Broad beans are on the way. Rebecca Rose, who produces the beautiful illustrations that adorn this column, has scoured north London without luck for this noble legume but it would seem north London is behind the game. Italian broad (or fava) beans have been available in other parts for nearly a month.
The Spanish and French broad beans cannot be far behind and even the English crop will arrive in a month or so. Avid fans of the bean – and there are plenty of us – will follow them through each step of this migration from the first, very early, little beans from Sicily all the way to the moment when the last fat starchy bean from the Fens in eastern England has taken its curtain call sometime at the end of July.
The first, very small beans of the season need nothing more than stewing with a little water and butter or olive oil, skins and all. Early beans can also just be put on the table as they are and people can pod, peel and nibble as they sip on a glass of wine before dinner.
After this early flush, however, the work sets in and true devotees will know better than to serve broad beans with their skins on. Medium-sized beans can be blanched briefly in olive oil and then relieved of their skins quite easily with a little dexterity and a sharp thumbnail. In this condition they can be warmed in a little butter, baked with cream and Parmesan or stewed with chopped tomato, fresh mint or basil and good olive oil, preferably with not much else, save some honest bread. I sometimes think these things are wasted when served with fish or meat.
Hardcore enthusiasts go a step further in their obeisance. We peel the beans raw. As with the preceding method, at first it seems laborious but one soon gets into the swing of the thing. It calls for the same deft nick of the thumbnail and a more resolute continued tug at the skin. One quickly gets used to this simple labour and the result, a raw, peeled broad bean, is a luxury, albeit a simple one. I have written before of stewing the chopped beans in butter and then tossing them with a good artisanal spaghetti (firm to the bite and with a not completely smooth surface) with some Pecorino cheese.
The recipe has a similar sort of dish, less rustic perhaps, but offers an equally good demonstration of the galvanising power of the bean.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
More columns at www.ft.com/leigh
Broad bean and shrimp risotto
1 white onion
50g unsalted butter
1 sprig fresh thyme
400g risotto rice
500ml light chicken stock
150g peeled brown shrimps
½ tsp dried chilli flakes
2 tbs coarsely chopped dill
Juice of half a lemon
● Remove the broad beans from their pods. Next, peel the broad beans by nicking the skin with a thumbnail and pulling the bright green kernel from within. Discard the skins. Chop the beans extremely coarsely with a large chopping knife.
● Peel and chop the onion finely. Melt half the butter in a heavy saucepan and add the onion with the sprig of thyme. Stew very gently, without colour, for 10 minutes before adding the rice. Stir the rice continually, until it is entirely coated in the butter and begins to stick to the pan.
● Add all the wine, season with salt and pepper and stir again, continuing until the rice has absorbed all the liquid. This is the half-way point: you can pause here, take the pan off the heat and resume an hour later if desired.
● To continue, add the chopped beans to the rice, stir well and start to add the hot stock a ladle or two at a time. Continue for at least 10 minutes – you may not need all the stock, you may need more – until the rice is just cooked, being firm to the bite but without a hard or floury centre.
● Add the shrimps, chilli, dill and lemon juice and check the seasoning. Make sure the rice has a flowing, moist texture and stir in the remaining butter before serving. It is frowned on to serve cheese with a risotto – or pasta dish – containing fish or shellfish.