Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Extra Helpings: Friendsgiving, Part II - Casserole

In an unusual twist, this will actually be my second Extra Helpings posting. I had started talking about my Friendsgiving experience in a prior post and since this is the week of Thanksgiving, I wanted to make sure I got in both the recipes for the Red and Black bread as well as the other dish that I brought to the dinner, Green Bean Casserole. What?!?! After I prattle on endlessly about avoiding processed foods and buying locally and seasonally and I have the NERVE to bring that bastion of convenience and overly salted badness known as GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE?

Calm down, gentle reader, you should know me better by now. I decided many years ago to take that unholy trinity of canned string beans, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup and French Fried onion bits and reinvent it. This isn't simply dressing up the old stand-by with a few fresh herbs; this is a complete overhaul, Green Bean Casserole version 2.0 if you will. The first year I brought this dish to Thanksgiving dinner, my mother was so convinced that no one would like my "gourmet" version that she also fixed the original. Suffice it to say that my grandmother, longtime believer in the philosophy of Campbell's cans of processed goodness, actually asked me for the recipe. I don't think she would ever make it herself, but hey, the gesture of her asking was compliment enough.

Before we get started, I will warn you that this is not a "shortcut" kind of a recipe. When I make this dish by myself (which is 99% of the time), it usually takes me about 2 to 2 1/2 hours to go from prepping the ingredients to pouring it into the casserole dish. That being said, you can make the bean and mushroom base and keep it in the fridge for up to 2 days before you bake it for dinner, so you can plan ahead. Plus, I would say that half of the time for this dish is in the prep work, so if you can get others to help out with trimming the beans and cutting the shallots and garlic, you'll cut your time down significantly.

This recipe is for a 13" x 9" Pyrex casserole dish. I've also baked this in a 8" x 8" casserole dish and it worked well, too. You end up using about a 1/3 less of each item for the smaller dish.

You start out by getting 2 1/4 pounds of fresh green beans and weeding out the undesirables, trimming the ends off the good beans and then cutting each bean into bite-sized portions:

This alone is probably the most time-consuming part of the recipe. You can leave the beans longer if you want to (I did this the first time I made it), however, they don't serve well with a spoon and people end up having to cut them before eating them anyway. Here was a shot of my fully trimmed and ready to go beans:

After trimming up the beans, you need to blanch them. Start by bringing a large pot of water to the boil:

Only after the water reaches the boil do you want to throw in about 1/2 cup of salt into the water. You'll know that your water is salty enough when you (carefully) taste it. It should taste salty, but not powerfully so. You want to blanch your beans in batches, the number of batches really depends on the amount of water you have to cook them in. In my case, two batches was plenty. If your pot were smaller, there is nothing wrong with doing three, four, or more batches. After you add your batch of beans, place the lid on and start the timer for three minutes. After about thirty seconds, remove the lid and stir the beans so that they are all submerged. After exactly three minutes, remove the beans with a metal spider or a slotted spoon into a bowl of cold water with ice cubes:

This will stop the cooking process of the beans and lock in that gorgeous green color. Once the beans have been shocked, they can happily hang out in this bowl until you've processed all of your batches. Add ice cubes as necessary to keep the water cool. Make sure you bring the water in your pot back to the boil before adding the next batch. There will be no need to add additional salt between batches. Once all of your beans have been blanched and shocked, drain them in a colander and spread them out onto either multiple layers of paper towels or on tea towels. You want to get as much water off the surface of the beans as you can or else it could water down the bechamel sauce we will be making later in the recipe.

Hooray, the first (and most time consuming) step has now been completed!

The next step is to make the mushroom bechamel sauce that we will toss with the blanched green beans. First, finely mince three medium shallots and nine cloves of garlic:

I normally toss a little bit of olive oil in with each and mix with a spoon in order to help prevent oxidation while we prep the other ingredients.

Next up are three kinds of mushrooms. The first two, button and shiitake, are fresh. Most supermarkets now carry fresh shiitake mushrooms, so these shouldn't be too hard to find. You could always substitute the same amount of another kind of common mushroom, like cremini, if you can't find the shiitake. The third kind of mushroom required will be dried porcini. It is definitely the most expensive of the three per ounce, but because of its intense flavor, you'll only need one ounce.

Here we have 14 ounces of fresh button mushrooms, 8 ounces of fresh shiitake mushrooms (with stems) and 1 ounce of dried porcini mushrooms from Heather's Heat and Flavor in Hudson, OH. Heather's has some of the best dried porcini mushrooms I have ever come across. Sadly, as the clerk who helped me earlier in the week informed me, these aren't a big seller and until the demand improves, once the two Heather's locations run out of these mushrooms, they won't be refilling their inventory anytime soon.

To begin processing the mushrooms, bring about 2 cups of water to a rapid boil on the stovetop. Turn off the burner, add the entire ounce of mushrooms and stir with a spoon to make sure that all the mushrooms have been moistened and submerged. This will need to steep for about twenty minutes to fully hydrate the mushrooms, so you might want to do this step while you are prepping your green beans during the first part of this recipe:

Every five minutes or so, just give this a casual stir. For the button mushrooms, I simply wiped any dirt off the caps and sliced them in about 1/4" slices. The shiitake mushrooms must be de-stemmed and then have their caps cut into 2, 4 or 6 pieces, depending on how big the cap is. They should be roughly the same size as the sliced button mushrooms. Once the porcini mushrooms have been reconstituted, strain and reserve the soaking liquid. Press on the porcini to push out any extra moisture and give them a rough chop on your cutting board. Here was a shot of the prepped mushrooms and the porcini soaking liqueur:

In the same pot (which was simply rinsed out) in which you blanched the green beans, put it over a medium to medium-high heat, add three or four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and add in all of the shallots and garlic:

Add salt and freshly cracked pepper and begin stirring the mixture. You want it to saute until the shallots are translucent, but make sure not to burn the garlic. If you do, toss this mixture and start again; there is no way to recover if the garlic gets burned. After maybe 90 seconds sauting in the pan, add the button mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms, another glug or two of olive oil and another round of salt and pepper:

Continue to stir the mushrooms until they start to exude some of their water and begin to shrink. Once this begins to happen, add in the reconstituted porcini, reseason as necessary and cook until the mushrooms are nicely cooked and there is no extra moisture in the pan. At this point, transfer the cooked mushrooms to a separate bowl:

The next step is to make the bechamel sauce for the mushrooms. The ingredients required are:

Fresh thyme sprigs, half a stick of unsalted butter (salted would work okay, too), about 2 cups of 2% milk, the reserved porcini soaking liquid, and 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour. The first step is to make a roux. Place the mushroom-free (but not cleaned) pot back on the burner and add the four tablespoons of butter. Once the butter has melted and is bubbling, add in the flour. This all moves pretty fast at this point, so no distractions ... no phone calls, no kids, no pets. Once you've added the flour, you need to use a whisk to constantly stir the flour and butter. As you whisk, you will liberate the little bits off the bottom of the pot and they will incorporate into the roux, turning it darker and darker. This is perfectly normal.

After cooking the roux for about two minutes, the flour taste will be gone and we can start adding the liquid. We are looking to add about three cups total liquid to our cooked roux. Whisking with one hand, start by adding the porcini liquid. Add as much as you can without adding any of the little mushroom sediment that has now settled on the bottom of your container. As you begin to add the liquid, it will start to bubble and look like it has seized up. Keep adding liquid and whisking. Once the porcini liquid is used up, move to the 2% milk. Add between 1 1/2 - 2 cups, depending on how much porcini liquid you added, constantly whisking. At this point, the sauce will not look thick enough. Add your first round of seasoning (salt and pepper) and between 6-8 sprigs of fresh thyme. Now, continue to whisk until the liquid comes to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, turn down the burner to a simmer and whisk on and off for about 5-10 more minutes.

At this point, the sauce will be nice and thick (gravy-esque), the thyme sprigs will have released all of their leaves, and the sauce should have a smooth, shiny appearance to it. Pull out the thyme sprigs, adjust the seasoning one last time, and add your cooked mushrooms back into the sauce. Of the two, the mushroom sauce should be slightly more aggressively seasoned than the green beans. Even though we salted the blanching water for the green beans, they will still require additional seasoning to be perfect. Once the mushrooms have been returned, add in your drained, blanched beans and mix to coat:

At this point, make a final tasting. Try and get both a mushroom and a bean on the same bite. One should be more aggressively salted, the other a bit on the weak side. But as you chew them together, you should get a feeling for the "average" salt level. As this mixture sits overnight, the salt levels of each component will average out. Once you are happy with the final seasoning, take this pot off heat and continue to stir every couple of minutes to release the heat. Once is it has cooled to a little bit above room temperature, scrape into your 9" x 13" casserole dish and press into an even layer. Cover with plastic wrap, foil, or the plastic lid and place in the refrigerator overnight.

The third and final component of our Green Bean Casserole version 2.0 is the topping. Knowing that when I reinvented this dish I needed to stick with the crispy topping for it to be truly accepted, I decided to do a fresh bread crumb and olive oil mixture that would turn golden brown as the casserole baked away in the oven. To make the topping you'll need your food processor, six slices of your favorite whole wheat bread, about one cup of freshly grated Parmegiano Reggiano, fresh thyme and rosemary, and extra virgin olive oil:

I stripped enough rosemary and thyme to taste (probably about 1/4 cup of each), place them in the food processor with the bread torn up into smaller pieces and then essentially whizzed the heck out of it until every was chopped very fine. You then take this mixture and put it into a bowl and add the grated cheese. I'm assuming, gentle reader, that if you've decided to make the recipe using my directions up to this point, you won't do yourself a great disservice and use the stuff that comes in the "green" can that you keep in the fridge. One cup of grated cheese is an approximation, use more or less to your taste. I usually add enough cheese so that after it is incorporated into the bread crumbs, I can still see the cheese bits throughout the bread. At this point, you can stop, cover the bowl and place it aside for later use if you aren't ready for it right away.

To finish the topping, you need to stir in (with a spoon) enough extra virgin olive oil so that the entire mixture looks "moist." Enough so that as you stir the mixture, the bread crumbs form little balls that break up easily if you prod them with the spoon. Although this shot is a little blurry, this is just the right amount:

At this point, take the casserole out of the fridge, generously top it with the bread crumb mixture and place in a 350 degree oven for about 35-40 minutes. You'll know it's ready when the mushroom bechamel sauce is nice and bubbly and the topping is golden brown. What happens if you get bubbly before you get brown? Stick the casserole underneath the broiler for 20-30 seconds until the bread crumbs brown up nicely. Pay attention though as they will brown very quickly.

I will say this about the finished casserole: Right out of the oven it will be rocket hot and probably not edible for a good 10-15 minutes without burning your mouth, so prepare on letting it sit a little bit before diving in. Here was a shot of the finished product that we served at the Friendsgiving dinner:

And a shot of my portion on my plate (along with all of the other yummy goodies):

On this plate was some of Kathy's very tender and juicy turkey, Jane's cornbread dressing, wonderfully tasty whipped potatoes and an artichoke salads with capers that was simply delightful. There were lots of side dishes and as with the regular holiday of Thanksgiving, everyone ate until they were too stuffed to move and we had TONS of food left over. I guess this is what happens when foodies cook for themselves. However, everyone had room for the most amazing dessert selections. Between the ricotta cookies, cheesecake bites, fudge bites, walnut chocolate tarte, two kinds of pumpkin pie and lemon ricotta cake, we were in full-on food coma heaven. Four and a half-hours after arriving and eating non-stop, I and a few of the other guests came to the sad realization that Friendsgiving was over for another year, packed up our leftovers and headed out into the crisp November air.

While Thanksgiving is a time for me to reflect and be thankful for having a job (you know, the one that affords me the opportunity to be able to pay all those restaurant checks), a supportive family, and so many good things in my life, Friendsgiving now allows me to be thankful for my newly acquired Akron foodie family as well. That they are serious, irreverent, funny, and light-hearted all at the same time makes for a fantastic way to spend five hours of your life, eating, drinking, and laughing until your sides hurt.

Here's a tear sheet of the ingredients you'll need:

Green Bean Casserole version 2.0
2 1/4 pounds fresh green beans
14 ounces button mushrooms
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 medium shallots
9 cloves garlic (1 head should suffice)
Fresh thyme
2 cups 2% (or higher) milk
1/4 cup All Purpose flour
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil for sauteing

For the topping you'll need:
6 slices of whole wheat bread
1 cup of grated Parmegiano Reggiano
Fresh thyme
Fresh rosemary
Extra virgin olive oil


BONNIE K said...

It does look wonderful, but you lost me at "2.5 hours."

Tino said...

@Bonnie K: Well, to be totally fair, that's 2 1/2 hours of me prepping while I'm watching TV in the kitchen and enjoying a glass (or two) of wine. Plus, the beans really are the longest thing to prep. If you have an extra pair of hands, I wouldn't be surprised if you could cut that time in half.

And the difference in flavor is truly remarkable.

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