find they have a beautiful snapping quality—hence their other moniker, snap beans—and may not need stringing at all. The fresh-picked beans pictured here did not.
Look for beans that are long (curvaceous is fine) and bulging with seeds, but flexible (not leathery) to the touch; snap one as a test of its freshness and taste it. A good pole bean is tasty raw, not fibrous or tough. They will only need breaking off the stem end. Cook them as soon after buying them as you can, as they will toughen and lose flavor with storage.
Coming across these beans at the farmer’s market took me back. I am accustomed to cooking my green beans uncovered for four minutes—and serving them bright and crisp-tender with butter and salt. But these beans call for something slower and more old-fashioned. They are still cooked this way in the South. And they are delicious.
Pole Beans with Smoked Ham Hock
If fresh, these beans could technically be eaten after 30-45 minutes of cooking. But if you double that amount of time, you will have greater depth of flavor—and a wonderful “pot liquor” in which to dunk some cornbread—and still have good texture. The directions are general, as this is not precise cooking. Have old, somewhat overgrown Blue Lakes or other beans? Try them this way. You can also add some small potatoes for the last half-hour of cooking for a nice one-pot vegetarian meal. Serves 4.
1 lb pole beans, such as Kentucky Wonder
½ lb lightly smoked ham hock (with bone) or 1/3 lb slab bacon
1 small onion
big pinch salt
1 cup or more light ham or chicken stock, or water
half a mild chile, such as Hatch, Anaheim, or Poblano
Cut the meat off the hock and chop it into small pieces, or dice the bacon. Render in a Dutch Oven or other heavy pot. Slice or chop the onion and add it to the rendered fat; sauté over medium heat until both the pork and the onion are lightly brown.
Add the snapped beans and sauté for a few minutes. Add a big pinch of salt and add stock just to cover the beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 45 minutes. Add the chile and cook for another 15-30 minutes.