Thursday, October 14, 2010

Imagination in the Kitchen

As most of you already know, when I was seven, my parents made a move that would change my life; they opened a restaurant. They were hands-on restaurateurs, running on a tight budget, so my mother cooked while my father worked his day job and managed the restaurant at night. Being the youngest of five children, I was always attached to my parents, and while my brothers were perfectly content to stay home alone or with a babysitter, I refused to do so. The only option was to keep me in the kitchen, close to my mother while she worked.

At first, I was excited to be there and see the bustle of the kitchen. But after about one day, I was bored. I grew anxious and, like a typical seven-year old, began whining. Not knowing what else to do, my mother handed me a large stainless steel mixing bowl, positioned a large crate of sting beans at my feet and gave me a task that would keep me busy for hours.
“Snap these” she said, demonstrating how to removed the unwanted ends of the beans. “When they're clean, put them in this bowl.”
"How many should I do?” I asked, thinking that I would have to snap fifty or at most, one hundred.
“The entire case” my mom replied, returning to work behind the stove.

I looked at the box at my feet. There were at least a thousand beans in there. My eyes grew wide and I sighed heavily. The restaurant was ruining my life, but I knew if I kept complaining I’d be homebound with a babysitter, so I reached in the case and grabbed a handful of beans.
Though the work seemed daunting, I tackled it with finesse. As my tiny fingers worked rapidly, my mind reeled. I made up stories, pretended to be different characters; a lost princess held captive and forced to work kitchen duties; a farm girl responsible for the family dinner. Lost in thought, I didn’t realize that time had passed. Before long a huge pile of beans filled my bowl; I had finished the entire case and had had fun doing so.

Looking back, it's clear that my early time as an impromptu sous chef taught me an invaluable lesson; it taught me to use my imagination in the kitchen. Often I would see my mother experimenting, adding ingredients, tasting, stirring, and, sitting next to her with my pile of beans I’d pretend to be a chef doing the same.

Nowadays, I do not pretend to be someone I’m not, however, I still allow my mind to wander when faced with tasks that are so banal, like snapping string beans, that they require little attention or thought. During these moments, I’ll get inspired to throw a little extra spice into a dish, or mix ingredients that generally do not work well together. I’m no chef, just a home cook who allows her imagination to run wild. Sometimes I come out on top, and other times the food ends up half eaten or scraped into the garbage. But either way, I am successful, if I am able to relax, to experiment, and have fun. Which is really what cooking is all about anyway.

String Beans with Garlic and Mint

1 pound string beans
1 small clove of garlic (chopped)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh mint (chopped)
salt and pepper to taste

Blanche sting beans in salted boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and transfer into a salad bowl.
While beans are still warm, top with garlic, mint, olive oil and salt and pepper. Toss together and serve.


  1. Sweet story and sweet bean dish - or sweet and savory - love the simplicty but the garlic and mint enhance it so much!

  2. What a lovely memory. One of my early foodie memories involves green beans too - I planted a little green bean plant in a pot in the patio, and I checked it every morning. I made my mom make me beans once a week and add the bean or two my plant produced, so I could feel like I was eating my hand-grown bean :)
    Your recipe sounds really really good.

  3. What warm memories--my mom loved to cook and bake as well. And she too, created all kinds of recipes from the pinch of this, dash of that method, which was the only way women cooked for eons prior to cookbooks (really a modern thing).

    As she aged, she began to frame her days in terms of food. "Today I went to so and so's house and we had a wonderful homemade soup with these great bars for dessert..."

    And now I, too, cook like she did. And all of my daughters are amazing in the kitchen as well, which is fast becoming a lost domestic art!

    Kudos to you Antonietta! You have resurrected the "chore" of veggie preps to an art form of imagination!

    P.S. I went to pull the last of my bean plants from our garden a couple of days ago (none of them even have leaves left, thanks to the area wildlife) and behold! There were still a few beans growing--in Oct., in MN! So I watered them instead. We'll try your recipe with our "home growns" in another day or two! ~Jann

  4. This is such a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing, Antonietta! (And the recipe looks mouthwatering, too.)

  5. Thanks for your comments ladies!!

  6. I spent a large portion of my childhood snapping green beans too. Ha. Lovely story and recipe!