For those who had the foresight and fortitude in February or March to plant your fava beans in the freezing rain, you are now enjoying one of the early gifts of the garden. But for the less motivated around us, it is possible now to purchase fresh favas at specialty markets and farm stands. And you might want to think about growing them next year.
Favas go by several names like broad beans, field beans, and windsor beans. They are also called “green manure” by some farmers, who grow them as nitrogen fixers to simply plow back into the earth to replenish the soil. It makes me want to cry.
They are among my very favorite (Or should I say fava-rite? Sorry.) shell beans, creamy and delicious. I did not grow up with favas, and I first learned of them in the R-rated film “Silence of the Lambs,” where Hannibal Lecter described how he enjoyed his victim’s liver “with fava beans and a nice chianti.” That movie scared the beejeezus out of me. It was several years hence that I became motivated to actually give favas a try.
It is possible to purchase dried, canned or frozen fava beans. But I have not tried them and cannot say whether they produce the same heavenly taste as fresh favas. Favas look like peas on steroids, often 6 inches or longer. Not only can you eat the beans, it is also possible to use the leaves of the fava plant in salads or stir fries.
So why are fresh fava beans not more broadly available and in demand? My guess is that shelling them is a bit of a process. Unlike most shell beans, the conventional wisdom is that you must remove the membrane that surrounds each bean—you can do this either by briefly (say 30 seconds) blanching the beans, throwing them into a cold water bath and then squeezing them out of their little jackets with your fingers or you can use a paring knife to make a small incision and then remove the membrane.
Grilled whole favas
Or, you can do what I most often do—which may be heresy, but is still yummy—and that is to toss the whole, unshelled beans it olive oil, garlic, kosher salt, red pepper flakes, and black pepper and then throw them on the grill until they are nice and blistered. Other than the large strings that join the pods, it is possible to eat the whole shebang, especially if the beans are on the youngish side. And if some of your guests are more delicate, they can certainly remove the beans from the pod and then pop them out of their jackets—kind of like a vegetarian crab feed. But they can do it on their time, not yours. This is great as an appetizer for a BBQ dinner while you are waiting for the other items to cook.
Or you can just eat them shelled, with their membranes on, as most of the world does, except the French who are renowned for their excellent, but often convoluted cuisine. Four pounds unshelled equals about 2 cups shelled. But remember, old beans are tough beans.
Here is a nice simple recipe for shelled favas:
Favas Sautéed and Braised
Brown a little chopped bacon (maybe two slices) until the fat is rendered and then sauté one small chopped onion and some garlic in the pan. After the onions are nice and soft, throw in a pound of shelled favas (probably 3 pounds unshelled), sauté a bit more, and then add some stock (chicken, veg or plain old water). Add salt and pepper and braise about 15 minutes. Just before taking it off the heat, add a couple of tablespoons of fresh herbs, like parsley, marjoram or savory, mint, and some red pepper flakes.
First shell about two pounds of fresh favas. Then, while you have your fettuccini in the salted, boiling water, use a LARGE pan to sauté a chopped onion, 2-3 cloves of garlic and ¼ lb of chopped pancetta in a little olive oil until the onions are soft and the pancetta crispy. Then through in your favas and about 4 shredded Tuscan kale leafs into the mix. Before you drain the pasta, set aside ¾ C of the pasta water. Dump that water in with the favas and add the drained pasta, with ¼ C of cream. Toss it all together, season to taste, and garnish with Parmesan or Pecorino Romano.
Three Pea Salad
Parboil about 2 cups fresh shelled favas with 2 cups snow peas for a minute and plunge into a cold water bath. Drain and combine them with a cup or so of shelled green peas, a handful of chopped mint, a little chopped prosciutto and a dressing made of 3 T red wine vinegar, 2 t Dijon and 1 T olive oil. Season to taste.
Blend a of blanched and peeled favas with a cut of olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, about a half cup each of basil and parmesan, a quarter cup of mint, and some pine nuts. Season to taste with salt and pepper.