In the 1980s, I attended a cooking class in Florence run by Giuliano Bugialli. A woman in the first row kept pointing out that in many Asian cuisines, vegetables are cooked just until crisp-tender. After a few minutes of her admonishments, Bugialli turned to her, voice raised, and said, “Madam, in Italy we cook our vegetables!”
In many cultures, including in our own South, green beans and other vegetables often are fully cooked, sometimes stewed for over an hour. And in the Middle East, a region famous for its vegetable dishes, those green beans are stewed with spices and tomatoes, transforming a simple dish into something worthy of special attention.
My introduction to the latter version of this dish was through the hospitality of Hussein Hadid, a restaurateur and catering chef in Beirut. During our afternoon visit in his spacious downtown apartment, Hadid demonstrated a handful of simple, home-style dishes, including loubieh bi zeit, Lebanese green beans, which was simplicity itself: onions, garlic, an intense tomato sauce that was rich in flavor, vegetable broth and the beans (loubieh).
Hussein Hadid demonstrated a handful of simple, home-style dishes, including loubeih bi zeit, Lebanese green beans, which was simplicity itself.
Back at Milk Street, we had to amplify the flavors, since we were starting with lesser ingredients than Hadid had. Many versions of this recipe do use spices, often baharat, which includes pepper, cumin, coriander, clove, cardamom, paprika, cinnamon and nutmeg. During testing, we found the clove overpowering and the paprika unnecessary, so we reduced our spice list to five items plus salt and pepper.
We cooked the beans in two stages—first with the spices, sautéed shallots and drained, crushed tomatoes, then for a longer period with the reserved juices. A total cooking time of 20 to 25 minutes fully cooked the beans and allowed them to better absorb the flavors of the spice mixture.
A simple, home-style dish? Sure. When simplicity of technique meets complexity of flavor, that’s perfection.