Monday, 6 July 2009

Penne with broad beans and pancetta

What do you do when your parents are in town and you want to wile away the morning hunting down turn-of-the-century, hand-painted Italian terracotta vases in Notting Hill's antiques market rather than slave away in the kitchen to resentfully slam a roast on the table at 1 p.m.? You cook pasta.

Now, dear French readers, please look away now, for I must say this once and for all. We know zilch about pasta and understand none of its delights back home. Growing up, I ate pasta, on average, twice a year. I'm not kidding. And it was always exactly the same pasta dish: coquillettes with a knob of butter and a sprinkle of grated gruyere cheese. My mom's thoughts, summarized by her body language, were: 'Tonight, I gave up trying to feed my girls a healthy dinner. Honestly, I would rather serve them nutella on toast than pasta, but we've run out of that too.' Dinner would have been served with an apologetic smile if my mom were the type to act guilty.

Many years later, on my first independent trip to London, I roomed with an Italian girl named Anna for a few weeks. We shared a kitchen. She cooked pasta. Every. Single. Day. Eventually, I felt we had enough of a bond for me to tease her gently about her lack of skills in the kitchen, convinced there could be no other explanation for the monotony of her meals. She stared back at me, clearly bewildered. Then she explained, without a smirk, for she was too kind to mock my provincialism, that she had actually been cooking the same dishes her mother would have made back home: pasta with cherry tomatoes, pasta with tuna, pasta with chickpeas, pasta with zucchini and shrimp.....

And all I had noticed was that she was cooking pasta, oblivious, in my ignorance, to the incredible versatility of that miracle ingredient. You know the rest of the story, I eventually married a Neapolitan and, over the years (yes, it took years), overcame my prejudice against pasta. Today, I can hardly imagine what my cooking repertoire, robbed of it, would look like.

My parents, though, have undergone no such conversion, which is why I tend to make pasta when they're around, in an effort, perhaps, to awaken them to the refinement of many Italian pasta dishes. This recipe of broad beans and pancetta I like to cook on a weekend lunch, mostly because a nap feels wonderful afterwards. Serves four.

500g (just over one pound) i unshelled broad beans (also known in the U.S. as fava beans)
150g (three generous handfuls) bacon bits from the butcher or Italian pancetta
100ml (2/3 of a cup) single cream
A good grating of fresh parmesan cheese
400g (1 pound) wholewheat penne

Put a large pot of water on the hob. Add salt. Don't be shy. You want the cooking water to be as salty as the ocean last time you accidentally swallowed a cup of it. That's so you don't need to salt the pasta later on, which Italians disapprove of.

Put another, smaller pot of water to boil.  Meanwhile, shell the broad beans. It will take a little while at first but you will quickly get the hang of it. Pinch the tip of the pod and pull it down along the seam that ties the two sides of the shell together. Slice it open with a sharp fingernail and take out the beans. Throw the beans in the smaller pot of boiling water and let them cook for 3-4 minutes. 

Throw the penne into the other pot. The wholeweat ones usually need 12 minutes. Give them one less as they will go in the pan with the bacon, cream and beans at the end and cook a bit further then.

Put a knob of butter in a small saucepan on medium heat on add the bacon bits. Once they're dark and crispy, after roughly 5 minutes, lower the heat and pour in the cream. Add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Let it bubble for a few minutes, then add the broad beans.

Your pasta should be cooked right about now. Add to your saucepan and mix well. You're ready.


  1. I want that vase.

    This sounds molto yummy. Incidentally, I just cooked with some dried favas for the first time. (I usually buy them fresh but couldn't resist.) Delizioso!

  2. Where do you find dry favas and how do you use them? I'm curious considering the broad-bean season is so short here and frozen ones aren't the easiest thing to find.