Question: I've noticed a vegetable labeled Chinese Long Beans from time to time in my market. Do you prepare this really long variety just like other green beans?
Answer: In his new book, "Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients" (William Morrow & Co.: 1988, $22.95), author Cost lists other names for long beans: Asparagus bean, Yard-long bean, Dow gok ("Horn bean," Cantonese) and said they are used in China and Southest Asia.
"Truly long beans, these legumes, sold by the bunch at Chinese and Southeast Asian produce stands, are around 18 inches in length, and varieties with names like Fowl's Gut Bean and Yak's Tail can grow to twice that," according to Cost. "An ancient vegetable, the wild plants still grow in tropical Africa--probably where the long bean originated, although some scholars feel they were taken there from Southeast Asia.
"Since cookbooks often instruct you to treat these as you would regular green beans, it's a common misconception that they're related. Green beans--including pole beans, bush beans and snap beans or French beans--are an entirely different genus of plants, native to the Central American highlands. Long beans are close kin to the black-eyed pea (some argue they are simply a variety), which was brought to the United States by African slaves."
Cost writes that "several varieties of long beans are eaten in Asia, as are the leaves of the plant and the beans themselves when they're allowed to mature. Two varieties are available at Asian produce stands here: a light-green type that is at its best from mid-May to mid-June, and a darker green one that peaks between mid-June and mid-August. I've heard discussions as to which is better, but although both are sold regardless of season, their quality really depends on the time of year.
"Those expecting the sweet crispness of green beans will be disappointed. Briefly steamed or stir-fried, unless the flavors around them are assertive, long beans don't have a lot to offer. Their value is as a long-cooked bean; they hold up well when added to a stew. In dishes such as the popular Sichuan Dry-Fried Beans, they may be deep-fried in very hot fat, then cooked with chopped meat and other seasonings.
"Even when hanging on the vine, long beans are never stiff and crisp like green beans. However, they shouldn't be terribly limp when you buy them. They'll keep for a week in the vegetable crisper."
Q: Can you tell me how to dry cheese? I've heard you can do it, but can't find instructions.
A: We found these directions for Dried Cheddar Cheese in "Fancy Pantry" (Workman Publishing: 1986, $11.95) by Helen Witty:
"Grate or shred fine 1 1/2 pounds of high-quality, natural, extra-sharp Cheddar or Cheddar-type American cheese (processed cheese won't do).
"Pick up the cheese by handfuls and strew it evenly on two or three baking sheets or, even better, on fine-meshed wire drying racks. Place the pans in a convection oven set at 130 to 140 degrees, or in an electric oven that has been heated for two or three minutes at its 'keep warm' setting. Turn on the light in the electric oven to maintain gentle heat, or leave the convection oven turned on.
"Dry the cheese, turning it with a spatula every few hours, until it is quite crumbly (it will be slightly oily), 6 to 12 hours, depending on the moisture content of the cheese and the method of drying. (The drying can be done intermittently, if the oven is needed for other purposes.)
"Cool the cheese (it won't be very warm) at room temperature, then crumble it fine and store it, in a completely airtight container, in the refrigerator or freezer."
This makes about 18 ounces or 3 1/2 to 4 cups of dried cheese that Witty said keeps indefinitely. She suggested using it for baking bread or biscuits or for cooking in any dish requiring the zing of sharp Cheddar.