Long what? Long beans. As in green beans, on steroids.
I first saw and tasted long beans in Vancouver last summer at a wonderful "fusion" type of asian restaurant on the edge of Gastown. At least I think that's where it was. We'd actually tried to get into a Belgian restaurant first, and had to change our plans when it turned out to be more than backed up at the door. So we hit Wild RIce, a fantastic place with some amazing dishes and a really neat "freshly made, fast to the table, fabulously served" type of attitude.
At this restaurant the long beans came tied loosely and coated in a nice, rich sauce, with some finely minced veggies thrown in. And hot. No small feat, since the restaurant was completely devoid of heat lamps.
Long beans, I learned that evening, are a variety of green bean that is approximately one foot in length. They have the same colour as your run of the mill green bean, but the flavour, I've found, is slightly different. So is the skin -- it is slightly pebbled, rather than smooth, and I'd say a bit tougher - but that depends on freshness, I suspect.
Since Ottawa has an excellent Chinatown replete with vastly stocked asian food markets, I decided to make my own long beans when we got home. They're generally sold in a large bunch tied together with string or elastics, and if you dig at the pile, you can find nice fresh (read green, rather than mottled green and brown) beans in any of our asian food shops.
I don't know how else to cook them but in a steamer -- and in a good sized steamer, at that. I have tried this method a couple of times, and enjoyed the results. So now you get the "recipe", such as it is. This dish takes some fussy prep, but it's highly appreciated by all who consume it, in the end.
[Make sure to read the note at the end about timing, before you start!]
SESAME LONG BEANS
Bring a steamer pot of water to a rolling boil. Make sure you have the water level well below where the bottom of the steamer basket will be. If you don't have a steamer insert for any of your pots, nor a pasta pot with insert, you can improvise with a metal colander in a suitably sized saucepan - so long as a lid will cover the pot to trap steam. If not, go out and buy a large saucepan that has a steamer insert, for pete's sake!
While the water boils (or while your significant other goes out to buy a pot), clean and pare the brown ends off your beans. In fact, you should only have to trim one end of the bean, since the other end is usually just a rounded green edge. Take the time to do this one or two at a time, because you don't want your beans to have black ends or gunky tips. Lay the trimmed beans together in a straight pile.
Take your beans and bend them gently to fit into your steamer. It is easiest to do this in two or three lots, if you're cooking more than a couple of servings of beans. The beans are pliable, but take care not to snap any as you do. Don't overfill the steamer - if you do, the beans at the bottom will be overcooked, but the ones at the top will be uncooked!
Throw two cloves of garlic (peeled and with the base trimmed off) into the steamer with the beans. Put the steamer into the pot of boiling water, and cover.
Cook for a few minutes, checking periodically. You don't want the beans to turn that "overcooked bean" colour, aka khaki green. But you do want them to get somewhat tender. There's no magic figure for this cooking time, so plan to park yourself by the stove at this point.
In fact, why not make your sauce while you wait.
Pick one (or make up your own!):
Oyster sauce: Take 3 tablespoons oyster sauce and mix with one teaspoon water. Add a little ground black pepper, and a light shake of red chili pepper flakes if you'd like the spice. Whisk.
Hoi Sin sauce: Mix 2 tablespoons of Hoi Sin sauce with two tablespoons of water, some ground pepper, and red chili pepper flakes. If you'd rather use fresh chili peppers, go ahead...but tread lightly, and chop extremely finely. Whisk.
Also finely chop a bit of sweet red pepper - aim to make about a quarter cup. Set aside.
Set 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds to the side.
When your beans are just barely done, pull them from the pot, and drain. Cover with your sauce, toss very gently to coat. Don't worry about covering every bean perfectly. As you handle them, they'll get covered more evenly.
Now the painful part. Working one bean at a time (yes, I'm serious), and as fast as you can, tie each bean into a loose knot. It takes a bit of practice, but you can get the bean ends tucked up into the knot to make a green bean wreath, if you have decent dexterity. Place into a large shallow bowl, or on a deep platter. Tie, tie, tie, until all your beans are pretty little one and a half or two inch wreaths sitting in a big artsy pile.
Sprinkle with sesame seeds, and chopped red pepper, and grind some fresh black pepper over top.
Serve immediately (if you can, get your dinner guests to the table even as you finish tying the beans. Alternatively, use that nifty "hold warm" feature on your fancypants microwave to keep the beans warm while you herd butts into dining room chairs!).
This dish is fussy and time consuming. So make sure you're ready to go on all other fronts before you start the beans. It helps if your guests can amuse themselves or have someone else to play gracious host while you're tying beans in the kitchen. That said, if you get the beans done and you think they're cold, nuking them for a minute to reheat won't ruin the dish.
Why bother tying the beans? Because they're fun to eat that way, and more manageable. Chopsticks or fork, a tied long bean is much easier to pick up and get into the mouth. And (as you'll hear me say a lot) the presentation is amazing. Oohs and ahs all around.
As a production side note: I have, in the past, tied the beans before coating them in sauce -- but it's pretty hard to coat them after they're tied without having them come undone. So coat first, tie second. And be prepared to get sticky fingers in the pursuit of your long bean dish!