In praise of the versatile pulse
I noticed lovely fresh borlotti beans in the Campo di Flori market in Rome. Very helpful, the Italians; they sell them ready-podded in tight little plastic bags, if you wish to pay a little extra - and they look so inviting, all pink-flecked like sugary sweets. Sadly, however, once cooked, all this pretty mottling disappears into the water, resulting in a muddy-brown liquor and equally muddy-looking borlottis. But the taste and texture is the thing here. A dish of these, stewed with some tiny octopuses the size of your thumb, was served to me at a very good fish restaurant nearby. The simplicity of the ingredients shone through: the beans, the cephalopod, good wine vinegar, the best olive oil and chopped mint and onion. A more perfect combination of texture and flavour, and at an exact temperature - warm - I cannot recall.

Beans abound a bit just now. Apart from fresh borlottis (difficult to find, but well worth the effort), there are broad beans, runner beans, thin French beans (haricots verts) and, albeit here and there, pale yellow beans (haricots beurre), also from France. When some of these bean pods grow larger, the entire bean is left to dry out somewhat and then podded of its inner bounty - namely, tiny green flageolets, borlottis and milky-white haricots blancs, to name a few varieties. Most are packed off to be dried out for winter consumption, which is how the majority of us end up seeing them.

Although I am a seasonal nut, I don't ever feel guilty about soaking a few dried beans overnight, simmering to a melting tenderness and then dressing them while still warm with garlic, parsley, vinegar and olive oil. Eaten just like this, with a spoon, they don't appear at all wintry And when partnered with sliced continental sausage, tuna, anchovies or all manner of seafood, the harmony remains a surprising culinary masterpiece - as witnessed with the infant octopuses.

Many say broad beans are not worth bothering with after their initial foetal appearance in early summer. Well, I'm not so sure. I admit to being partial to the earlies myself, little tender skins and all. The adult broad bean, admittedly, needs to be peeled of its leathery jacket, but - having been divested - the bright green kernels can be used in many successful ways in risotto, soups, purees and as a vegetable salad with bits of bacon and small croutons.

Salad of broad beans with tarragon, crisp bacon and croutons, serves 4

6 very thin slices streaky bacon (or better still, Italian pancetta)

2 medium-thick slices of plain white bread, crusts removed

olive oil for frying

2.3kg/5lb broad beans, podded

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 clove peeled garlic, chopped

3 strips lemon peel, finely sliced

4-5 sprigs tarragon, leaves only, chopped

112 tbsp lemon juice

salt and pepper

Grill the bacon gently until very crisp and brittle. Lay on kitchen paper to drain. Cut the bread into tiny dice and fry in hot olive oil until golden and crisp. Also put onto kitchen paper to drain.

Now place the broad beans into a large pot of boiling, salted water. When the water returns to the boil, cook for about 5 minutes (the best way to test if they are tender is to fish one out, peel it and eat it) and then drain into a colander. Immediately re-fresh under cold running water to stop the cooking and set the colour. To peel the beans, nip one end of the skin with your nails and then pop the bean out (this is very simple) into a bowl.

Warm - not heat - the olive oil and add the lemon rind and garlic. Leave to infuse for a couple of minutes and pour over the beans, with the tarragon, lemon juice and seasoning, and mix thoroughly. Put in a shallow serving dish (white for preference) and scatter with shards of broken-up bacon and the croutons.

Warm salad of haricots beans with seafood, serves 4

Almost every combination of seafood/shellfish may be used in this conglomeration. It's really up to you and what you like to eat. Put some lobster in, or scallops, or little brown shrimps - it doesn't matter.

The following recipe is simply based on what was best the day the dish was photographed, excluding the mussels.

200g/7oz dried white haricot, cannellini or flageolet beans

1 onion stuck with 4 cloves

2 bay leaves

2 carrots, peeled

3 celery ribs, washed and cut in half

20 medium clams

4 dozen best mussels, cleaned and de-bearded

1/2 bottle dry white wine

8 small-to-medium, prepared squid tubes, available from supermarkets

700g/11/2 lb cooked, shell-on frozen prawns (the size to buy will give you 20-25 prawns per lb), defrosted and shelled - keep the shells

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

salt and cayenne pepper

6 tbsp olive oil

4 large tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and diced

2 shallots or 4 spring onions, finely slice

1 large clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

3 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

juice of half a lemon

Put the beans in a pot and cover by several inches with cold water. Leave to soak overnight. The next day, wash the beans thoroughly, put into a pan and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil, then drain and rinse with cold water (this helps get rid of initial excess scum and - I am told - also helps reduce incessant wind). Return to a clean pan, together with the cloved onion, bay, carrot and celery. Do not add salt, as this can cause the skins of the beans to toughen. Simmer gently until tender - about 1 hour. Some scum will form whilst this is going on, so skim the surface occasionally. Now add a little salt and keep the beans warm in the cooking liquor.

Put the clams and mussels in a solid-bottomed pot and pour over the white wine. Bring to the boil, shaking the contents until the clams and mussels are open. Lift out with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the prawn shells to the cooking liquor and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain through a very fine sieve into another pan and reduce to a few tablespoonfuls. Pour into a small bowl, which will be used later to make the dressing in.

Grill or fry the squid for a minute or two on each side; the cooking surface should be very hot and smeared with a little olive oil. Season, slice into rings and put into a bowl with the prawns. Shell the clams and mussels and mix with the squid and prawns. Make the dressing by combining the vinegar and seasoning (watch the amount of salt, due to the saline content of the mussel/clam juice) with the shellfish liquor - and pour over the shellfish meat. Add the shallots, garlic tomatoes and parsley. Mix well.

Finally (whew!), drain the beans - discarding vegetables - and mix with the shellfish. Tip into a shallow serving dish and squeeze over the lemon juice.

Salad of fine French beans with cream dressing, serves 4

A really simple recipe to finish with.

450g/1 lb fine thin French beans, topped and tailed

1 level tbsp good quality Dijon mustard salt and pepper

1 tbsp tarragon vinegar

1 finely chopped shallot

150mls /5 fl oz whipping cream

a generous sprinkling of chopped parsley

Cook the beans briskly in fiercely boiling salted water until tender. Drain and refresh in iced water to stop the cooking and set the colour. Drain once more, put to dry thoroughly on a clean tea-towel and arrange in a serving dish.

In a bowl, whisk together the other ingredients in the order listed. Spoon over the beans and sprinkle with the chopped parsley