Absolutely Fava-lous

The Journey of a Humble Fava Bean

Published Spring, 2007
Edible Portland

You say horsebean, I say tickbean. You say broad bean, I say Windsor bean. You say faba, I say fava. Cultivation of the vicia faba, or fava bean, dates back so far that its wild form is uncertain today.

Found in some of the earliest known human settlements, the legume’s long, rich history begins in the Neolithic Middle East (think Lebanon) where botanists believe it was first domesticated. Favas have been used in Chinese cooking for at least 5,000 years and made gastronomic film history in 1991, when Hannibal Lechter, who was “having an old friend for dinner,” included them in his disturbing menu.

But fava beans haven’t always been a foodstuff. Pythagoras, the sixth-century Greek philosopher, believed they contained the souls of the dead and forbade their consumption, while Greeks and Romans used them as ballots in magisterial elections—a black bean for ‘nay,’ a fava for ‘yea.’ They even suggested a namesake for one of four distinguished Roman families with legume-inspired monikers: Fabius (fava), Lentulus (lentil), Piso (pea) and Cicero (chickpea). A Fab(a) Four, if you will.

Fava beans have always enjoyed a strong association with the cuisine of the Mediterranean rim, particularly Italy and the countries of North Africa. They have also been closely linked to the cuisines of Egypt, Great Britain, Morocco, Spain, Denmark, and Brazil. It wasn’t until the early 17th century, however, that Americans sowed the first fava seeds, off the south shore of Massachusetts.

Today, they are widely cultivated by the likes of Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, Shari Sirkin of Dancing Roots, and Sheldon Marcuvitz and Carole Laity of Your Kitchen Garden in Canby. These local growers, passionate about preserving our agricultural heritage, were more than happy to give me the inside scoop on favas.

Canada, North America’s top producer of fava beans, offers cool, damp summers coddling the bean that scoffs at frost but languishes in temperatures exceeding 85 degrees. Forgiving and hearty, favas planted “as soon as the ground can be worked” (a soil temperature of 40 degrees) will mature 75 days later. Once found primarily in Europe and in restaurants, fava beans have become a staple at farmers’ markets and local groceries. So steel yourself and beat a path through the throng of Saturday shoppers at the farmers’ market; the brief but glorious season ends in mid-July.

Fresh favas are readily identified by their slightly bulbous, downy pods. The seven-to-nine-inch pods are a medium shade of glossy green and separate easily. Avoid overly thick or yellowing husks, signs that they’re past their sweet peak. Inside, a white, flannel-like lining cradles flat seeds that recall lima or butter beans encased in husks. Perfectly tasty when young, the husk can become leathery and bitter by season’s end. To remove it, pierce the skin with your thumbnail and squeeze the seed out; you’ll see that the hue of the naked fava is too lovely to hide.

Taste one before you commit to a bagful: its texture should be soft and tender, the flavor bright. Overly astringent means it’s not fully mature; tough or starchy signals over-ripeness. Since favas weigh almost nothing—a fact that used to make Boutard, a farmer who sells his goods by the pound, understandably cranky—you’ll want two pounds of early beans to get just under two cups shelled. A scant three pounds of season’s end beans will yield three cups, enough to feed four.

Shell your fava beans like pea pods, plunge the seeds in boiling salted water for one minute, and cool. Now you must make a decision: to hull or not to hull? Some say the wrinkled, gray skin covering each bean makes for unpleasant eating. Truth be told, an unhulled fava bean is rather unattractive, though it is undoubtedly packed with extra vitamins.

Carole Laity hails from England, where removing the outer skin is regarded as unnecessary; she and Sheldon Marcuvitz skip that step. You decide. If it has been properly cooked, your fava bean will be creamy and buttery, with a robust, nutty flavor. By contrast, a dried fava bean has the texture of a chestnut when cooked, and an earthy, faintly bitter flavor.

When simply prepared, it is difficult to do wrong by a fresh fava. A straightforward sauté with butter and salt is ethereal. Lightly dressed, with fruity olive oil, lemon juice and salt, is also sublime. Add shavings of pecorino or Parmesan to gussy up either version. Toss your blanched beans with farfalle and savory, or stir them into a lemony risotto. A Marcuvitz-Laity springtime favorite begins with a sauté of baby leeks in butter joined by fresh morels, then favas. When the vegetables are tender, give them a generous splash of cream and a big pinch of salt. Reduce the liquid to a saucy consistency and spoon over homemade egg noodles.

Be daring. The fava’s forthright flavor stands up to a variety of bold complements: assertive herbs, full-flavored cheeses, prosciutto and salami. Stew them in olive oil with rosemary and slivered garlic; purée them into a silky spread spiked with fresh mint; or sauté them Sichuan-style, with ginger and garlic—all tasty ways to carry on the fava’s rich history.

Recipe for Egg Noodles with Fava Beans, Leeks and Morels