Luckily, my cooking skills outshine my gardening skills

Los Angeles TimesMay 20, 2014 

One thing I’ve learned since I put in vegetable beds is that, as a gardener, I’m a pretty good cook.

My agricultural shortcomings are not something I’m proud of. I start every growing season with the best of intentions, laying out well-ordered plots that seem almost guaranteed to turn into things of beauty. Then life intervenes, weeks pass and somehow the whole operation has gotten away from me.

This winter, I planted fava beans because they’re the one vegetable I’ve been able to grow reliably (even I can’t kill a fava). But because the favas take a long time to mature, I thought I’d over-sow some radishes – they pop up so quickly that they’d be long harvested by the time the favas came on.

Smart idea, right? Well, fast-forward a couple of months and somehow a few of those radishes never did get picked (hey, I was busy). They had bolted and now were sending up head-high shoots of flowers from somewhere hidden deep in the fava jungle.

Time to go in and rip them all out. But I noticed that some of the branches were full of these tiny needle-shaped pods: radish seed pods. I picked one and tasted it. It was crisp and practically popped in my mouth. Think of a radish’s sweet taste but with only a trace of the heat. It was like a cross between a radish and a sugar snap pea.

I started getting ideas. I was taking a salad to a friend’s potluck that evening – a simple thing, mixed lettuces and hard-boiled eggs – so I tossed in a handful of pods along with some radish flowers and blooms from other plants that had bolted. The salad was delicious – and far prettier than my garden could ever hope to be.

I did get some of those fava beans too, and after much shucking and peeling, simmered them briefly with garlic and mint and then served them with burrata cheese as another salad. That too was good. The beans were tender and full of that sweet, flash-of-green spring flavor for which we love favas so much.

When I tried to make something similar a couple of weeks later, the favas I picked had clearly been ignored for too long. They were so full of starch that my light simmer had turned into a thick porridge. It tasted good, but the texture was pasty and floury. And I had only a half-hour before guests arrived. Desperate, I beat in a generous quarter cup of really good olive oil (reasoning that there’s nothing really good olive oil can’t fix). Between the texture of the fat and the slight bitterness of the oil, this puree was a knockout.

Fava Bean Salad with Mint, Burrata and Pistachios

4 pounds fava beans in pod

Olive oil

1/3 cup chopped green onion (green part only)

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/2 cup white wine

Salt

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

2 (4-ounce) balls fresh burrata

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup chopped toasted pistachios

SHUCK the beans into a work bowl. Cover the beans with boiling water and set aside until cool enough to handle. Cut a nick in the bottom of the skin of each bean with your thumbnail and squeeze the inside beans from the skin. You should have 2 1/2 to 3 cups fava beans.

IN a large skillet, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat and add the green onion and lemon zest. Add the fava beans, the white wine and 1 teaspoon salt, and simmer until the beans are just tender, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the mint and cool until ready to serve.

MOUND the favas on a plate. Cut each burrata ball into quarters and arrange over the top. Season the burrata with a little more salt and freshly ground pepper and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Scatter the chopped pistachios over the top and serve.

Yield: 6 servings.

Mixed Green Salad with Hard-Boiled Eggs and Radish Pods

1 pound mixed salad greens

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon Champagne or sherry vinegar

Salt

3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

2 to 3 ounces radish pods, or equal weight thinly sliced radishes

Assorted herb or other edible flowers

PLACE the salad greens in a large mixing bowl. Mix the olive oil, lemon juice and vinegar in a small bowl, and whisk until smooth. (Alternatively, combine them in a small lidded jar and shake to emulsify.) Pour half the dressing over the greens and toss with your hands to lightly coat with dressing. Add only as much more as you need. Season to taste with salt.

MOUND the greens on a platter. Cut the eggs in quarters and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Arrange the eggs over the greens. Add the radish pods or sliced radishes to the same work bowl as the salad was mixed in and toss just to lightly coat. If you need more dressing, add it a dribble at a time.

SCATTER the radish pods or sliced radishes over the top of the eggs and garnish with the herb flowers. Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings.

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