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Emerald City: Cold Green Bean Salads

We sat in the cramped kitchen, watching Dallas with French subtitles. I was 16, fresh off the exchange-student bus. Martine was not 10 years older than I, and pregnant. Her English was about on a par with my French, which meant that most of the time we hovered in a fog of friendly but mutual incomprehension. Trimming green beans, however, demands neither wit nor vocabulary, and so that is what we were doing.

While Martine finished cooking, I retreated to my room, where, with the shy person's desperate faith in books, I read the bilingual dictionary. The tiny house filled with an aroma so tantalizing that when I returned to the table, I was shocked to find nothing but the beans, now buttered and steaming in a bowl. It was more shocking still to find that they tasted like sweet hay and captured sunlight rather than, well, nothing, like the green beans back home always tasted. We ate them nearly every day for two weeks, and I did not tire of them.

I know what you're saying. What, you went to France and had something great to eat? Big deal; donnez-moi un break. I'm not gloating, though. Although I tried to make those buttered beans myself in later years, I never really replicated the experience. And these days, although I may be willing to spend sweaty weeks in the garden making sure I have a constant supply of superb green beans, I rarely feel like eating them hot on summer evenings.

No, these days what I tend to crave is a cold green bean salad — crisp, bright and fast, easy to make in the morning and leave in the fridge all day. Easy to pack for a picnic, easy to bring to a potluck. In fact, you can just blanch the beans in the morning, chill them and dress them later in the heat of the afternoon, when blanching beans in boiling water seems like a really good thing to have done six hours ago.

Now, blanching — a fast boil that leaves green vegetables crisp and brilliant — scarcely counts as cooking, but I'm going to share a few tips anyway. If you already consider yourself a master in the fine art of boiling water, feel free to skip them.

Use thin beans if at all possible — preferably no thicker than a chopstick or a pencil. If you can get the elegant haricots verts, scarcely thicker than pipe cleaners, so much the better. Fat, mealy beans are a bore even warm; in cold salads they're downright depressing.

Salt plenty of water and bring it to a big-bubble boil. Too little water, and you'll lose your big boil when you dump the beans in. Then the beans will overcook while you're waiting for it to come back up to temperature. Once you add the beans, keep the lid off.

If you're like me, you'll need a timer. Threadlike haricots could take as little as 1 minute, and regular skinny beans won't take more than 4. That's just long enough for you to check your e-mail and completely forget about your rapidly graying beans while crafting a devastating reply to your ex.

Drain your beans and shock them in a really big bowl of ice water. For pity's sake, don't skimp on the ice. Use a whole tray — folks, you can make more. If you have a double sink, you can fill one of them with the ice water. (If you try this with a single sink, you're going to have to hightail it to the nearest bathroom because you'll have nowhere to drain your boiling water.)

Besides how to boil water, there's really nothing more you need to know about cold green bean salads except this: Dress them at the last minute. If you toss in the dressing in advance, the vinegar or acid in it will denature the chlorophyll in the beans, turning them from green to a desolate, muddy olive.

Any number of flavor combinations marry well with cold beans. You could go for soy and rice vinegar with a tousle of cilantro. Try the Mediterranean approach, with basil and tomatoes. Or take the kitchen-garden path, strewn with herbs and edible flowers.

Since that summer long ago in the central Loire, much has changed. For example, I no longer consider July the best time to read dictionaries in your room. Now I think of July as a time to make ice cream, work on the house, drink bourbon cocktails and let the kids wear their swimsuits all day if they want.

It's a good time to reminisce about idle afternoons abroad, and about someone else being in charge of dinner. And it's a time to dream about the buttered beans of summers past while eating cold bean salad, knowing in your heart that both, however different they may be, taste good in any language.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.