Sunday, November 20, 2011

Real green bean casserole

Sometimes I get discouraged at what I perceive to be a lack of progress on my part, but when I reflect upon where I used to be, I realize how far I've come.  I find it very amusing to sit here and think back to last Thanksgiving.

I usually celebrate Thanksgiving day with my in-laws.  My mother-in-law prepares the turkey, and the rest of us help with sides.  My signature contribution is green bean casserole.  Here is the recipe I have used every time I've made green bean casserole up until this point.  It will probably be very familiar to most of us:

  • 2 (10.75 ounce) cans Campbell's® Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup or Campbell's® Condensed 98% Fat Free Cream of Mushroom Soup
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 8 cups cooked cut green beans
  • 2 2/3 cups French's® French Fried Onions

  • Canned soups, including my beloved Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, contain a lot of sodium and almost always have MSG (look for the term "monosodium glutamate").  MSG is a neurotoxin and is found in an alarming number of processed foods.  MSG has a long list of potential harmful side effects.  Some people have noticeable reactions to it in small doses, which include headaches and dizziness - for most of the rest of us, we are being slowly poisoned over time without realizing it.

    When I would make green bean casserole, I would usually add insult to injury and use canned green beans because frozen made it too crisp for my taste.  Commercially canned vegetables contain almost no viable nutrients and usually have added preservatives and salt, not to mention that I never had a clue where those vegetables came from or how they were grown.  Additionally, did you know that a lot of canned food comes in cans with BPA plastic coating on the inside?  For most of us, our primary exposure to ingestion of this endocrine-disrupting poison is not from shower curtains and water bottles, but it is actually from leaching into canned food.  I try to keep our intake of canned foods to a minimum for these reasons.

    I looked up the ingredients for French's fried onions: Palm Oil, Wheat Flour, Onions, Soy Flour, Salt and Dextrose.  Honestly, they were not as bad as I thought they'd be, but still a couple of questionable ingredients.  That soy is probably genetically modified, and what on earth is dextrose?  I try to avoid eating chemical compounds and ingredients that I can't picture growing on a vine, hanging on a tree, or sprouting out of the ground.  And again, where did those onions come from, and how were they grown?

    After having my real-food revelation back in May, I determined to myself long ago that this Thanksgiving would be different.  Tonight I did a practice run and prepared a real green bean casserole.  Pictures and recipe are as follows.

    Would you believe that I have never bought truly fresh green beans?  I have only ever used canned or frozen in all of my cooking.  I bought a whole bunch of fresh green beans at the farmer's market this weekend to use in the green bean casserole.  I would suggest buying about 1 pound of fresh green beans.  This translates into approximately 8 cups of raw green beans.  You could certainly do frozen green beans as well - my guess would be that a 16 ounce bag would work out perfectly.

    If you are going with fresh green beans, you will want to snap off both ends of each bean and then further snap them into smaller 1-2 inch long pieces.  This part was fun for me having never done it before.  You will want to bring a large pot of salted water to a boil while you are doing this part.

    Next, wash and rinse the beans, then add to your boiling water.

    I boiled the beans for about 10 minutes.  I taste-tested them several times until they were slightly more crisp than my ideal for the finished casserole to allow for additional cooking once in the oven.  Once cooked, drain and set aside.

    Cream of Mushroom Soup

    Lindsay at Passionate Homemaking, one of my favorite blogs, has an awesome recipe for a cream of mushroom soup substitute.  I use this recipe a lot to convert some of my favorite recipes from my former food life into healthier versions.

    Chop up a dozen or so mushrooms into small pieces.

    In a small or medium sauce pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil.  Add a quarter cup white, unbleached flour and one teaspoon or so of freshly ground celtic sea salt.  Stir to form a roux.  Add mushrooms and saute for a minute or so until softened.  Add 2 cups of milk.

    Stir and simmer until thickened.  Add a bit more flour if necessary to thicken.  Add additional salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  This is the equivalent of 2 cans of Campbell's condensed cream of mushroom soup - just enough for our recipe here.

    In 9 x 13 casserole dish,  combine green beans and cream of mushroom soup substitute.  Mix and add additional milk if necessary for desired consistency.  Bake covered in pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes (do not add the fried onions yet at this point).

    Fried Onions
    I bought 1 large white onion (also from the farmer's market), peeled it, and cut it in half.  Then I cut each half into narrow shoe-string strips.

    Toss onions with about 1/2 to 1 cup of unbleached white flour in a large bowl (do multiple batches to ensure the onions get thoroughly coated if necessary). 

    In a cast-iron skillet, melt a few tablespoons of refined coconut oil, grass-fed butter, pastured lard, or pastured tallow (did you know vegetable oil is bad for you, and that olive oil should not be used under high heat, such as for frying?  This is a post for another day).  Add onions to skillet and fry in a single layer. 

    Avoid the temptation to stir - wait until they appear golden, then flip and brown until golden on the other side.

    Remove to a plate lined with a paper towel.  I had to fry the onions in about 4 or 5 batches to ensure that they fried appropriately in a single layer.

    Final Bake
    After initially baking covered for about 20 minutes, remove casserole, sprinkle fried onions on top, then return to oven at 350 degrees uncovered for about 5 minutes, until onions are crisp and golden on top.  Remove from oven and enjoy!

    Happy Thanksgiving


    1. Wow! That looks amazing!! You never told me how it tastes though.

      I did some quick research on MSG and ended up scouring the FDA's website looking for something on it. I found one study that mentioned some observed problems resulting from injections into animals. It said that nothing had been proven concerning human testing. However, it was filled with bad typos. That reduces credibility in my mind.

      It irritates me too that something like that would be on the FDA website. I expect a government funded organization like the FDA to have a bit more quality control over things like that.

    2. It tasted pretty good! I think I need to add more salt next time (when you cook from scratch, your food doesn't get salty unless you add it yourself - imagine that!), and you have to be careful cooking the onions so they don't burn. I am going to make a second batch for Thanksgiving day and will hopefully have it perfected by then.

      If you google "MSG neurotoxin," you will get an overwhelming amount of information critical of MSG and its safety being consumed in such large amounts and added to so much of our food. Unfortunately, one of the first things you will learn once you really start researching food safety and nutrition is that the FDA generally takes positions that just so happen to be in the best interests of big pharmaceuticals and big industrial food giants. I don't necessarily believe that it's because the individuals involved are evil people (not all of them anyway). I think it's a broken system with a lot of bias, a lot of money being spent to keep things a certain way, and a lot of conflict of interest between regulators and industry. As we the people whose health is at stake, we need to take personal responsibility for our health decisions and quit putting blind faith in big companies and government regulators. As for the typos, I agree with you. Typos reduce credibility, and even in a grammatically flawless article, you have to take everything with a grain of salt. You will never find conclusive evidence about anything. Everyone has a bias (and yes, that does include me). It's human nature. The FDA will show you one side, which is usually the mainstream side that we've all been conditioned to believe our whole lives. There is always another side (often times, multiple other sides). I like to read a little bit about every opinion out there and then ask myself what makes logical sense, and what fits my Christian worldview and what I think about the earth and how I believe God created it? And I also ask myself - what did people do for thousands of years before the FDA and the food industry existed? God created onions and garlic and salt and pepper and thyme and basil. People have historically used these things to make their food taste better. I am still not even sure where the heck MSG comes from - look it up. It's a chemical compound industrially and scientifically derived. It's not something you can grow in your backyard and process in your home kitchen. Maybe the FDA is right - maybe MSG won't kill me. But it's unnatural, it's unnecessary, and why take the chance when I can make much yummier, healthier food from scratch without it? There are so many modern diseases and modern ailments that have no known cause and no known cure that our ancestors never dealt with (certainly not to the extent we do today), and the government is constantly changing its definitions of safe and unsafe. Why wait 10 or 15 years for a study to come out that finally proves MSG is unsafe? By that point, it's too late, and MSG is something I can easily live without.

      If you are interested in doing some more reading, here are several articles by the Weston A. Price Foundation (whose opinions I highly respect - but again, take everything with a grain of salt):