To me, getting up out of my warm bed in the morning is like reliving the trauma of birth every day of the year: going from the warm, comfortable known into the harsh and unforgiving unknown before you are ready. No wonder babies cry when they are born!! At least I manage not to weep inconsolably every morning, but the bottom line is that I am far happier when the sun is setting that when it is rising.
When I lived in my lovely little townhouse in Port Elizabeth, I remember many sunsets sitting on my balcony (well, balancing on the wall enclosing my balcony, actually!) with a glass of wine in one hand and a book in the other, wrapped in my favourite kikoi and just enjoying the light and the beginnings of the nighttime chorus of frogs and crickets.
But here in London, there is no nighttime chorus (sirens don't count!) and you don't really get to see the horizon unless you live in a high-rise block – which we don't. And so for a while, I was lost without a summer sunset routine.
And then… I discovered the joys of broad beans, or fava beans. (I have written more extensively about their history and folklore here.) Confused as to the link between the two events? Allow me to explain.
I don't know if broad beans don't really grow well in South Africa or if my mom just never bought them, but I had never had one until my feet touched these shores. They are more closely related to the pea than to other beans, and look to me like pregnant string beans with their fleshy and swollen pods. The reason for this supersized look is not hard to find once you open your first pod – these babies are all packaging! The outer shell of the pod is quite thick and bulky, and nestled inside you will find the beans, cosseted in nature's equivalent of cotton wool. So for a start, you chuck away probably 75% by volume of what you originally brought home from the market. (I have found some unconfirmed reports that the pods are toxic, should you have the sudden urge to nibble on one… think again!). Then you blanch the beans and then, just for a change, you need to peel them again. Well, you don't strictly speaking have to, but the two halves of each bean are held together by a greyish, fairly tough skin and if you want to taste the sweetness of the beans (and definitely if you plan to mash them), this skin needs to be removed and discarded. Watch your compost bin fill up in no time
Apart from the monumental amount of wasted "packaging", all this podding is also a time-consuming business as there's no way to pod them except by hand. The idea of standing in my miniature kitchen doing this seemed very unappealing, so one evening I poured myself a glass of wine, took my beans and a bowl and went to sit on the steps leading from our lounge to the garden. From there, I can look up at our beloved tree, see the darkening blue sky and feel the grass under my feet. Bliss – and a new sunset routine was born. And during the hours I've spent out there I have also noticed the remarkable similarity between the dusk view from my garden and a painting by Rene Magritte (who happens to be one of my favourite artists), called L'Empire des Lumieres (The Empire of Light). Look at Magrittes' picture, look at my photo above and you'll see why I now refer to summer evenings when the sky is dark blue and the neighbours' lights gleam gold as Margritte Time.
The dish I most like to make with broad beans is a dish that rocked my world the first time I tasted it in Granada in summer 2005. Because it is so simple, it depends on good ingredients so don't stint on the ham or the olive oil – get the best you can.
2kg broad beans
100g good Spanish dry-cured ham
50ml Extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 shallots, finely chopped
Find yourself a comfy seat with a nice view. Have a glass of wine or a cocktail handy. Pod the broad beans looking at the nice view and sipping the wine. This makes the process infinitely more pleasant.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the beans to the water and boil for 8 minutes, no more. Drain the water, refresh with cold water and replace the water until the beans are cool enough to handle.
Unless you have baby broad beans, you should pod them again, removing the greyish membrane surrounding each individual bean. (They are edible but can be quite chewy and not very sweet. Removing them also reveals the astonishingly bright green of the beans.) Nip off one end with your fingernail and then gently push the bean out, taking care not to break or crush them.
Sautee the onion and garlic in a little olive oil. Once the onion is translucent, add the beans and heat. Remove from heat, tear the ham into large chunks and add to the beans.
Serve in bowls and drizzle with the remainder of the olive oil. Remember some bread to mop up every last delicious drop!