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When I started writing recipes for newspapers, I took a hard line with my readers on the subject of broad beans. Insouciant to their complaints and their protestations that they did not have the time to peel these legumes, the (relatively) young Stalinist in me told them to find the time. I take a more relaxed approach these days. Whether I put them in pasta, in rice, on toast or I have them as a vegetable or purée, I am always forced to conclude that beans go through stages and demand differing treatments, depending on their age. When very young, they can be eaten in their pods; as adolescents they can be eaten unpeeled; later they can be peeled after cooking; and sometimes they really must be peeled while still raw.

In Italy it is unusual for the cook to peel young broad beans – if it is done at all it is considered the diner’s job. I still remember with glee a meal we enjoyed in a tiny trattoria in Umbria with a somewhat overprivileged character and his exasperation at our first course: a bowl of soft cheese and a pile of young broad beans, which we were expected to pod and peel ourselves. While his patience was quickly exhausted, we continued to pick, peel, sup and sip a rather fragrant Falanghina with great pleasure.

Broad beans are treated with reverence all over Europe. Even in Britain they hold a special place in many people’s affections, particularly those who grow their own. They are the sophisticate’s favourite vegetable, even more than fresh peas. Like peas, they freeze well. However, freezing removes the starch, and when it comes to a nice dish of petits pois à la française or my broad bean spaghetti, you need that little bit of starch left in.

Broad beans with pancetta

2kgbroad beans, as young, small and fresh as possible
60mlolive oil
125mldry white wine
1 handfulflat parsley leaves

A very traditional Tuscan approach to broad beans. The pancetta is best bought in a solid piece – I am afraid that most bacon is a somewhat inadequate alternative. If you can persuade your delicatessen to let you have the butt end of a Parma ham at a reasonable price, you will also have an excellent result. Best served on its own as a first course or light main course.

  1. Pod the beans; do not peel them but cover with cold water and leave to soak at room temperature for at least four hours. Chop the pancetta into small dice and stew over a gentle heat in the olive oil. Once the fat has rendered and the meat starts to crisp, peel and slice the onion and add it to the pan. Don’t be afraid of letting the onion colour a little before adding the drained beans.
  2. Add the wine and a pinch of salt and let this ensemble stew gently for 20 minutes. Pick, wash and coarsely chop the parsley leaves and add to pan with a good milling of black pepper. Simmer for five minutes more and serve with bread or bruschetta.

Spaghetti with broad beans

1kgbroad beans
50ggrated Parmesan cheese

This is a recipe I gave you some years ago but it is well worth bringing to your attention again. There can be no cheating: the beans must be peeled raw – and can be quite large and starchy – and good-quality spaghetti is essential.

  1. Pod and peel the broad beans and then chop coarsely. Boil the spaghetti for seven minutes in salted water. While it cooks, start stewing the broad beans in the butter without letting the butter get too hot or frying the beans. With tongs, lift the spaghetti out of the water and add to the beans. Continue to cook, adding a little pasta water, some salt and milled black pepper and half the grated cheese until the pasta is al dente and bound in a creamy emulsion made by the liquid, the beans and the cheese.
  2. Check the seasoning. Sprinkle over remaining cheese and serve.


Rowley’s drinking choice

With the beans and bacon, a soft and fleshy young Chianti would be ideal.

With the pasta I would opt for a full-bodied but aromatic southern Italian white such as Falanghina, Pecorino or Fiano d’Avellino

Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais

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