Memories & advice from the porch
Remembering Diana Kennedy
who died last week at the age of 99 at her home, an “ecofarm,” as she called it, in the highlands of Michoacán in western Mexico.
She was a fearless and single-minded force in the world of food as she spent much of her adult life investigating Mexico’s richly diverse cuisines with relentless energy and curiosity—and then brought this heritage to the attention of the rest of us. It was sometimes easy to poke fun at her, especially as she got really old and really obsessed with the idea that only she could truthfully interpret Mexican cuisines (beware, Rick Bayless, Christina Potter, and anyone else who offered a slightly different take). But the scope and breadth of her research and her knowledge were truly amazing, as Rick and Christina are the first to admit, and the passion she put into honoring Mexico’s splendid variety, and convincing us all to honor it equally, meant that she had an enormous influence for the good.
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In her later years, unfortunately, her conviction that she and she alone owned the food of Mexico was troubling. People have praised her generosity but she was quite un-generous as she aged. I was never the target of her vitriol, but I knew plenty of well-intentioned writers who were.
At her best, Diana was smart, focused, resolute, and also, before the vitriol took over, very, very funny. She once described to me her first encounter, at a bar in Haiti, of all places, with Paul Kennedy, the New York Times correspondent who became her beloved husband. Paul was having a drink with another reporter when they struck up a conversation with the pretty young Englishwoman who came in alone. “English?” the unnamed second reporter said to Paul, “English? Good sex tonight, man—yum yum!” That was Diana’s story.
I spent a couple of days with her in New York back in the 1980’s as we toured the Mexican restaurants of Manhattan, looking for at least one that might meet her standards. Even Josefina Howard’s most excellent (in my view) Rosa Mexicano failed Diana’s test of authenticity, despite the guacamole that was mounted tableside in a bona fide lava-stone molcajete. I finally gave up and I think I never wrote the story (I can’t find it in the New York Times archive), but once Diana Kennedy got through with a place, you could happily say goodbye to “dos tacos and an enchilada with a side of rice and refried beans!” Not only could you say goodbye, you were obliged to do that if you wanted to remain on speaking terms with Diana.
No, for her, the food of Mexico was a brilliant, multi-varied, complex and fascinating subject, a deep reflection of the equally complex history of our southern neighbor, and a subject that we have ignored to our loss. Happily, she did her utmost throughout most of her very long life to repair that loss.
In Praise of Broad Beans
Vicia faba, the fava bean, is a vetch (you can tell by the botanical name Vicia), and it is, not surprisingly, among the oldest cultivated edibles. Leguminous vetches grow wild all over the northern hemisphere (maybe the southern too, I don’t know), producing seeds that our ancestors recognized as deeply nutritious with a high protein content. So naturally, when they took up farming, fava beans (or broad beans as they’re known in the rest of the anglophone world) became one of the most valued crops. Yes, that’s an over-simplification of the millennial-long transition to agriculture, but it’s not far from the truth.
There’s a good reason for this long history. Like most legumes, fava beans are super-nutritious, rich in protein, dietary fiber, and phytonutrients such as isoflavones that keep us properly ticking over. They’re easy to grow in almost any climate that’s not too wet and moreover, dried, they store well through the winter and are quickly converted into soups, stews, and purees—or into those delectable Egyptian fritters called falafel or ta’amia, in which dried fave, reconstituted and mashed, are quintessential
super young and tender fave, aka broad beans, from a Maine farmer
I scored majorly last week when I was given about four pounds of very young and tender fava beans, so youthful that they needed no shucking and certainly not the tiresome peeling of each individual bean that some chefs and food writers seem to believe is necessary. I searched my Mediterranean memory bank for dishes that incorporate the whole bean, pod and all, which is how I learned to cook them in the Middle East.
Are you a little unclear about fava beans? You’re not alone. You may have noticed them in farmers markets or the produce sections of upscale food shops, piles of long, fat green pods, looking a bit like green beans on steroids, each plump pod concealing anywhere from four to eight jade-pale seeds inside, with a flavor that ranges from the sweetness of peas to the earthy bitterness of wild greens.
Until recently, fave (pronounced FAH-vay, the plural of fava) were unfamiliar to most Americans, even though they’ve been around since colonial times. As broad beans, they were grown back then by housewives, farmers, and market gardeners alike. Martha Ballard, the 18th century diarist whose story was told in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale, planted them on the banks of Maine’s Kennebec River, and First Gourmet Thomas Jefferson included them among his garden crops at Monticello. Indeed, they were a staple in most households.
And then, unaccountably, they disappeared, at least in these United States, replaced by our common green beans, which ruled exclusively for almost two centuries. I’m not at all sure why broad beans vanished from our tables, but when I first encountered them in England in the 1960s, they were entirely new to me. Later I found them prolific in markets in Spain (as habas), Italy (fave), and the Middle East (foul or fool), and even in China: I was startled once in that country to be presented with a still-warm terracotta bowl filled with a stew of broad beans, called candou in Chinese, that had been prepared by my host’s Shanghainese mother. Until then, I had thought of fave as strictly Mediterranean but they were just as much at home on the shores of the East China Sea.
Fava bean pilaf, fava bean risotto, pureed green fava soup, favas mashed to a paste and stirred into a pasta sauce or topping a bruschetta or crostino, or turned into Egyptian-style falafel--as delectable as all these dishes are, the beans have been slow to catch on in the U.S., presumably because of American food-writers’ almost unanimous insistence that they must be not just shelled or shucked like peas, but further peeled, individual bean by individual bean, before they are ready to be consumed. It is a tiresome task, ultimately not worth the time spent. That’s not the way it’s done in Italy. Or in Greece, Spain, Lebanon, Great Britain, China, or anywhere else where these beans are a staple. Only in France, a country that often seems devoted to making food more complicated than it should be, do we find instructions for peeling away the delicate skin that encloses each bean.
It’s true that old fave, ones that have been left to mature until the beans are a good deal bigger than my thumbnail, will have a leathery skin on the outside of each bean. That skin must be removed to make them edible. But the problem, it seems to me, is not with the cook but with the farmer who leaves beans on their erect stalks far too long until they develop big, coarse pods with fat, floury beans inside. Like peas, fava beans should be harvested, sold, and consumed when they are young, adolescents possibly, but no more than that. Sweet and tender, with a perceptibly musky, earthy flavor that distinguishes them clearly from peas, they are at their very best. And even better when, like the beans I received, they are so youthful that you can eat the whole pod!
So what did I do with them?
The finest and easiest way to cook fava beans is how I learned in Italy where the shucked beans are cooked quickly with chopped prosciutto, a little garlic and plentiful olive oil. But it’s even easier to combine all these ingredients and then roast the whole beans or bean pods in the oven, letting the oven do the cooking for you. Be certain to use all of the prosciutto, including the very savory fat.
Oven-braised Green Fave
· 1 or 2 pounds whole green fava pods
· ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
· 2 ounces, more or less, prosciutto, diced small
· 4 or 5 scallions, thinly sliced (including green tops)
· 4 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
· Sea salt and black pepper
· Grated zest of an unsprayed unwaxed lemon
Set the oven to heat to 400º.
Top and tail the fava pods but leave them whole. If any are too fat to cook whole, shuck them and add the beans to the mix.
Combine the pods and beans, if using, with the oil, prosciutto, scallions and garlic in a bowl. Add salt and pepper, keeping in mind that the prosciutto may be quite salty. Toss vigorously to combine well then spread on a sheet pan, preferably a rimmed pan to prevent drips into the oven.
Transfer to the hot oven and leave to cook for 10 minutes, then remove and stir the mix. Return the sheet pan to the oven for another 10 minutes. By this time, the beans should be thoroughly limp and starting to brown on the edges. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle with lemon zest, stirring and tossing to mix well.
You could serve hot from the pan, or leave to cool to room temperature—which is preferred in the eastern Mediterranean. I serve them with a sauce of thickened yogurt mixed with some chopped fresh cilantro and cucumber.
Green Favas and Rice with Lamb
I found this Palestinian (Gazan) recipe, for cooking whole fava beans in their pods with rice and a small amount of ground lamb, in The Gaza Kitchen, a wonderfully informed cookbook by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt (Just World Books, 2021—https://justworldbooks.com/books/).
It reminds me of the deliciously filling rice-and-vegetable dishes made by Balqis, the woman who cooked and cleaned for me in Beirut while I tunneled through the library stacks at the American University nearby, trying to become an Egyptologist. It’s a great example of how cooks in that part of the world use a small amount of meat to feed a large amount of people and give richness to an austerely simple preparation. Laila and Maggie call this:
I took some liberties with the recipe since the original serves a lot of people. And I used za’atar spice mix instead of the Palestinian qidra that was called for. If you want to make qidra, you can find a recipe for it in their book.
· 1 cup basmati or other long-grain rice
· Extra-virgin olive oil
· ½ pound ground lean lamb
· Half a medium yellow onion, chopped not too fine
· 1 teaspoon ground cumin
· 1 teaspoon (or more to taste) za’atar
· Sea salt and black pepper
· 1 pound fresh, tender green fava pods
· 1 ½ cups hot water
· 1 bunch cilantro, tough stems removed, coarsely chopped
Wash and rinse the rice three times until the water runs clear, then set it aside to soak in a bowl of cold water for 10 minutes. Drain.
While the rice is soaking, warm about ¼ cup of oil in a skillet and add the lamb and onion, sauteing and breaking up the meat until the onion is soft and the meat is starting to brown. Stir in the cumin and za’atar, as well as salt and pepper to taste.
Top and tail the fava pods and cut them into 1- to 2-inch pieces. In a separate pan, deep enough to hold all the ingredients, sauté the favas, pods and beans alike, in another 2 tablespoons of oil until they turn bright green. Now scrape the meat and onion mixture into the beans and stir in the drained rice. Mix it all together well, then add hot water. When the water is simmering, reduce the heat, cover the pan, and cook gently until the rice is done—about 15 or 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let rest for 10 minutes, then uncover and stir in the cilantro.
Serve the dish, hot or at room temperature, with plain strained (“Greek”) yogurt on top.
Za’atar: What is it?
That’s a complicated question, at least in part because za’atar refers both to a type of pungent wild thyme and to an aromatic mixture in which that herb is a principal ingredient, along with sumac and sesame. The botanical name is also complex since it is sometimes Origanum siriacum and at other times Majorana siriacum, translated as Syrian oregano and Syrian marjoram. Gardeners know that the two plants are very similar and have similar flavor profiles. In many parts of the Mediterranean, a therapeutic tisane is made from the dried herb and used to cure everything from upper respiratory complaints to plain old belly aches. I recommend it for both.
As for the herb-spice mixture, which is what most of us mean when we talk about za’atar, the balance differs in different parts of the Levant; in some regions, pumpkin, sunflower, or melon seeds may be added, as well as pistachios. Whatever the combination, the ingredients are usually sun-dried, toasted and blended with olive oil before being ground. The result is a deeply fragrant, grainy textured mix, zesty with wild herbs, slightly tangy from the sumac.
Za’atar is ubiquitous throughout the Middle East, added to everything from breads to breakfast eggs to yogurt to soups and stews. I have not yet found it used in desserts but I expect someone will come up with a recipe for za’atar ice cream one of these days—most likely Gus Rancatore (@gusicecream) at Toscanini Ice Cream in Cambridge (Mass not England).
I’ve been very pleased with the Kamā brand of Jordanian za’atar that I had from Rogerscollection.us, who import it, along with several other great products from Kamā, including both green and bright red shatta, the spicy dip/sauces. Kamā’s za’atar also includes cumin and cardamom, which blend an additional warmth into the mixture. My longevity secret: I sprinkle Kamā’s za’atar on a soft boiled egg, along with a dollop of fragrant extra-virgin olive oil, for a super healthy breakfast.
Looking ahead from the kitchen porch:
Tomato season is just beginning in Maine but we’re already looking to the task of putting up tomatoes, whether whole, in chunks, or as the tasty sauce called pomarola for the winter pantry. Now’s the time to review what you have on hand for canning jars and, most important, lids. Don’t wait to stock up because, come full canning season, you may find yourself at the unhappy end of a supply chain.
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