Backyard broad beans & how to eat them
I began dabbling in gardening in the most unlikely of places – a rooftop overlooking the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It got a good bit of sun and we had a wide terrace, so we decided to experiment with some tomato seeds in little terracotta pots that matched the rooftops. It was a step up from the previous pots of sage, thyme and basil that I’d kept on window ledges of tiny apartments. Like magic, they sprouted and grew. We moved them into bigger pots and they grew bigger still. Eventually we got tomatoes on them and enjoyed them, ripe and red, still warm from the sun, and I still marvel at the simplicity of growing your own vegetables even on a balcony.
This past winter we were lucky enough to move to a new house with a small raised garden bed with mint, parsley and rosemary bushes fighting for space on one end. With a bigger space, we got a little more adventurous and although I wouldn’t exactly say we’re green thumbs – amateur gardeners who learn along the way, at best – we bought a good book with good advice to follow and dove head first into the dizzying selection of heirloom seeds at The Diggers Club. In went some cavolo nero seeds, radicchio, strawberry seedlings and, for the spring, some snow peas and broad beans. When the broad beans have all been harvested we’ll pull them out and plant more tomatoes where they were – they leave the soil full of nitrogen, a great environment for growing tomatoes. How clever.
Broad beans are a favourite vegetable of ours. I was introduced to them, and my favourite way of eating them, when I moved to Tuscany: a basket of broad beans, still in their furry pods, some semi-aged pecorino cheese and silky slices of salty prosciutto toscano — lunch sorted. The beans (also known as fava beans, or fave or baccelli in Italian) are eaten raw, skins on, straight out of the pods. The slight bitterness of that outer layer of skin on the beans, a little more balanced in small, sweet, young specimens, is balanced by the sharp saltiness of the accompanying cheese and prosciutto. It’s a perfect match and on a warm spring evening, there’s nothing I’d rather have on the table than this.
We found here in Australia that broad beans sold at the markets were always quite large, with thick, inedible skins that made the arduous task of double-podding a must (I do like this Wall Street Journal article by Nancy Harmon Jenkins on fava beans and how Americans seem to have forgotten them). And eating them raw was no longer pleasurable as they were hard and mouth-puckeringly bitter. Finding those soft, sweet, young beans that you could just eat one by one, straight out of the pod, was the main inspiration in growing them ourselves and I found they were astonishingly easy to grow – as easy as popping the seed into the soil and just watching, waiting and watering.
The little buds grow tall very quickly, then pretty, folded black and white flowers grow and then shrivel, with the pods taking their place. They’re picked when still slender enough that the beans are still young and green – about the width of your middle finger. It’s hard not to just rip them open and eat them then and there, picked right off the plant. Especially with a curious baby around. She’s already discovered the delicious, bitter gems encased inside the pods and eagerly puts them in her mouth. Just like that, a handful of them have disappeared before we’ve even gone back inside the kitchen.
With the beans that are left from our little spring harvest I’m also making a Roman vignarola, pretty much just like this lovely one that Rachel makes, only Marco insists on putting pancetta in it too. It’s a celebration of Italy’s best spring vegetables, a medley of artichokes, peas, broad beans and spring onions, stewed together with some white wine. With these freshly picked, little, green backyard beans, I won’t be double-peeling. They just go straight in – one for me and one for the pot.