Is there a more versatile vegetable than the humble broad bean? Not only does it work brilliantly in risottos, pasta, stews, soups, mash, salsa and salads but - as that great gourmand Hannibal Lector reminds us - it also goes perfectly with Chianti. When dried, broad beans are more of a winter staple - Nigel Slater has some tips here - but early on in the season, when they are tiny and tender, they can be plucked from their skins and eaten raw. Which is presumably how Mr Lector prefers them.
As the season progresses, however, their skins get thicker and may need peeling before cooking. Podding and peeling, though, are most pleasurable kitchen chores, for the beans are wonderfully tactile with a soft downy layer of white fur inside the pods.
Broad beans go best with simple, clean flavours like fresh herbs, lemon juice and green leaves. Milder, less pungent cheeses, like feta or mozzarella also work well. An insalata tricolore (quattrocolore?) with fresh mozzarella, basil, broad beans and baby cherry tomatoes dressed with balsamic and olive oil makes for a lovely simple meal. Ricotta and the Cypriot cheese halloumi are also ideal partners, but avoid anything too creamy or a heavy tomato sauce - you'll drown out the delicate flavours of the beans.
An aside: for all lapsed vegetarians who claim it was the smell of bacon sarnies that got to them in the end, I say unto you: fried halloumi sandwiches! They are the best hangover cure in the world, and no pigs have to meet their maker. The best halloumi I've ever had was at Terre-a-Terre in Brighton. A phone call reveals that far from sourcing some exotic brand, they actually use the bog-standard supermarket Cypressa make, but soak it in buttermilk for three days. That might require a frightening degree of organisation in your cooking, but it really was incredible: soft, buttery, firm without that slightly rubbery saltiness that cheap halloumi has.
All recipes serve two. The first two are my own, the last from the brilliant Paradiso Seasons by Dennis Cotter
Salad of broad beans, peas, halloumi and mint
A 225g block of halloumi
200g of broad beans
200g of peas (yes, it's a little early for fresh peas, but frozen are perfectly decent)
Big bunch of fresh mint
1 fresh lemon (juice and zest)
Rocket or other fresh salad leaves
Cook the broad beans until tender (how long really does depend on the size but don't overdo it) in boiling water, ditto the peas.
Mix up the olive oil and lemon juice - to get it properly emulsified you could use a hand blender but a vigorous shake in a jam jar should do.
Fry the halloumi over a hot flame in a thin layer of oil (one of those pump refill bottles is very handy). If you use a griddle pan you'll get fantastic go-faster stripes.
Mix everything together with the salad leaves and eat - halloumi does go a bit rubbery if you leave it to get too cool so make sure you eat it quickly!
Penne with ricotta, broad beans and mint
250g of pasta (anything short and vaguely tubular will do)
200g broad beans
1 large bundle of fresh mint
Fresh lemon (juice and zest)
2 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
Cook the pasta in boiling water - you can even add the beans at the end to save on washing up. Put in a bowl and stir in the ricotta, lemon juice and zest, and crushed raw garlic. Drizzle the oil on top, sprinkle over the mint and eat.
Broad bean, feta and basil mash
For this dish, peeling the broad beans probably is essential - unless they are really tiny and fresh. The mash can be served as a side dish, but to keep it simple just eat it spread on toast (bruschetta, if you want to be classy about it).
400g shelled broad beans
150g feta cheese
50g basil leaves
500ml olive oil
Pop the broad beans from the pods and cook in boiling water until just tender. Cool in cold water, then peel them by squeezing between your fingers. Place the beans in a food processor with the feta, a generous handful of basil and a generous splash of olive oil. Blend the mixture in short bursts to get a rough mash. Season with salt and pepper, though the former might be unnecessary with the feta. Use at room temperature.