This dish of green beans dressed with fresh lemon juice and olive oil, to my mind, typifies the simple elegance of Italian cuisine. Fagiolini all’agro, also known as fagiolini all’insalata, is austere in its simplicity but yet, when made with the freshest and best quality ingredients, is truly delectable.
Trim both ends of your green beans, and then cook them in abundant, rapidly boiling and lightly salted water. When they are just done, drain them and plunge them into cold water until they are perfectly cool. Then drain them in a colander and let them sit until dry. Arrange them on a serving platter, sprinkle them with lemon juice and salt, and pour a generous amount of olive oil. Sprinkle with a bit more salt on top and serve.
As with so many Italian dishes, the quality of the ingredients is crucial to the success of the dish. Use the freshest, youngest green beans that you can find, preferably of the slender variety sometimes called ‘French beans’. The olive oil should be fruity and of the best quality you can afford. The lemons should also be fresh—the juice of older lemons can become unpleasantly acid—and preferably organic. And, in a dish as spare as this one, even the quality of the salt will make a difference. Tonight, I used some wonderful fiore di sale, sea salt from the province of Trapani in Sicily—a kind gift of friends who were staying for the weekend. (The island of Pantelleria off the coast of the province of Trapani is well known for its wonderful capers. Trapani is also home to the famous Marsala wine. )
Equally important is the attention given to preparation. The green beans should be cooked until just tender—not really crisp-tender, mind you, as in much Asian cooking or in nouvelle cuisine, but not soft, either. The bean should still offer some resistance to the bite, but should have lost any rawness in either flavor or texture. Once it is at this perfect point, they must be drained and immersed in cold water as quickly as possible to preserve its texture and color. The beans should be allowed to dry completely and dressed according to the usual Italian rules for salads—with just a few drops of lemon, enough to enliven the beans but to be just barely noticeable, with just the ‘right’ amount of salt, enough to provide savoriness without being cloying, and abundant olive oil.
Some recipes are a bit more elaborate, calling for some chopped parsley or basil. Mint would also go very nicely. And there is also what is basically a different dish going by the same name of fagiolini all’agro, green beans sautéd in butter, lemon juice, parsley and—of all things—paprika.
This dish is typically a contorno, or side dish. It can accompany all sorts of meats but is perhaps at its best with roasted or grilled lamb. Eaten with some crusty bread, it can also serve, either on its own or with other blanched vegetables, as a light lunch or supper.