Rachel Roddy recipes: As Roman markets heave with bright green broad beans, hands can be seen busy with the ritual of peeling them to eat with pecorino romano. Try them with herby rice and new-season lamb chops
Like peeling roasted chestnuts, prising open shellfish, or simply flicking open a salted pistachio nut with your thumbnail, in Rome at this time of year peeling broad beans is part of a ritual one as important as the taste. Important too is the cutting, or rather hewing, of the cheese with a small spade-like implement, tip of a knife, or the prongs of a fork, all of which create craggy pieces that seem to taste entirely different to a smooth-edged slice. The peeled bean and piece of cheese are then eaten together.
I first saw this ordinary ritual 12 years ago, soon after arriving in Rome. It was in a trattoria called Agustarello, a spare room of a place that lived up to my folklorish ideas about how a Roman trattoria should be: plain but welcoming, husband in the kitchen making the simple traditional food, formidable wife out front, their kids arriving back from school stroppy and in search of pasta, bread in a basket. A group of men at a table near me were brought a plate of broad beans in their pods and a partly excavated quarry of craggy white cheese. They began podding and hewing, their arms crossing in much the same way as their conversation, then eating beans with cheese, each in their own idiosyncratic way: the two together, beans first then cheese, cheese first then (double peeled) bean.
I hoped I might be brought the same thing, but wasnt, not least because I was already finishing my meal. I looked for an explanation on a menu, but didnt find one, and left before I really understood. In time though, I learned this is a Roman spring ritual, digging thumbs into the velvet-lined pod then unzipping it in order to eat the new season broad beans with Romes favourite cheese black-wax encased, sheeps milk pecorino romano. The combination of bright green beans: small, tender, sweet and tasting like pure chlorophyll and buttery wax, contrasting with the sharp, creamy cheese is a triumph.
It is not a habit confined to trattorie. When the air is filled with spring and the market with great heaps of broad beans, cheerful and cheap as chips, everyone does it whether at a trattoria or at home, in a park or field. Fave e pecorino is a combination enjoyed for Easter breakfast with enriched bread and a salami studded with great nuggets of fat called coralina, for the picnic on Easter Monday, then again on the first of May, when many head into the countryside for a picnic and the pecorino sweats under the midday sun. It is a ritual full of symbolism for Romans who consider fava beans harbingers of spring a custom that reminds us that it isnt just what you eat, but how.
It is also a habit that travels happily to Dorset where my parents live, for example, where local broad beans are a treat with sharp, local cheddar.
As the season progresses, broad beans, like people, age, their skin thickening, the sugar turning to starch so that tender tiddlywinks become thick buttons that need double peeling, their opaque coat popping off. For now, though, you can eat the whole bean.
In Rome, broad beans are part of another much-loved Roman dish called vignarola, a spring vegetable stew of artichokes, peas, beans, lettuce and onion braised in lots of olive oil. They are also stewed with prosciutto, made into a salad with thinly sliced fennel, or tossed with olive oil and piled on toast spread thickly with ricotta.
The idea for todays recipe came from Jessica Seatons delightful new book Gather, Cook, Feast. It was the page the book fell open on: rice loaded with herbs and broad beans, and the answer to the question what shall we eat tonight? You could use all sorts of herbs here. I used parsley and basil because it was what I had, but went out and bought some dill for a touch of fragrant aniseed, which isnt to everyone taste, but is a bit of an addition if it is. You could also use a handful of fennel fronds. Whatever herbs you use, use lots and chop them finely they are ingredients not flecks and add them while the rice is hot, so they disperse their aromatic scent. I think butter is important. Like the olive oil, it dresses and brings everything together, but it also rounds and softens the edges butters them up if you like. You could just use olive oil. Jessica suggests fish as an accompaniment. I am suggesting lamb. In Rome, lamb is generally sold younger (the cutlets are smaller and bashed out) and cooked quickly, alla scottaditto, which means cooked in the style that burns your fingers hinting at how best to eat them, ritual being as important as taste.
Rice with broad beans, herbs and lamb chops
If you dont eat lamb, replace with slices of salty cheese or stir some cooked chickpeas through the rice.
1.2 kg broad beans in their pods, or 400g frozen ones, defrosted
A small bunch of flat-leaf parsley
A small bunch of basil
A small bunch of dill
450g long grain white rice
5 spring onions, finely chopped
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper
4 large, or 8 small lamb chops
1 Pod the broad beans. Taste one: at this time of year they should be tender enough to eat without double peeling its your choice. If you decide to, cover the beans with boiling water for a minute, drain, then refresh in cold water, at which point the opaque skins should pop off if you squeeze. If you are not double peeling, boil the beans in salted water for 3 minutes or until tender, drain and keep warm.
2 Pull the herb leaves from the stems. Chop the leaves finely.
3 Rinse the rice twice, then cook in plenty of boiling, well-salted water until tender but al dente. Drain and leave to steam dry in a colander for 5 minutes.
4 In a large frying pan, over a medium-low heat, fry the spring onions until soft. Meanwhile, cook the lamb chops on a griddle pan or under the grill, the way you like them.
5 Add the rice, broad beans, salt, pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice and the herbs to the spring onions, then stir until everything is well combined and glistening. Turn on to a warm serving platter.
6 Once cooked, pile the lamb on top of the rice along with wedges of lemon.
Rachel Roddy is an award-winning food writer based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard;) @racheleats