Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fresh Fava Bean Risotto with Pancetta

I still have a recipe that I tore out of the April 2004 issue of Bon Appetit magazine for Fricasee of Beef and Fava Beans. At that point, I had never eaten a fresh fava bean, and I began a long vigil waiting for a sort of culinary cosmic alignment to occur. An opportunity to serve a special, labor-intensive meal needed to coincide with the availability of fava beans, which turn up only occasionally in markets in the late summer.

Every so often, I would come across that recipe and hope favas would appear at the store, but secretly, in my heart of hearts, I was kind of glad. Somewhere along the way, it had been imprinted on my consciousness that shelling fava beans was the most tedious, time-sucking, miserable job in the kitchen--worse than cutting the spines out of lettuce leaves or peeling apples. Not only do fava beans need to be removed from the furry lining of their large, thick pods, but then the tender, edible beans have to be somehow freed of their outer shells, ONE BY ONE. That fricasee recipe calls for 5 pounds of beans, and surely I would be shelling for ages, pressing on even after my fingers had grown numb. Suffice it to say that the triangulation of ample time, readily available produce and culinary desire never happened for me.

Fast forward to summer 2006. That is when the signs began. In late July, I saw fresh fava pods in my supermarket for the first time. "In South Florida, of all places," I thought. "Maybe I should make that fava fricasee recipe?" Once I knew I could get the favas, I started noticing other recipes using the broad, vivid beans. There was fava and corn succotash in a magazine; fava bean puree on the internet; and gnocchi with fava beans and delicate chanterelle mushrooms at one of my favorite restaurants, Rioja in Denver. If all these people were cooking with fava beans, how bad could it be?

Last week, fava beans showed up again at the supermarket, and this time, I snapped them up from their bin. Inspired by the meal I had eaten at Rioja over a year ago, I conjured up a risotto dish to show off the beautiful beans. I would serve it as an accompaniment to roast cornish game hens, so I would not need to shell an inordinate amount of beans. I told Mike my plans, and we went off to buy some Italian wine for the occasion. Chianti, you ask? No, but one of the grapes used to make it that is less expensive without the D.O.C. classification, Sangiovese.

And when it came time to finally do the loathsome deed? I had not entirely abandoned my fava phobia, so I started dinner hours early. Within five minutes, I had plucked the beans from their pods. After that, it was a minute and a half in boiling water, a quick dip in an ice bath, and with Mike's help, the favas were shelled in no time. It was only a pound of beans, but I would gladly do five times that quantity. This risotto recipe serves 4 as a first course or an accompaniment, with plenty of beans to go around.

Fresh Fava Bean Risotto with Pancetta
Use real pancetta if you can get it, otherwise use best-quality bacon. The fat of this Italian salt-cured pork belly brings wonderful flavor to the dish that complements the favas. Buy whole baby portabella or buttom mushrooms and stem and thinly slice them yourself. I did not skimp on the butter and olive oil in this recipe because it makes the mushrooms soft and flavorful, and it also acts as part of the flavor base for the risotto. The lemon zest and juice is essential to lighten the richness of the pork fat. I like to buy arborio rice that is imported from Italy because I think it is creamier than other domestic brands that I have tried, but experiment to find a brand you like.

1 1/2 tblsp. unsalted butter, divided
2 tblsp. olive oil, divided
8-10 baby portabella or button mushrooms, stems removed and thinly sliced
8 slices pancetta, large pieces of fat removed and cut into bite-size strips (you can also use a couple thick slices of pancetta, cut into small cubes)
1 lb. fava beans, shelled
fresh ground pepper
pinch of salt, optional
zest and juice of half a lemon
4-6 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth (I use chicken broth from low-sodium bouillion)
1/2 small onion or 1 shallot, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. arborio rice (risotto)
parmesan cheese, for garnish

Heat 1/2 tblsp. butter and 1 tblsp. olive oil in a nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the pancetta and cook stirring often, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the heat to low and add the fava beans. Cook just until warmed through. Season with fresh ground pepper and a pinch of salt, if desired (the pancetta will add quite a lot of salt on its own). Squeeze the lemon over all and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, heat 6 cups of chicken broth and keep warm over low heat. You may not need to use all the broth, but 6 cups will have you covered.

In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or dutch oven, heat the remaining butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly.

Add the rice and toast until the grains are opaque, about 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Keep everything moving so the rice and the garlic do not burn. (At this point, you could also add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of white wine, if you like. Cook until wine is almost completely reduced, then proceed).

Add about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of broth to the rice. Bring the liquid to a steady simmer and cook, stirring very often, until all the liquid is almost totally absorbed. Add 1/2 cup of broth (or more if you have a larger pot) and cook until the liquid is almost totally absorbed. Continue adding broth in 1/2 c. increments, letting each addition absorb almost completely, until the grains are al dente, or as tender as you like them. Taste often; they will soften quickly. The whole process should take 22 to 28 minutes. You should stand over the pot, stirring for nearly the entire time. I find this aspect of making risotto fairly undemanding and relaxing, and I hope you will too!

When the risotto is done, stir in the fava bean mixture, including any luscious pancetta fat in the skillet. Stir in the lemon zest and serve immediately with freshly grated parmesan cheese on top.


Sarah said...

I know what I'm doing on my lunch break--marching over to the farmer's market in search of fava beans! Thanks for the inspiration.

christine said...

Wow, Julie! What a wonderful recipe! I don't cook or eat rice very often, but this recipe sounds like it would be perfect to serve to friends this time of year. I think our local favas are an early summer crop here, but I'll be on the lookout at the farmer's market this weekend.
I used to grow favas as a nitrogen fixing cover crop in the garden. They winter over easily in our temperate climate and give us those delicious beans to boot. You've reminded me to do this again.

Julie said...

This sounds fabulous! Favas don't seem to be in our market right now but I need to try this next spring when they are. Yum!

Anonymous said...

Great recipe! I saw a bunch of puree of fava bean risotto recipes, but I thought I'd try this one. I didn't follow the measurements exactly (since I was cooking for a person that hates risotto and thus did a half-ish recipe) but it was GREAT. I ended up running out because the risotto hater ended up eating so much of it!

Julie said...

Anonymous: Woohoo, converting risotto-haters! That person must have had a traumatic risotto experience in his or her past. I'm really glad you enjoyed the recipe. It's a great one.