Small, Good Things: Then, Now and Then Again

Spring Vegetable Stew 
with Herb Pistou

Spring Vegetable Stew 
with Herb Pistou

This moment — this one right here — is up for discussion and negotiation. Contemporary psychology posits “now” — this experienced moment or the subjective present — to be in the vicinity of three seconds.

By the time you get from “n” through “o” to “w,” it’s gone — our experience of living being discrete units strung together for the finite expanse, the past a subjective and usually dubious memory of previous nows and the future a series of imaginary ones.

But, for now, it’s still spring a bit longer, and a beautiful one it’s been. The nights are unseasonably cool, we have received much-needed rain, and the farm markets are starting to get interesting. Though small, spring onions and garlic, leeks and the first tender herbs are starting to appear. Asparagus is still to be had, and fava beans and zucchini are available in certain locations, although I can’t speak for their provenance.

My own faulty memory of previous nows conjured up a vegetable stew that incorporates the best of spring, something green and fresh but hearty and filling to ward off the still-cold nights. There’s a little something Proustian about the final result, incorporating as it does a bit of at least the past and present, and perhaps a soupcon of a possible future.

Spring leeks, spring onions and spring garlic — here for a hot minute — are melted in olive oil, followed by a handful of zucchini. The addition of vegetable stock (fresh if you can muster it, or a quality organic broth) makes an already flavorful base for whatever else is on hand. 

To give the stew some body, I added cooked and drained dried flageolet beans, maybe not readily available but worth seeking out for their delicate creaminess. Cannellini, Great Northern whites or navy beans are all acceptable substitutes, and canned, drained and rinsed cannellini would work in a pinch.

After these ingredients simmer 15 minutes or so, trimmed asparagus, blanched and drained favas (substitute shelled fresh or frozen edamame or lima beans) are added. Shelled peas are one of the few frozen vegetables you can count on and offer yet more flavor and texture. 

These last few are simmered just long enough to warm them and the finished stew is augmented at the table with a fresh herb pistou — a looser version of a pesto — added to individual bowls. Last month it would have been ramps, now mostly past, and basil is still in the future. In the meantime, a bunch of peppermint I found at the farmers market, augmented by a little parsley, was more than fine this time around, and just for now.

Spring Vegetable Stew with Herb Pistou

Serves 6

  • 2 cups cooked, rinsed and drained dried flageolets or other varietal white beans
  • 1 cup shelled, blanched, peeled and drained fresh fava beans (substitute shelled or frozen edamame or lima beans)
  • 1 cup asparagus tips and pieces, bias-cut about 1½ inches long
  • 1 cup frozen organic shelled peas (Woodstock brand is great)
  • 1 cup (about 1 small) zucchini, cut in ½ inch dice
  • 1 cup combination of leeks, sliced medium, and spring onions, spring garlic or shallots, sliced thin
  • Olive oil
  • 4 cups fresh vegetable stock (or a good commercial brand)
  • Herb Pistou, for serving (recipe below)

1. Prepare favas and set aside. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a skillet or large saucepan over medium-low heat; add leeks, onions and garlic, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until soft and pale. When leeks and onions are soft, add zucchini and continue cooking for another 5 minutes.

2. Add cooked and drained flageolets/white beans to the pan along with the stock. Bring to a boil, add favas, peas and asparagus; lower heat to a simmer and cook barely 5 minutes. Ladle soup into bowls with a generous dollop of pistou in each.

Herb Pistou

Makes about 1½ cups 

  • 1 to 2 cups fresh mint leaves (or a combination of mint, parsley or other tender herbs)
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ⅓ cup lightly toasted pine nuts, pistachios or blanched almonds
  • ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Process everything but the oil in the bowl of a food processor until finely chopped. Add oil in a slow stream to produce a runny paste. Salt and pepper to taste.

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