Fava beans are my labor’s love. I am inordinately fond of the chubby legumes, which signal to me that high spring has arrived. They are my transition between the peas of spring and the string and shelly beans that mark the summer’s heat.
Fava beans are easy to grow, but do require lots of space and a long, cool growing season. Like my other favorite cool-weather legume the sugar snap pea, I start them in autumn and let them mature at a reasonable rate throughout the winter and spring.
By April, my fava beans have grown large. Some stand taller than six feet, a huge stalk for such a small morsel; the useful part of a fava is but a fraction of the plant. But then this is not really very different from corn or tomatoes. Or people, for that matter.
In case you care, here is a good primer on how to grow fava beans.
And if you fail to grow the fat Italian varieties, the useful portion of a fava bean pod will be smaller still. Unlike hot-weather beans, favas — one of the Old World’s few native legumes — do not fill their pods. I have grown varieties where the best I could hope for was one or two beans per pod.
After many flirtations with Native American varieties (adopted from those the Spaniards brought 500 years ago), English versions and even a Spanish fava, I have settled on the Italian supersimona strain, which can give me as many as eight big beans per pod. I knew I had chosen well when our Puglian neighbor Rosa looked at them and gasped, “Oh…those are better than mine!”
Yep. They are. In fact, my favas have lured me dangerously close to hubris. Other gardeners envy my favas. I have never had a bad crop. And every spring I am happily inundated with the emerald jewels. Last year I wound up with 15 pounds — after shucking. And I ate almost all of them fresh.
Fresh favas are slippery, mild, and slightly sweet with a texture not unlike al dente pasta. And they are one of the greenest things we eat. A freshly shucked and blanched fava bean is lurid — you wouldn’t think the color exists in Nature if you hadn’t grown it yourself.
But getting to that green takes effort. Many people don’t grow fava beans for just this reason. And I never fail to hear someone say, “I have no idea what to do with them!” whenever I idle near the fava bins at my local farmer’s market.
I suspect many of you who read this blog know your way around a fava bean. But for those who do not, allow me to walk you through it.
Picking fava beans takes practice: You want to pick when the favas begin to make lumps under the pods, but long before the pods discolor or begin to shrivel around the beans. You will get between 5 and 15 pods per plant.
The first shuck goes very quickly if you do it my way: Don’t bother with the strings, just anchor both thumbs behind a bean and push with them as you are bending the pod back — exactly as you would break a twig. Once you get the hang of it, you can do a bag of beans in 5 to 10 minutes. Shuck into a large bowl, as they will catapult out of the pod.
Once you have your bowl of beans, you still need to get them out of their jackets. Yes, you can eat them in their jackets, but if you do, explosive farting will be your reward. If this turns you on, try them with sunchokes. The rest of us will undress our favas.
Bring a huge pot of salty water to a boil. How salty? It should taste like the sea. Get an ice water bath ready. Grab a couple handfuls of favas and chuck them into the boiling water. Let them boil for a minute or two. You will know they are ready when they are all floating in the top of the water and hissing at you.
Plunge them into the ice water to stop the cooking. Now look for the reverse: When all the favas have sunk to the bottom, fish them out and you can start undressing them. Some, like the fava in the picture above, will have split jackets already: Just squeeze these out. Others you will need to prick with your thumbnail to slip out. Again, once you get the hang of it, this goes fast.
Now you can eat your fava beans, keep them in the fridge for a day or three, or vacuum-seal meal-sized portions of them and freeze for up to a year.
I have lots of fresh fava recipes, but one of my most favorite is to make a garlicky, slightly spicy puree out of them, which I then use to spread on toast. The same puree makes a fine ravioli filling, or faux pesto sauce for pasta.