Few things are tastier at this time of year than succulent young broad beans. Enjoy them in a simple risotto that kids will love?
Flatulent, windy, hard of digestion and causing troublesome dreams.’ Oh dear. The Greek philosopher and botanist Dioscorides was not a fan of the humble broad bean. Though, in his defence, the fava bean that provoked such dyspepsia was a rather different specimen from the bright green beauty we munch today.
A European native, the original incarnation was dried, and said to be a glum and mealy-mouthed bore. Whereas a handful of baby broad beans are among the true glories of late spring and early summer. In fact, one of the best lunches I’ve ever devoured was up in the hills above Palermo in Sicily, when the island was clad in its fecund spring finery. Nothing more than a hunk of fresh pecorino cheese, with its lactic, sheepy bite, and a great bowl filled with freshly shucked beans.
A little salt was the only additional ingredient, along with a few ice-cold carafes of the local plonk.
At this time of the year, I find it pretty impossible to walk past any market stall without buying a pound or two of bulging pods. The children, sceptical at first, soon became fascinated by that damp, silken interior. And will happily pod, if not for hours, then at least a few minutes, eating more than end up in the bowl. Plus, no visit to my mother’s or father’s house is complete without a visit to the broad bean canes, where the pods are ripped from their stems with aplomb.
As the beans get fatter and older, the skin does get more bitter. And to the children, they lose a little of their allure, But all you have to do is steam them for a few minutes, pop out that bright green kernel, and you’ll still have that wonderful sweetness.
Getting anything green down the children’s throats is a constant struggle. Broccoli is ‘sick-making’, carrots ‘pooey’ and I gave up on my beloved Brussels sprouts years back. But the joy of broad beans is the whole process: the picking (if you’re lucky enough to grow your own), the undressing and then the scoffing.
How to cook broad beans
When it comes to cooking, keep it simple: a brief bath in boiling water and a dousing in butter. Then there’s risotto primavera, the very essence of edible spring, an oozing, comforting mass of fresh broad beans, peas and asparagus. The recipe might hail from northern Italy, but the stars are very much British. There are few sights to gladden the heart more than a vast bowl of the stuff, and by some miracle, the children adore it, too.
All this chat about broad beans is making me hungry. And Portobello Market is a brisk 10-minute wander from my office. Rather than stuff my face with some turgid sandwich, I’m off to get my fix. The broad bean might have started life as a bore. But a few thousand years later, it’s a sweet, succulent beauty.
900ml fresh chicken stock
125g butter, cold and cubed
30ml olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
300g arborio or carnoroli rice
150g fresh parmesan
200g fresh peas, briefly blanched?in salted boiling water
200g fresh broad beans, briefly blanched in salted boiling water
200g asparagus, briefly blanched ?in salted boiling water, tough?stalks removed, and chopped
200g fresh artichoke hearts, finely sliced, briefly blanched in salted boiling water
1. Bring stock to a rolling boil.
2. Melt 30g of butter in a heavy-bottomed pan, along with the olive oil. Then add the onion and soften gently for 5 minutes.
3. Add risotto rice and cook for ?a couple of minutes until the grains turn opaque and are well coated ?in butter and oil.
4. Add a ladle of boiling stock and stir until absorbed. Repeat every time the rice has drunk in the stock, stirring constantly but not obsessively, until the last ladle of stock is about to be stirred in. The rice will take anything from 15 to ?25 minutes, depending on heat. ?It should be plump and tender, still keeping its shape, with the merest thread of bite in the middle.
5. Take off the heat and allow to rest for a minute. Then beat in the rest of the cold butter, followed by the cheese. Beat in one hand, shake the pan in the other. Really give it hell, until the whole thing becomes one glorious flowing whole.
6. Add the vegetables, stir and serve immediately on hot plates.
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