Barbara Kafka's Szechuan Green Beans
I have a clear memory of a night nearly thirty years ago when my husband and I returned home from a weekend away. We were recently married and living in our first apartment, a small wreck of a pre-war that we had used our entire combined net worth and debt-worthiness to renovate. The renovation included a brand new kitchen that was compact but all mine, with a big, white porcelain sink. We also managed to find a spot, tucked behind a door, for a narrow stack of shelves to hold my cookbooks.
That night as we entered the apartment, the first thing we noticed was the damp smell. And then we saw the water on the kitchen floor. And then the ceiling above that had collapsed over it all. We came to learn that It was a right of passage: New York City’s old apartments leak a lot.
While Mark called the super, and as the ceiling continued to drizzle, I quickly scanned the damage. Looking at my small collection of cookbooks, it was as if the exploding water pipe in the ceiling had taken direct aim. Most of the books were well soaked and splattered with wet plaster, although both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking had somehow missed the worst of it. But my precious copy of Betty Crocker, the 1950 edition that had been my mother’s and so was full of her scribbles and notes, didn’t fare as well. By the time Mark got off the phone, I had already disassembled the waterlogged book, removing the pages from its red binder cover, and separating them one by one, dabbing each with paper towels and delicately laying the pages on any dry surface I could find. Betty Crocker survived, sort of, with a warped cover and wrinkles throughout, but it’s readable and I still treasure it. But most of the other twenty or so cookbooks that made up my little collection were ruined.
The leak got repaired and my kitchen got patched up and again felt new. The shelves for my cookbooks were now nearly empty, holding only Julia’s Volumes I and II and my warped Betty Crocker. But it also held a large, blue three-ring notebook holding 50 or so unmatched pages. That's because before throwing out the ruined books, I had carefully gone through each of them, tearing out recipes I had made and wanted to make again. I was still a new cook but a striving one, and as I was making my home with my new husband, I wanted to build a repertoire of the foods we together loved and that I could make for us and our friends. Just as my mother had filled her first copy of Betty Crocker with scribbles and memories, I wanted my own diary of successes, perhaps to build confidence but also to remember. That first blue binder is now one of nine that hold family recipes, menus of holiday meals and celebrations, and favorites culled from old issues of Gourmet and now the web. I still keep these notebooks in my kitchen, alongside a small group of my most dog-eared cookbooks.
On that water-leaked Sunday night so many years ago, one of the first recipes I rescued was for Szechuan Green Beans published in Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka. Page 293. I still have it. And I still make it.
Microwave Gourmet was published in 1987 and was, to use a currently overworked word, a disrupter. Microwave ovens had been introduced to American kitchens in the 1970’s but by 1986, the year Barbara wrote her book, only 25% of homes had one. Microwaves were still unfamiliar to most home cooks, who probably only thought of them as a way to quickly bake a potato or boil water for a cup of tea. Microwave Gourmet changed that by showing how to harness the unique cooking features of the microwave to make such diverse and unexpectedly complex dishes as shad roe with sorrel sauce, cranberry sauce, pork chops with sauerkraut, sauce espagnole, artichokes, and even risotto. Just as America was looking for more convenience in the kitchen while at the same time, wanting to explore foods from around the world, her book came along and was a big hit.
It was something Barbara was particularly adept at doing – finding a trend or a need and translating it into a resource for home cooks. She did it again with her last book, The Intolerant Gourmet, which raised allergen-free cooking to a new standard. In all she wrote seven cookbooks, all of them successful and most of them award-winning and best-selling.
Barbara Kafka died last week after a long illness. She was 84. Here is her obituary from The Washington Post.
Barbara was a warm and intense woman, impressively hard working, intolerant of mediocrity or sloppiness, tough, curious, intelligent, candid, wonderfully engaging, and very kind. I know this because decades after rescuing that recipe for Szechuan Green Beans, I found myself in her Upper East Side kitchen, making a Blackberry Bavarian Cream.
When I launched The City Cook, Barbara reached out to me and became a regular reader, corresponding with me after nearly every newsletter or fresh posting at the website. This, of course, knocked me on my heels because I had so respected her and cooked often from nearly all of her books. So when she asked me to come test a few recipes for the forthcoming The Intolerant Gourmet, it was better than being invited to a royal wedding. As we got to work, I was, I thought, on my best game, at least I was trying to be. But she corrected my technique with the clarity of a drill sergeant. And she was always right.
The recipe for her dairy- and gluten-free Blackberry Bavarian Cream is inspired and exquisite. And typical of a Barbara Kafka recipe, it was meticulously written and although in this case, the making was not a snap, she put its success completely within your hands.
My favorite of her books is Roasting: A Simple Art in which she roasts -- at mostly blisteringly high temperatures -- meats, fish, poultry, fruits, and vegetables to make amazing dishes. As just one example -- there seems to be thousands of ways to roast a chicken, but the one that will always succeed – with no gimmicks, no beer cans, no upside-down vertical racks, no bed of croutons, no brining – is Barbara's: just a good chicken and a hot (clean) oven. 500° F and 10 minutes a pound. Food 52 anointed it a “genius” recipe. Here it is.
Barbara won many awards and was repeatedly recognized by the James Beard Foundation, including with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Even if you didn’t know who she was or ever looked at one of her books, she influenced how you cook as she demystified and took the fuss out of cooking while advocating for simple food, made well, and with the best ingredients. At a time when thousands of cookbooks are published every year, when a cookbook can’t sell if it doesn’t have an Instagram following, when star chefs hire ghost writers to pen their recipes and never test them in a home kitchen, and when lifestyle trumps the food, flavor, and the sharing of wisdom, we have fewer and fewer true experts who can teach us and help us feed ourselves with pleasure, health, and satisfaction. And that is what Barbara did.
Besides getting to make an exquisite Blackberry Bavarian Cream in Barbara Kafka’s Manhattan kitchen, I was also lucky enough to record two podcasts with her. See our links at the top of this article. She also shared her superb and simple recipe for Microwave Shrimp Risotto.
Here is that rescued recipe for Szechuan Green Beans. The instructions are Barbara’s.
“This dish is a triumph. It takes only 1 tablespoon of oil for a pound of beans. There is no deep-frying. The color is good, the flavor delicious. Be careful if you make them ahead. They will disappear. People love to munch on them. I use them as a satisfying, low-calorie snack before dinner and as a picnic dish. Makes 4 cups; serves 8 as a side dish.”
6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 quarter-size slices fresh ginger, peeled
2 scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes
1 tablespoon tamari soy
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 pound green beans, tipped and tailed
- Place garlic, ginger and scallions in the workbowl of a food processor. Process until finely chopped. Remove to a 14” x 11” x 2” dish. Add oil and pepper flakes. Cook, uncovered, at 100% for 3 minutes.
- Remove from oven. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cook, uncovered, at 100% for 15 minutes, stirring 4 to 5 times.
- Remove from oven. Stir and serve hot or cold.
My condolences to Barbara Kafka's family and friends, and to the millions of home cooks who benefited from her talent and passion.
Kate McDonough, Editor