Chinese green beans may not seem like the most obviously perfect dish for Thanksgiving, but these really are. At a table laden with buttery bread stuffing, creamy mashed potatoes and candied sweet potatoes, lightly seasoned crisp-tender string beans make so much more sense than a heavy green bean casserole.
My mom is famous for these green beans, a perennial favorite at her Thanksgiving table. The first time I made them for my in-law family in Ohio years ago, my husband’s 80-year-old grandmother declared them the best thing she’d ever eaten.
The key to these green beans is a quick bath in hot oil. The hot oil bath is the secret to many great Chinese dishes – without breading, meats and vegetables absorb remarkably little oil, and the quick sear seals in flavor and juiciness.
The beans are finished with a quick stir fry with green onion, a bit of soy sauce and a sprinkle of vinegar and sugar. The light flavorings go as well with an American meal as an Asian one.
The fact that I’m a hot-oil wimp is why I cook less Chinese food at home than I’d like, and why the food I do make never tastes as good as my mom’s. I dislike the mess of frying, and I’m always perplexed by what to do with the oil afterward.
But even I will make the extra effort for these green beans. Conveniently, the frying step can be done a day or two ahead of time, and the finishing stir fry only takes a minute before serving.
A few years ago my mom discovered a mini deep fryer called the Fry Daddy. It’s essentially a small electric pot that holds a few cups of hot oil. She now does all her frying outside, like other people do with their grilling, and it saves her from always cleaning grease off the vent hood above her stove. She says it’s the best $25 she ever spent.
My mom cooked up a monster batch of green beans in her outdoor fry station before our early Thanksgiving in California. Don’t get intimidated – this is four pounds.
When I cook these at home, I use a small skillet so it doesn’t take too much oil to get the depth I need. Then I just cook the beans a small handful at a time. Mom can cook larger batches in her portable fryer. The key in any case is perfectly dry beans to minimize splatter.
Stirring the beans while cooking helps them cook faster by circulating fresh hot oil around the beans.
It’s important to drain the beans on paper towels so that the towels absorb the hot oil instead of the beans.
I took a picture as I was transporting the cooked green beans inside. Green beans in my mom’s garden.
The next day we finished the beans just before Thanksgiving dinner was served. It only takes a minute. A bit of green onion to flavor the oil.
My mom adds soy sauce with the oil. I usually add it after the green beans with a sprinkle of vinegar and sugar.
A quick toss to coat and heat, and the green beans are ready to go.
Try these green beans for a special occasion dinner, or use them to make any dinner special.
- When I wimp out on making mom’s green beans for Thanksgiving, I make these instead: Green beans with feta and balsamic vinegar.
- Not authentic but quick and good: Easy chicken and green bean stir fry.
Chinese Green Beans
The key to these magically good green beans is a quick bath in hot oil, which seals in flavor and leaves them bright green and crisp-tender.
- 1 pound fresh green beans
- Cooking oil for frying (my mom likes corn oil best)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 green onion (scallion)
- 1/2 teaspoon vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- Snap off ends of green beans. My mom says Chinese cooks take off the point end as well as the stem end, but Americans and Europeans take off the stem end only. Either way works.
- Rinse green beans well under cold water. Dry very well. Water left on the beans will splatter in the oil.
- Step one: fry beans in hot oil until bright green and a bit wrinkly. If you have a fryer, fry the beans in small batches. If you don’t, use a pan on the stovetop with 1/2 inch to 1 inch of oil. A wok is good to minimize oil usage. If you use a small pan, you will need less oil to get the depth you need, but you will only be able to fry a few beans at a time. A larger pan will use more oil but take less time. Don’t overcrowd the beans – if the oil isn’t quickly bubbling again soon after you add the beans, you’re cooking too many at once. Use chopsticks or tongs to move the beans as they cook – this will help circulate the hot oil.
- Take out beans to drain on a paper towel. The paper towel will absorb excess oil before the beans do. Set aside. If you are making this ahead of time, you can refrigerate the beans a day or two ahead and finish them just before serving.
- Step two: briefly stir fry beans with flavorings. Slice the green onion (my mom uses the green part cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces, but if you are using the white part you’ll want a thinner slice). Heat a tablespoon of cooking oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add green onions and cook briefly to flavor the oil.
- Add green beans. Sprinkle with soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. Use tongs to turn green beans to coat. Cook only briefly to incorporate flavorings and warm the beans. Place beans on platter for serving.
- If you can find them, slim French green beans work well for this dish – they cook faster and are more tender than the large ones.
- Any vinegar is fine – white, apple cider, rice.
- For a large meal such as Thanksgiving, it helps to do step one a day or two ahead of time. Step two only takes a minute before serving.
- To save the cooking oil for re-use, strain the oil through a fine sieve and store in a cool place. Opinions differ on the safety of re-using oil due to possible release of carcinogens during re-heating. The chinese grandma in me wants to save it, but the health nut in me has reservations.
- To dispose of oil, let cool first. If you have an empty container with a lid from your recycling bin, it’s easiest to pour it, cap it and throw it away. Oil can eat holes in plastic bags, so pouring directly in the trash can make a mess. Aside from inviting plumbing problems, a small amount of oil contaminates a large amount of water, so don’t be tempted to pour it down the sink.
Here’s the link to a printable version.