It began with a gift. Linda and George, who have been staying with me for a few days, visiting from Spain, went off to a family wedding in Cambridge on Friday. They returned with a gift from George’s sister-in-law; she’d sent me some cabbages and broad beans from her allotment. They came in a huge plastic bin bag: three cabbages and a great, lovely mound of broad beans tucked snuggly in their pods.
By chance, I’d been thinking about doing this dish, having seen something similar in the Observer recently when Claudia Roden was filling in for Nigel Slater while he was on holiday, and sharing some of the new recipes in the revised edition of her Food of Italy book. Then I found ‘Frittella di Palermo’ – Sicilian braised spring vegetables – with the same combination, in Antonio Carluccio’s Vegetables (this is one of my favourite and most-used books, a present from my daughter Nicola in 2002). I’d already bought a tin of artichoke hearts in brine since, sadly, I don’t live near near a market like the Rialto in Venice or the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, where (usually) women sit on stools deftly carving away the outer leaves of globe artichokes to leave the precious heart exposed, which they then drop into water with lemon to preserve. To be honest, sourcing just a globe artichoke in Twickenham was going to be a challenge, without the added work of preparing it myself, so a handy tin was the answer. Likewise, I settled for frozen peas rather than fresh. I know it’s foodie sacrilege to say it – and a bit unusual for the Single Gourmet Traveller – but I actually prefer frozen peas. I had enough work cut out with the broad beans anyway, slitting open the pods, removing the beans from their cushioned, fleecy protection. What precious little things they are – such an enormous amount of cushion to one little bean. The princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s story whose sleep is disturbed by a pea under her mattress has got nothing on the broad bean!
As Carluccio warns in his book, you’re likely to throw away three-quarters of your broad beans when discarding the pods. He also tells us that the broad bean was the first bean: it’s been around since the Bronze Age. They’re popular in Italy, particularly in the south where they form a staple of cucina povera – peasant cooking – and dried, are made into a wonderful creamy puree called maccu which is generally eaten with cimi di rapa (similar to broccoli). As I said when I made the Trofie with Broad Beans the other day, I think it’s essential to skin the beans to appreciate their sweet delicacy. It’s quite a laborious task and I guess we do it because the end prize is worth the effort: those gorgeous little emerald beans.
Slit the pods open and remove the beans. Put them in a saucepan and cover with water, salt, and bring to the boil. Let them boil gently for about 3-5 minutes until you can see them greying a bit. Then drain and immediately drop into a bowl of cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, gently slit open the thick skin that covers them and slide the bean out. You can see in the third photo above what I threw away!
Prepare the other vegetables: finely slice 2-3 shallots (onion will do but shallots – or spring onions – are milder and sweeter), drain the tinned artichokes and cut the hearts in half; cook a good handful of peas till just done. Now heat a couple of tablespoons olive oil in a pan and cook the shallots for 2-3 minutes until just softening. Add the artichokes and stir round. Cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently, to give them a little caramelised edge of taste but not actually brown them. Now add the broad beans and peas. Mix well and add a good glug of white white.
Let this bubble and reduce a bit then add some hot stock to not quite cover the vegetables. Again, allow to bubble for just a little while and reduce slightly; you don’t want to overcook the vegetables, especially the precious, tender broad beans. Add a heaped tablespoon of both parsley and chopped fresh mint and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Transfer to a serving dish and drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil. I’d planned to have this with some chicken. Halfway through cooking time, Jonathan rang to invite me round for a barbecue. I thus transferred the vegetables to a heavy Le Creuset pan with lid to travel safely in the car. Jonathan had cooked chicken too – but on the barbecue, making a yogurt and tahini dressing to go with it.
It was a lovely supper, sitting in their garden in the warm sun, sipping chilled rose wine and talking away into the darkness of the late evening. Summer had definitely arrived.