Seasonal Flavours - Broad Beans

Food critic and cookbook author Rosa Jackson looks at this months seasonal food Goat's Cheese

I first understood the romance of shelling broad beans when I saw a man working his way through a bowl of the big, fuzzy pods on a caf� terrace overlooking a cobbled square in Vence, Provence. Methodically he freed each kidney-shaped bean from its pod, then carefully released it from its pale skin before popping it into his mouth. Beside him the mountain of empty pods grew and grew as his bottle of ros� emptied. Since then I have begun dozens, if not scores, of meals this way myself, relishing the almost meditative process of uncovering the sweet, emerald green beans.

Outside the Mediterranean broad beans are an underappreciated vegetable, yet in France, Italy and the Middle East they have been a nutrientrich staple for thousands of years. In the mild climate of the French Riviera and Italy’s Ligurian coast they can grow even in winter – a special crop is often planted for Christmas – but their true season is spring and early summer. The first beans to appear at the market are small, juicy and sweet, with so little bitterness that I often don’t bother peeling the individual skins (my six-year-old son, a broad bean fanatic, disapproves of my laziness). Their pods are so tender that the entire bean can be brushed with olive oil, grilled and eaten. Later, the beans grow meatier and their skins thicker and more bitter; what they lose in sweetness they make up for in substance.

So satisfying is the pod-and-pop method of eating broad beans that it was some time before I thought to add them to my cooking. A classic use for them in Nice is in soupe au pistou, a minestrone to which vivid pistou – pesto without the pine nuts – is added at the last moment. In the autumn, fresh white beans known as coco’ replace the broad beans. You can also make a soup of fresh broad beans alone, if you have the patience to shell that many of them (this must be why broad beans are also sold podded, peeled and frozen in France). Add some of their pods to the vegetable stock to intensify and sweeten its flavour.

Few people know that raw broad beans are one of the traditional elements of salade Ni�oise, which in its authentic version contains no cooked vegetables. These vividly coloured, slightly grassy-tasting beans make a beautiful match for fresh goat’s cheese as well as feta: just pile them up together and drizzle with an olive oil that has plenty of character, such as one from Les Baux de Provence. To my mind, just about any salad can be improved by the addition of a handful of fresh broad beans: try them with vine-ripened tomatoes and slivered spring onions.

Perhaps my favourite way of cooking broad beans is in a spring vegetable stew, which comes together spontaneously depending on what I’ve picked up at the market. Thinly sliced spring onions and garlic usually go into the saut� pan first with some olive oil and salt, then sliced new potatoes, carrots and possibly small, purpletinged turnips with half a cup of water. Once these have softened with the lid on, I might add rounds of courgette, peas and finally broad beans, being sure to lose none of the green vegetables’ vivid colour. With a drizzling of olive oil and plenty of pain de campagne, it’s a meatless meal that celebrates the sweetness of spring.

BROAD BEAN GNOCCHI

Most Read

• 2 cups shelled beans, unpeeled (1.2kg/2�lbs of beans in their shells)

• 1 tsp olive oil

• 1 tbsp water

• 1 egg

• A pinch of salt

• About 1� cups flour

• Good-quality olive oil

Garnishes: Cr�me fra�che or fromage blanc mixed with chives. Smoked duck breast or bacon, cut into matchsticks and fried until golden.

Blanch the shelled broad beans in boiling water for 1 min, then drain and rinse with cold water. Pop each broad bean out of its skin, making a small slit in the opposite side from the pointy tip. You should have about 1 cup of peeled beans.

In a small pan, cook the beans with the olive oil and water until very soft, then pur�e in a food processor or put through a food mill.

Transfer the beans to a bowl and add the egg, salt and 1 cup of flour. Mix well to form a dough using a wooden spoon, then add a little more flour bit by bit until the dough is sticky but workable.

Divide it into 3 and roll it as best you can on a heavily floured board into long sausages about � inch (1 cm) thick. Cut into short lengths and place on a floured plate.

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of boiling water. Add 1 tbsp of coarse salt, gently add the gnocchi and cook for about 2 mins, until the gnocchi have been floating at the surface for about 30 secs.

Drain, toss with a little olive oil and top with the garnishes.ALSO IN SEASON...

White or green asparagus: each one has its fans and I could never choose between them. White asparagus takes more preparation, but rewards you with a melting texture and slightly bitter taste that is beautifully enhanced by a drizzling of hazelnut oil. I like to braise the peeled stalks in a covered pan with olive oil and a little water, lightly browning the asparagus in the fat once they can easily be pierced with a knife. Green asparagus can be quickly roasted, steamed or braised; it has a great affinity for salty tastes such as parmesan or cured ham. Strawberries are at their sweetest in May and cherries make their long-awaited appearance: try the acidic griotte in clafoutis, the creamy-pink Napol�on in jam and the nearly black burlat with no adornment.