Huge crates of asparagus are appearing at the market, beautifully boxed, heads held high, their necks gracefully, delicately, bowed. Asparagus is the star of spring. Undeniably. Love the stuff. But I’ve been waiting for an older, ancient crop, one a little less regal. One of the oldest domesticated plants. One with a suitably rich and varied history.
Broad beans or fava beans, tend to evoke bad responses from many (mostly English) people. My father takes great exception to them (though he's not English, so there goes that theory). I have a sneaky recipe up my sleeve for just such a person, a salad, one that uses broad beans, double-peeled and generously dressed with lemon, garlic, olive oil, smoked paprika and cumin. A tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed is tossed in along with massive amounts of fresh coriander and parsley. I’ve not met a soul who didn’t fall for it – there’s hope for the unconvinced yet. Once peeled you can roughly pestle them to make a chunky sort of pesto mixed with some fresh mint, chives and goats cheese. Great piled high on garlicky toast. Another winner.
Split the pods and you’ll find them softly swaddled, like precious, sleeping babies. Peel away those skins and they emerge naked, a bright lime green. Delicious. In Greece broad beans are served raw, the whole pods dropped in a loose tangle in the centre of the table, a bottle of ouzo placed on the side. I can’t help myself when podding – raw they possess a crunch and green-ness unmatched by the more pedestrian pea. One for the pot, one for me. You don’t even need the ouzo, really.
A tough, grey, water-logged bean is a waste of both your time and energy. Blanch the podded beans in rapidly boiling water for sixty seconds, refresh them in ice-cold water and drain thoroughly before slipping off each bean’s little pale overcoat. An easy enough task, yes, but I sometimes prefer patiently peeling them, unblanched, with a sturdy thumbnail. Releasing each bean, dropping it into a bowl and hearing it plink against the surface offers a gentle, rhythmical sound, one that nearly manages to cancel out the screeching and honking of peak hour traffic filtering into the garden. Nearly.
I’m writing this now because I want to make use of the Australian spring before we disappear for a few weeks. Make hay while the sun shines as the saying goes. Spring here is short-lived; the transition from gentle warm days to fierce summer heat happens in the blink of an eye in this drought-ravaged country. And the Artist and myself are leaving on the first of October for a much needed holiday. New York, Madrid and a blissful week roaming the beaches of San Sebastian, sketchbooks and notebooks in hand. And wouldn’t you know it? Right smack bang in the middle of our spring.
Spring vegetable ragoût – generously serves 4
The ravioli or gnocchi is an addition, a good one, that will make this meal more substantial. Get them cooking while you chop the vegetables, that way they’ll be ready to slip in when the time is right. And don’t for even a second think that I would suggest you make your own here. Not even I am a martyr to that cause.
2 big handfuls of broad beans in the pod
750g (about 1 ½ lbs) of asparagus
1 bunch of baby carrots
1 large handful of snow peas
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of butter
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
Small palmful of thyme leaves
½ cup of dry white wine
1 cup of water
Large handful of baby spinach or sorrel leaves, washed
2 handfuls of spinach & ricotta ravioli or gnocchi, cooked
100g (about 3oz) of soft goat’s cheese (optional)
Small handful of parsley, finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil or butter, to serve
1 lemon, sliced into wedges
Pod the broad beans. Peel the pale green layer from any beans that are larger than your thumbnail. Set aside.
Snap off and discard the woody ends of the asparagus by taking the spear between both hands and bending it. Where it seems to want to snap naturally is exactly where you should do so. Slice the spears diagonally into three. Set aside.
Remove the feathery tops from the carrots, leaving about 1-2 cm’s of stalk attached to each one. Any carrots thicker than your index finger should be halved lengthways.
Thinly slice the snow peas on the diagonal. Set aside with the broad beans.
Warm the butter and oil together in a large, lidded frying pan or a wide, heat-proof casserole over a medium heat. Add the onion, thyme and carrots and fry, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until lightly coloured. Pour in the wine and let it bubble away to almost nothing. Add the water, followed by the asparagus and a good pinch of salt. Place the lid on, lower the heat and cook for 6 minutes or until the vegetables are tender at knife point.
Lift the lid, give it all a gentle stir and drop in the broad beans, snow peas and spinach leaves. Replace the lid and continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes.
Turn off the heat, lift the lid and drop in the cooked ravioli or gnocchi. Gently stir. Crumble over the goat’s cheese. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and drizzle with a spoonful (or more) of extra virgin olive oil (or butter). Replace the lid and rest for a moment or two.
Serve in wide soup plates with the wedges of lemon.