Friday, 21 April 2017

In praise of warm salads

A Warm Salad of Broad Beans

I'm writing about salad.  Risky, I know.  Who needs to be told how to make a salad?  But I like to cook with the seasons and this is the kind of thing I put on the table at this time of year so here we are.

Now, when days can be sunny and warm and full of promise of summer to come, temperatures can still plummet at night.  We growers eye our early spring sowings nervously and hope Jack Frost stays away.  In the shops there are early new potatoes from Jersey and France.  Our own broad beans are just beginning to sprout but the Italians have sent over a welcome taste of their early crops.  The organised have salad leaves growing undercover.  It's the perfect time to move on to what I think of as 'warm salads'.  The basics are an ever-changing succession of leaves with warm, waxy potatoes, vinaigrette dressings, sometimes with the addition of herbs or mustards.  Broad beans or Asparagus kick off the season, moving on to peas, French beans and Runner Beans.  A little protein comes in the form of bacon, pancetta, chorizo, smoked trout or anchovy.  Seasonal food with still a little warmth in it, the salad leaf wilting slightly in the agreeable embrace of the other ingredients.  And now we've started, we'll be eating warm salads right through to autumn.

Broad Bean Plant illustration by Patricia Curtan
in my copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters

The Broad Bean, Vicia faba, also known as the Fava bean, has been cultivated and eaten in Europe for at least 5,000 years.  It was the original 'bean' until other varieties arrived from the New World causing it to be then known as the 'Broad Bean' for its distinctive shape.  Broad Beans grow well in cool damp climates so the English spring offers perfect growing conditions for them.  When the pods grow to around 5cm they can be cooked and eaten whole.  Any larger and the casing needs to be discarded and the beans eaten either raw or cooked.  When the beans get bigger than a thumb nail the pale grey-green outer casing can become tough and indigestible so they need to be cooked and slipped out of their coats to reveal their pea-green inner.  At the end of their season they become mealy but are still good cooked, mashed to a puree and seasoned with lemon, herbs, olive oil and salt. Good herbs to use with Broad Beans are chervil, mint, dill or tarragon.

In Italy and France at this time very small, young broad beans are cooked whole in their pods and tossed in butter and herbs.  In Italy in Spring, raw broad beans are podded at the table and served with a salty local cheese - in Rome a pungent Pecorino, in Sardinia a ewe's milk ricotta called Marzotica.  In Spain, The Catalans have Fabes a la Catalana, a dish that marries broad beans (fabes) with black pudding, or other sausage or slices of pork fat. The Portuguese cook Favas Guisadasa stew of Broad Beans and Chourico sausage.  

Having picked up Patience Gray's Honey from a Weed in search of wise words on Beans, I'm thankful I chose to write about fresh, not dried, Beans.  A reading of her chapter on Beans, Peas and Rustic Soups is rewarding on the subject of 'beans make you fart'  I'm sorry, but this appeals to the English sense of humour so, having found it, I have to offer you this sentence  "... every cook will recall his/her favourite fartiste .... but I would like to put in a word for Papa Galeazzo, the 17th century priest who once stole the 'stopper' used by the Baroness of Lucugnano in the Salento on festive occasions, replacing it artfully with a bird whistle to startling effect in the country dance."

That gem alone justifies this posting, I think!  So here comes a fresh Broad Bean version of a warm salad - Italian beans for me right now as my own plants stand a mere 12cm high.  Broad Beans have a particular affinity with bacon so that's my choice with a peppery rocket.  It's worth knowing that 1 kg of pods yields around 300g of beans, but salads don't require exactitude, which is another reason to like them.

A warm salad of Broad Beans
(serves 4)

1 kg Broad Bean Pods (around 300g podded beans)
800g waxy potatoes
200g streaky bacon or pancetta
2 good handfuls of rocket (or other salad leaf)
2 tablespoons lemon juice or Moscatel vinegar
Salt and pepper
1 good teaspoon of Dijon mustard, if using
6-7 tablespoons Olive Oil

Wash the potatoes (skin on or off, as you prefer) and boil for c. 20 minutes until cooked
Pod the broad beans, wash and boil in salted water until just cooked - 1-2 mins for small beans.  Drain and plunge into cold water to retain the colour.
Cut the bacon into small pieces and fry in a hot pan until crisp.
Mix your vinaigrette in a large serving bowl.
Drain and slice the potatoes thickly before adding them to the dressing.  Add the cooked broad beans, the bacon (including the cooking fat), and the rocket/salad leaf.  Stir gently but well and serve.

If you grow your own Broad Beans, remember to nip out the top few centimetres once they are fully in flower.  This will discourage black fly from colonising the fleshy top-growth and encourage the plant to put its energy into the beans rather than growing taller.  You can cook and eat the pinched-out tops just as you would spinach.