Of course I didn't. Perhaps because it's untrue. Though you'd be hard-pressed to prove it, based on my past two weeks' images. Seems my world has gone rather orange.
I've been on a bit of an helenium bender.
Not a bad fate.
Not a bad fate, at all.
Picking favorites has never been my strong suit. In elementary school, it was my second most-loathed assignment, right after New Year's resolutions. Favorite foods left me stumped. (Where to begin?) Favorite colors, flummoxed. (Robin's egg? Oxblood? Frozen butter? Goose terd green? Tell me other families taught colors in such terms?) But "name your favorite book"? That beat all.
I mean, honestly. How is a girl to choose between Bridge to Terebithia and The Great Brain? Laura Ingalls Wilder and Wilson Rawls? Not to mention Roald Dahl, who might've been a fine answer, were the question geared toward authors and entire outputs, rather than the ridiculously singular "book".
We haven't even touched on Island of the Blue Dolphins.
These days, my children are on the receiving end of the old "favorites" inquisition, and I am all ears and empathy. "Just pick one," I tell them. "You just need an answer, any answer, among the legitimate many. It isn't binding. You are not under oath. You're allowed bounty, in your mind and our home."
They struggle with it like I did, like I do, and we shake our heads, together, over silly adults.
So I can't exactly say helenium are my fall favorite, first, foremost, forever and always. I reserve the right to adore Japanese anemones, if only for the way the word trips along the tongue. (Also, they're the first excuse I've had since age 7, when I bought my coveted set of 64 Pentel pens, to use the word heliotrope.) The bees are keen on the autumn joy, and I am keen on the bees, so I ought to at least give it a nod. And I'll lease a small part of my heart to the wild sunflower, with its Giacometti proportions and exuberant yellow.
And zinnias, man. Jolly, incarnate. Frowns and zinnias are mutually exclusive. On my honor.
But I fried most of my zinnia starts, this year. Left my seedlings outside, to acclimatize to the Spring "cold", only to be met with a string of mid-nineties. I've grieved. I've mourned. I've vowed to do better.
And I've freed up all that bandwidth for added helenium admiration. So let us say that for a solid four days in September, possibly six, and definitely including the second Tuesday, this pouf-centered, copper-edged, rhumba-stemmed perennial is my absolute favorite of the flock. (Hedging helps soften the blow.)
Not that much hedging is required to crown that platter, there, my unequivocal Queen of green bean salads. I'll allow I love a good Niçoise, and have eaten my way through many platters of orzo and summer veg, but those are team efforts, giant collaborations. This is that rare, particular thing, an exaltation of green beans. And figs.
This salad hails from another rare thing, a treasure of a cookbook called The Basque Kitchen. I can't say I've heard anyone else mention it. Ever. Which is a shame, as it's one of my dog-eared splattered treasures, a catalog of trieds-and-trues. Mashed potato cakes, spiked with manchego. A rust-streaked tortilla of potatoes and chorizo. That chèvre frosting that, to this day, sneaks into my mind at the most inopportune moments. And this fresh fig and haricots salad, herb-flecked, walnut-stubbled, basil-breathed, extraordinary.
The method here is straightforward, and simple: boil up a pound of green beans until just tender, with a bit of bend, but no danger of flop. While they are burbling, mince a small shallot, toast a few walnuts, chop parsley and chives. Pluck a few basil branches of their leaves. Quarter a gathering of plump, purpled figs. Gently combine with a quick vinaigrette. Ba-da-bing, boil, chop, toss, eat.
But. But. About that last verb. The eating is where this salad stands alone. This salad is unlike any salad I've known, and if you know me at all, you know I've known a few salads. It follows all the great salad protocols: ample fresh herbs for bling, toasty nuts for crunch and rumble, a good basic vinaigrette to turn disparate parts into excellent sum. What sets it apart, and stands my tastebuds at attention, is its tender backbone of green beans and fragrant figs.
If this sounds unexpected, it is unexpected. Like a Ten-spot, found on an empty street. Or a care package, arrived on your doorstep, unannounced. Or snow, in Seattle, on Christmas Day. Unexpected in all the best ways. The beans yield to the tooth, and taste of fresh grass, and faintly, flatteringly, of chlorophyll. The figs, for their part, bring their soft velvet sweet, part honey, part sunshine, part mystery.
All well and good, if a bit distinct. Enter the embellishments. Prepare for revelations. Minced shallot litters the vinaigrette, and adds gorgeous sparkle to both beans and figs. All the ordinary glories of oil and vinegar apply, the one lending richness, the other, verve. The walnuts are inspired, earthy and crunchy and pretty much vital to the whole. Chives ampify the shallots, parsley echoes the haricots, and the basil is about the best supporting cast a bean or fig could possibly ask after.
Our helenium are on their way out, a few blazing petals in a chocolate drop sea. The green beans are not far behind. I'll be gobbling both, double-time, while they last.
A Salad of Green Beans, Fresh Figs, Walnuts and Herbs
adapted from The Basque Kitchen, Gerald Hirigoyen
The original calls for 3 tablespoons toasted walnut oil, plus one of olive. I do not often have walnut oil on hand, so have taken to using all olive. Use walnut oil if you have it; it will shine. I've also doubled the basil and toasted nuts, as I appreciate both in modest excess.
This salad must be finished at the last minute, but most everything save the tossing can be done in advance. To get a head start: make the dressing, prep the nuts, wash and dry the whole herbs, and cook the beans, setting them aside to cool and dry on a clean kitchen towel. This can all be done 6 hours in advance. Just before serving, slice the figs, mince the herbs, and toss the veg with the dressing. This keeps everything spunky, and prevents the green beans from going brown.
1 pound fresh green beans, topped and tailed
6-10 fresh, plump figs
1 heaping tablespoon minced shallot
2 tablespoons sherry, champagne or white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
generous handful fresh basil leaves (40-50 small; 20-30 large)
generous 1/4 cup walnuts
kosher salt and fresh pepper
Set a medium saucepan of water on to boil, and add 1 tablespoon salt. Preheat oven or toaster oven to 350°.
While water is heating: Set your minced shallot in small bowl, pour vinegar over, add 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and set aside. This will mellow the shallot. If your green beans are especially long, cut them into 2" pieces, for easy eating. Scatter walnuts on a baking sheet, and when oven is to temp, toast them 8-10 minutes, until deeper in color and wonderfully fragrant. Set aside to cool.
When water reaches a rapid bowl, tip in green beans. Boil 6-8 minutes, until just tender but with a bit of spine (test a few), then tip into a colander and drain thoroughly.
In a large wide shallow bowl, pour shallot/vinegar mixture. Add olive oil, and a good grinding of fresh pepper, and whisk to combine. Tip in well-drained green beans, and toss well to coat.
Quarter medium figs; slice large figs into sixths. Mince parsley, snip chives, and chop toasted walnuts into a rough rubble. If your basil leaves are large, tear them into a few pieces; if small-ish, leave whole. Set a few herbs and nutty bits aside for garnish, if you wish. When green beans are at room temperature, 10-15 minutes, add figs, herbs and nuts, and gently, thoroughly toss to combine. I do this with clean hands. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and/or pepper, as needed. Enjoy straightaway.