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Vignarola (Roman spring vegetable stew)

Today la vignarola is a veritable cult object in springtime, when, for a magic few weeks, fresh fava beans, sweet, sweet peas, and locally grown globe artichokes are available simultaneously. But as recently as the mid-1980s, it wore the mystique of a traditional dish kept alive by a few dedicated souls. Its rediscovery, or resurgence, has been accompanied by a groundswell of vignarola-consciousness and much discussion of the proper formula. The melting-pot approach cooks the ingredients together, while the multiethnic school lets them maintain their separate identities till near the end. I prefer the latter. La vignarola is so seasonal and so special that it is made to fit anywhere in the meal, as a primo piatto (acting as soup), as a main course, or as a contorno (side dish).

Some cooks add romaine lettuce, which provides moisture. Some feel that favas without guanciale are a day without sunshine, while others prefer a vegetarian dish, and much as I love guanciale, I prefer the cleaner taste of the meat-free vignarola. An important advantage of cooking the three main ingredients separately is that you can make extra and blend only what you need for one meal. You can then freeze the extra or serve them separately the next day.

Makes 4 servings

2 pounds (1 kg) fresh fava beans, fairly young, in their pods (or the equivalent already shelled)
2 pounds (1 kg) fresh sweet peas, in their pods (or the equivalent already shelled)
3 artichokes, preferably with their stems
the juice of 1 lemon
extra-virgin olive oil
2 oz (50 grams) guanciale, pancetta, or prosciutto (with fat), cut in small strips (optional)
4 medium white or fresh (green) onions, sliced thin but not paper thin
salt and freshly ground pepper

Shell the favas. Do not peel the individual beans. Rinse the favas in a colander and set aside. Shell and rinse the peas in another colander and set aside.

Trim the artichokes the Roman way. Fill a good-sized bowl with water and add the lemon juice. Cut the artichokes in half lengthwise, then each half into 4 or 6 wedges. Using a small knife, preferably with a curved blade, scrape away any sharp leaves or choke in the center. Work quickly and drop the trimmed wedges into the acidulated water as you work. Otherwise they will turn black. When you have finished trimming the artichoke wedges, take a large skillet and add enough extra virgin olive oil just to coat the pan. Heat gently over medium heat. Drain the artichoke wedges and add to the pan. Toss them around with a wooden spoon over medium-high until they begin to sizzle a bit. Sprinkle with salt, cover the pan, and lower the heat. The cooking time can varying a great deal, so lift the lid and poke a wedge with a fork from time to time. They should be quite tender, but not mushy. As they cook, add a few tablespoons of water as needed. The pan should not be completely dry. For vignarola, turn off the heat as soon as the artichokes are cooked through, but they are delicious served alone. In that case, remove the lid and raise the heat to medium-high for a final sauté just to brown them a bit around the edges.

While the artichokes are cooking, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, and add the guanciale (or pancetta or prosciutto), if you are using it. Heat the meat gently for 2 or 3 minutes, until it starts to brown and some of the fat has started to render. If you are omitting the meat, use more oil. Add half the sliced onions and cook until transparent. Add the fava beans, stir a couple of times to coat with the fat, and add about 1/2 cup water. Add a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper. Bring the water to the boil. Turn the heat to low. Cover the pan, and cook until the beans are tender, about 20 minutes, depending on their size and age (check frequently). Check the water level occasionally and add more as needed to keep a little liquid always in the pan.

Heat another 1 tablespoon oil in another saucepan and sauté the rest of the onion until transparent. Stir in the shelled peas. Add 1/2 cup water. Add a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper. Bring the water to the boil. Turn the heat to low. Cover the pan, and cook until the peas are tender, about 15 minutes, depending on their size and age, but keep your eye on them. Be careful not to overcook to the point where they lose their lovely green color.

Combine the three vegetables, with their liquid, in a single pot and gently reheat. Transfer to a warm serving bowl, and drizzle with a little fresh extra-virgin olive oil.
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