If organic gardeners, historians, and seasonal eaters got together and had to choose a plant as their mascot, I’m pretty sure it would be the fava bean.
Planted in the fall, fava beans are hardy to the cold and don’t need much water. While they will thrive in a garden bed, they also do just fine growing in poor soils. Many people plant fava beans exclusively as a cover crop, to fixate nitrogen and improve the soil. If they are grown for this reason, they need to be tilled into the soil when they start to flower. In our garden, that inevitably doesn’t always happen, so after a period of delightful black and white blooms (which the bumblebees love), we get fava beans.
Known to be one of the oldest cultivated plants, fava beans have been in diets since 6,000 BC. In England the are known as broad beans, horse beans, or shell beans. The Spanish call them habas. The French, haricots larges or fèves. In German, gross Bohnen or Pferdebohnen and in Italian, fave. They are considered a bean of the “old world”, and where the only bean Europeans ate until America, and its “new world beans” (such as black, navy, or green) were discovered. The bean in the legend of Jack and the Beanstalk is thought to be a fava bean.
While not typical in the standard produce section of a grocery store, these bright green beans in floppy pods are a welcome sight in Spring gardens and farmer’s market. Often the first spring veggie, the buttery, slightly bitter and nutty beans are a delightful change to the kales and greens many of us have been eating all winter. Fava beans have long been diet staples in Asia, the Middle East, South America, North Africa and Europe. Perhaps one of the reasons why they haven’t quite caught on in America? They are a pain in the ass to prep.
Fava beans have to be double shelled, which takes forever and is as dull as staring at a wall. I’ve tried to approach a zen like attitude to it, but haven’t quite mastered that. Which is why I usually do one big batch, have a few excellent meals, and leave the rest for the compost. This would be an excellent group activity, complete with a glass of wine. But Stella hasn’t learned to help in the kitchen other than licking the oven front, eating things off the floor, and occasionally stealing off the counter. Which is a shame, because the fava bean flavor is unique, and they are dense with nutrition. They have a high concentration of thiamin, vitamin K, vitamin B-6, potassium, copper, selenium, zinc and magnesium, and are an inexpensive source of lean protein. According to this article, fava beans have also been discovered to contain similar properties of the quinine based medications used to treat malaria: making a literal case of food is the best medicine.
Many guides on how to shell favas recommend removing from the outer pod first, then blanch the individual beans before embarking on removing the 2nd shell. I find that blanching the pod whole, fleshy covering and all, to be easier.
First, harvest or purchase your beans. If you are having trouble finding them at a store, or don’t have a local farmers market, try the Latino or Asian markets. They are also a common dry bean in the bulk section of well-stocked grocery stores. I’ve never used them in this form, but there are many recipes available. Once you have the fresh beans, but can’t deal with them right away- I find they are fine in the fridge for quite a while. The thick pod keeps them holding up much better than other beans.
Then, add to a pot of boiling water and blanch for 5 minutes. Strain and run cold water to stop the cooking. Even better, dump in a pot of ice water.
Once cool to the touch, open up each pod and pull out the individual beans. Compost the outer shell. Pinch the individual beans to remove from the 2nd shell. Also put those shells in the compost pile.
1 pound of whole pods will yield about 1/3 cup of the beans. A lot of work, but worth it for this seasonal treat.
When it comes to eating them, look towards their native area for inspiration. The beans pair well with other Mediterranean ingredients: salty cheeses, cured meats, olive oil, sun dried tomatoes. Last night’s meal was simple pasta topped with crisped pancetta, favas, sautéed fresh onion, lemon thyme and a grating of pecorino. It was delicious!
“If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
-Shell Silverstein, The Invitation