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IN THE KITCHEN / RUSS PARSONS

Emeralds on the Table

May 19, 1999|RUSS PARSONS

One of the hallmarks of home cooking is a certain cheapness. Not stinginess; rather, a spirit of making the most out of a little.

This is in direct contrast to restaurant cooking. Chefs will brag about reducing 10 pounds of meat and half a bushel of vegetables to a cup of stock. They will employ a battalion of cooks to carve potatoes into shapes that are endearing but--it must be pointed out--wasteful.

In some restaurants, it is rumored, they'll even serve you fava beans by the bowl. By the bowl.

Such extravagance is beyond any but the most compulsive home cook. I bow to no man in my affection for favas, yet it strikes me as ludicrous to serve a whole bowl to anyone outside my family and most treasured friends--and then only if they've been very, very good.

What's so bad about fava beans, you ask? Obviously, you've never dealt with them.

Favas come bound in tight little skins inside a big loose pod. And you almost always buy fresh favas in the pod. First you have to shuck them free of their pods, then you have to blanch them. Finally, you have to remove their tight skins by hand--one bean at a time.

The long and the short of it is this: It takes five pounds of pods to make one cup of cleaned fava beans, which is a sensible serving for one person. The combined shucking, blanching and peeling takes a couple of hours of solid work. I know, because I kept track one long, exasperating afternoon.

And yet, and yet. . . . How can you have spring without fava beans?

The solution: Be cheap, both with your money and with your time. I use fava beans almost as garnishes--scattered among other ingredients, like emerald green spring petals. That way, a single pound of them can go a long way.

Favas used in this way can brighten spring soups or stews or pasta sauces. This risotto is but one example. I don't know where the combination of baby artichokes, fava beans and spring onions first occurred, but it is a natural for this time of year.

It is also quite . . . cheap. Not only are you making judicious use of favas, you're using baby artichokes as well.

And they are one of the great bargains of the spring produce bin. They are not truly babies; they are fully grown but just happen to be small. Every artichoke plant sets a certain number of shoots. The central one will bear one giant bud; the surrounding shoots will produce smaller ones.

Most Americans think of artichokes only in terms of steaming and dipping--in other words, serving them whole. The biggest, roundest artichokes are the only ones that will do.

Not only is there only one of these per plant, they are very much in demand as well. (You don't need a degree in economics to understand where this is going.) Meanwhile, the smaller artichokes are scorned.

This is unjust, but don't shed too many tears. It means these little guys are cheap. They do take some work, but not nearly as much as the favas. What's even better, when you're done, you can eat the whole thing, which is something you can't say about those expensive big artichokes.

While we're laying down laws, let's talk about risotto. There's a lot of mystique that's built up around the dish, perhaps because it's so often done badly in restaurants. If the pros have a hard time with it, it must be difficult, right?

Wrong. The pros have a hard time with it because they insist on trying to do it in advance, to be finished off at the last minute.

Risotto is a dish that suffers no shortcuts. You have to be committed to doing it the right way. But the good news is the right way is very easy. Most risottos can be on the table in about half an hour. This one, which takes a fair amount of advance preparation, is ready in 45 minutes.

There's a new, allegedly time-saving product on the market called "par-boiled Arborio." Don't bother. We tested it in The Times Test Kitchen and found that it saved only five minutes' cooking time while losing a great deal in terms of flavor and texture.

That's the thing about being cheap; you've got to be smart about it.

Risotto of Baby Artichokes, Fava Beans and Spring Onions

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes. Vegetarian.

For the garnish, cuts sheets from the pecorino with a vegetable peeler

1 pound fava beans, in shell

1 1/2 pounds baby artichokes

Juice of 1 lemon

1 bunch spring or green onions

1 (14 1/5-ounce) can chicken or vegetable broth

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt

3 cups Arborio rice

2 tablespoons butter

4 sprigs mint

Sheets of Pecorino Romano for garnish

* Shell favas and place beans in large bowl. Cover with boiling water and let stand 5 minutes. Drain beans in colander and rinse in cold water. Peel tough skins by cutting 1 end with thumbnail and squeezing other end with thumb and forefinger. Bean will shoot out; aim carefully. Set aside.

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