Fava beans are one of summer's best treats. They start appearing in our produce stores in late spring and last through most of the summer and peak in July. The beans grow inside large, light green pods that are usually 8 to 10 inches in length. The pods themselves are lined with a fuzzy, spongy material that protects the beans, keeping them tender. Besides the pods, the beans also have a thick, outer skin that must be removed before the bean is eaten.
A lot of work just for a little bean? Yes, but they're so worth it. Their flavor is delicate, a little nutty, slightly bitter, yet fresh. Unlike a lima bean that can be starchy, a fava bean is very tender and adds beautiful color and texture to salads and when mixed with other ingredients.
Fava beans are eaten in Europe, along the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, in Asia and South America. Oddly, they've not had the same popularity here, perhaps because of the labor needed to get to the tender, inner bean. But every season more home cooks buy and cook with fava beans, encouraging our produce stores to sell them.
While most markets here call them fava beans, they're also known as broad beans, Windsor beans, English beans, horse beans and pigeon beans. Whatever they're called, look for shiny firm pods that feel heavier than they look. This is a sign that the pod is full of beans. Bigger isn't necessarily better, but don't buy pods that are too small because the beans inside will be small as well. When you get the pods home, keep them in a plastic bag and refrigerated until you use them, which is best to do in a few days. The ratio of beans to pod can be low which means you may need to buy 2 pounds of fava bean pods in order to end up with 1 cup of peeled beans.
- Pull on the stem of the pod and pull to open like a zipper. If a pod doesn't open easily, just use a paring knife, slit the bean pod entirely open, exposing the spongy insides and the beans.
- Remove the beans and discard the pods.
- In a pot of salted boiling water, blanch the beans for 2 minutes.
- With a slotted spoon, remove the beans from the hot water and immediately plunge into a bowl filled with iced water. This stops the cooking and makes the beans cool enough to handle.
- With your fingers, and helped with the tip of a paring knife if necessary, slip the outer skin off of each bean, revealing the inner bright green fava. Discard the outer skin.
Once the beans have been blanched and peeled, they are cooked and tender enough to eat. Without any further cooking, the beans can, at this point, be combined with other vegetables or added to a salad.
There are many ways to cook with and eat fava beans. For example:
- Eat with only a sprinkle of olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt and maybe a slight touch of hot pepper flakes.
- Added to a farro or other whole grain or pasta salad.
- In a salad with other green summer vegetables, such as asparagus and baby arugula.
- Combined with rice, couscous or orzo or added to a summer vegetable risotto.
- Add to sautéed scallops or shrimp.
- Pureed into a dip with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil -- a dish called ful medames in Egypt.
- Sprinkled on top of pieces of toasted bread spread with ricotta or pieces of oil-packed tuna to make a crostini.
- Tossed with pasta and shavings of pecorino cheese.
- Serve with a sprinkle of sea salt alongside an antipasto of salami, cheese and sliced tomato.
There is a rare condition called favism which is an allergic reaction some people of Mediterranean descent have to eating raw fava beans or breathing the pollen of a fava bean plant. People who are taking certain medications, including MAOI inhibitors, are also advised to not eat fava beans because the beans are rich in tyramine. Consult your doctor.
On the other hand, the beans also are rich in L-dopa, a substance used in treating Parkinson's disease and some say, in boosting libido. Again, consult your doctor.
As to nutrition -- fava beans have no cholesterol but lots of protein, are high in fiber, iron and calcium, are low in fat, and probably fit the criteria for being a super food. A cup of shelled and peeled fava beans contains 512 calories, not a low number but remember that they are rich in protein, they are small, and we usually eat them in small quantities, not by the cup.
Since I don't like scary movies, I refused to see "Silence of the Lambs." So I'm relieved to say that the association of fava beans with liver and chianti does not give me bad dreams at night.
Sources: Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green; On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee