Recipe: A Stew for Spring

This is lightly adapted from a recipe in Jack Bishop’s book The Complete Italian Vegetarian.  Mostly, I adapted it by screwing it up.  But you don’t need to do that part.  The rest of the adaptation was a matter of what was  looking beautiful at the market and the greengrocer’s this week.

This meal is surprisingly hearty for an all-vegetable dish, and it has heaps of flavour – far more than I would have expected.  It’s nice served with mashed potato, semolina or polenta, or with bread to mop up the juices.  I served it with roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes which was a mistake, really, if roasted potatoes can every actually be considered such a thing (I don’t know that they can, to be honest).

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1 cup shelled borlotti beans (or you can use any other fresh beans, or shelled peas).  You’ll probably need three or so cups un-shelled, but this is not a precise recipe.
olive oil
4 french (golden) shallots, or a similar volume of spring onions, or four teeny tiny baby leeks
5 medium roma tomatoes
3 wild fennel bulbs, or 2 baby fennel bulbs, or one adult one
3 cups stock, any kind, but preferably home-made
a handful or two of baby carrots, or small carrots, peeled
2 bunches of asparagus.  Or more.  500g is good.
2 tablespoons butter
1-2 tablespoons flour or cornflour (optional)
freshly grated parmesan, to serve

Now what will you do with it?

The first thing you need to do is admire your borlotti beans.  I mean it.  They are far too beautiful for you not to feast your eyes on before you cook them.  In fact, they are so beautiful that I am not going to go one step further in this recipe without showing you how pretty they are:

borlotti beans and pods still closed Stock Photo - 9862629

See what I mean?  And now I am going to cruelly burst your bubble by informing you that they do not, alas, stay this magnificent colour after cooking – in fact, they go sort of greyish white.  And you can’t eat them raw, either.  Tragic.  I suggest you go out *right now* and get a bunch of multicoloured carrots or purple asparagus to assuage your disappointment.

OK.  Back to the borlotti beans, which you can shell even if you have terribly short, bitten, fingernails by running your fingernail along one of the seams and popping out the beans.  This is quite good fun, actually, provided you aren’t trying to shell kilos and kilos of beans, which gets old very fast (says she who had the bumper crop of broad beans last year).  Once you’ve shelled them, pop them into some boiling water and cook for about 20-30 minutes, or until nearly tender.  They are going to cook some more in the stew.  Drain and set aside.  If you are using peas or broadbeans, don’t bother with this part, but do make sure you take the white skins off the broadbeans.

While they are cooking, cut a cross through the base of each tomato, put them in a bowl, and pour boiling water over them.  Let them stand for a minute or two, then drain and cover with cold water.  This should enable you to slip their skins off fairly easily.  Do so, and then chop them up.

Mince your shallots and slice up your fennel bulbs.  Remove the hard cores and the stalks, but leave a small handful of the fronds aside for the end.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the shallots.  Sauté the shallots for a few minutes until golden, then add the tomatoes with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until the tomatoes soften, then add the fennel.  Cook, stirring often, for about ten minutes or until the fennel is softened.

While all this is happening, peel your carrots, and if they aren’t teeny tiny ones, cut them in halves or quarters lengthways, and possibly the other way, too.  Snap off the bases of your asparagus, and cut them into lengths of about  1/2 inches.

Add the stock to the pan and bring to the boil.  Throw in the carrots and simmer for 10-15 minutes.  Add the asparagus and beans (or peas if using) and simmer for another ten minutes.  Everything should be tender but with a little bite to it.

Stir in the fennel fronds (and if you are moved to add a little fresh mint, marjoram or basil at this point I don’t think you will go too far wrong), then add the butter and stir vigorously until it melts and the sauce thickens a little.  In my experience, it doesn’t thicken at all, so you could add some flour at this point to thicken it.  In my experience, this makes it go lumpy, so it’s probably a good idea to put the flour in a separate bowl, whisk in some of the stew liquid until it’s smooth, and mix it all back into the stew.  If you are having a really bad day it will still go lumpy, which is just typical and you are absolutely entitled to sulk at this point.  That way nobody gets to complain unless they want to cook dinner themselves.  It will still taste good, I promise.  In fact, I really can promise this, because that’s exactly what happened when I cooked it the other night, and it really did taste fine, it just looked terrible.

Serve in a bowl with a little parmesan sprinkled over it, if you like, and something carbohydratey to mop up the juices.  Yum.  This is enough for four hungry people.

Variations

This is already vegetarian, nut free, egg free, and low GI.  If you use cornflour or no flour at all, it’s gluten-free, and if you leave out the butter (you can use a little flour to thicken it and enrich with extra virgin olive oil) it is dairy-free and vegan, too.    I’m not so sure about the fructose thing, though obviously you’d want to stay away from the wheat flour.

In terms of flavour variations, you’ve probably already worked out that this recipe is incredibly open to alteration.  Use whatever looks nice, really, though this combination is very good.  If you are doing without tomatoes, I’d add a little more white wine and maybe some capsicums instead, and in general, it’s probably worth considering the cooking time and the type of vegetable before you swap it – carrots could swap out with another sweet root vegetable like parsnip or maybe golden beetroot; asparagus would want to swap with something crunchy, like green beans, or perhaps with baby artichokes.  And adding softer, sweeter herbs at the end is always a nice touch.

Just make sure the vegetables you use are wonderful ones – they are the only thing in this dish, so you want them to have a good bit of flavour in their own right.

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