Last night, as we sat on the terrace after dinner the conversation turned at one point to the different conventions in food terminology that Brits and Americans use. When I first met the Critic, every time I mentioned beets to him, he would say, "You mean beetroot?" Well, yes, I guess so...is there another? (This led to a discussion of sugar beet and beetroot and the fact that they are not the same, which was news to me.) But my point is still the same: has anyone out there cooked sugar beet for dinner? Similarly, every time I would say anything about corn, the inevitable question was "Do you mean sweet corn?" As opposed to sour? Where I come from - the Midwest - no one is ever in any doubt about what corn is. You might go further and say corn on the cob if that's the case, but you don't have to say that it's sweet.
And so we come to beans. On this one I can kind of understand the obsession with precision. When I was growing up, green beans were the ones we ate 90% of the time. If they were Boston baked beans, you said so. But beans are and were...well green beans. But the English seem to have a real thing about beans. Since meeting the Critic I have become familiar with no fewer than three new (non-dried) "beans". The one that they refer to as simply beans are of course the ones you find on toast or next to your sausages at breakfast. Contrary to what I imagined when I first saw them, they are not actually the same as the ones that Heinz sells in America: not as sweet or soft and certainly no nasty bits of unidentifiable pork fat. Then there are runner beans. Thanks to my mother-in-law and her wonderful garden I now know about them. And last but not least, there are the fresh broad beans. Last week, I bought a kilo of them at the market and finally got to know them personally.
Aren't they pretty?
Actually, I just kind of assumed the Critic would like them because they seem to pop up on English TV and in English cookbooks. But it turns out he's not overly keen. After trying them myself the Marcella Hazan way, I liked them but think I can do better. Her recipe calls for cooking them with pancetta and water. I think they would have more flavour and a better texture if you use bacon (American style) and wine, removing the crisp bacon before adding the wine and sprinkling it over the finished dish.
That said, it was very tasty. The beans are soft and meaty, a great hearty spring side dish. And every recipe I consulted before trying them mentioned the fact that pork compliments broad beans well so who am I to say they were wrong??
Italian-style broad beans
1 kilo of broad beans
100 grams of pancetta, ham or streaky bacon
1 small onion
1 glass of wine or about 125 ml water or stock
2 Tbs of olive oil (optional - if you are frying the bacon you probably won't need it or will need only a touch)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Slice the onion in thin strips and set it frying lightly in the oil in a deep frying pan. (If you are using bacon, instead cook the bacon until it is crispy and gives up its grease. Reserve the bacon.) Add the ham or pancetta, cut in small pieces and cook until crispy. In the meantime, shell the broad beans. (The inside of the shells is wonderfully soft and fuzzy. I tried to take a photo but couldn't do the wonderful lining justice.) Add the broad beans to the pan and stir for a few minutes. Then add your liquid, cover, and cook for 20 minutes. If you have reserved the bacon, sprinkle it over the beans just before serving. Grind a good helping of fresh pepper over the whole.