There is nothing quite like the first broad beans of the season for putting a spring in a cook's step. But as famous chef Rowley Leigh rightly says, "Like all of us, broad beans change as they age". There is a world of difference between tender-skinned youngsters with their crisp juicy kernels and the mealy monsters with starchy kernels and leathery skin. Though we are halfway through the season, broad beans got off to a late start this year so there is still time to make the most of them while they are young and tender.
If there is a drawback to broad beans it is the disappointingly small yield per pod: 2kg of unpodded beans produces a mere 450g of beans – enough for four. There is also the fiddly but necessary task of removing the skin surrounding the kernel. The easiest way to do this is to nick it with your fingernail while pinching one end to eject the kernel.
You can skip the preparation if you can find very young beans barely emerged from the flowers – about the size of your little finger. Cook them Middle Eastern-style, steamed whole for about 5 minutes. They have none of the cotton-wool lining that older beans have, so you can eat them pods and all. Toss in melted butter or olive oil, or try my recipe for Warm Salad of Baby Broad Bean Pods, Grilled Cherry Tomatoes and Feta
Larger specimens, no more than 18-20cm long, can also be cooked in their pods – either on the barbecue or in a ridged frying pan. The beans will be especially tasty since they will have steamed inside the pod with no loss of flavour. Brush with oil then spread out in a single layer and cook for about 7 minutes, turning halfway through. Once the pods start to brown, open one up to check the state of the beans within – they should be just tender. Snip off one end and squeeze out the beans (you will need gloves). Discard the pods and serve the beans straight away simply tossed with melted butter, sea salt flakes, snipped garlic chives or summer savory and a wisp of lemon zest.
Broad beans are also excellent in salads. Lightly cooked young beans with crumbled feta, inky purple Kalamata olives and a dribble of grassy extra-virgin olive oil are worthy of a still-life painting. Equally beautiful, is a salad of broad beans, shredded green cabbage, kohlrabi cut into matchsticks, shredded spring onions, chives and pumpkin seeds. Dress with extra-virgin sunflower oil and a few drops of lemon juice. Top with hard-boiled quail's eggs and you have a meal made in heaven.
© Christine McFadden, July 2013