A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on April 30, 2003.

Farm Fresh

Celebrate spring with fresh fava beans
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

So there I was, researching fava beans, the perfect food to represent spring. Time for new life, flowers blooming, baby animals, favas, peas, asparagus, artichokes.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ancient fava, or broad bean, has been associated with superstition and death throughout recorded history. While this news cast a bit of a pall over my visions of a plate of cloud-like sheep's ricotta ravioli dressed with sweet little favas and a drizzle of olive oil, there's no underplaying the importance broad beans have had as a dietary staple throughout history.

Fresh and dried broad beans, which take their common name from the Latin Vicia faba, have been eaten by the peoples of Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa for thousands of years. Remains of favas have been found in archaeological sites of the earliest inhabited areas of these regions. According to food historian Alan Davidson, the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians believed that the "souls of the dead might migrate into the beans," and they were routinely served at funeral feasts.

Perhaps the reason for this enduring link between fava beans and the netherworld is the very real condition of favism, a hereditary toxic reaction to favas or their pollen, that afflicts some natives of Europe and the Mediterranean. Favism, while rare, causes anemia and jaundice, and is generally only seen in these regions.

Modern fava cultivars are divided into two classes: Windsor beans, which have a short pod and contain four large beans and longpod beans, which contain up to eight smaller beans. Depending on the variety, the beans can range in color from white to chestnut, although in the U.S. we generally enjoy green favas that are eaten fresh, rather than dried.

"Field" favas are varieties grown for animal fodder or as a sustainable cover crop used to add nitrogen back to the soil.

While dried favas are used in such dishes as Egypt's ful medames, the fresh bean makes its appearance at farmers' markets this time of year. While many supermarket favas come from Mexico, I recommend eschewing these old, travel-weary beans for the incomparable flavor of fresh favas grown by local family farms. Fresh legumes quickly convert their sugars to starch after being picked, or when they're too mature at harvest, and thus become mealy or starchy. Mature favas tend to get a bit funky and strong-tasting, as well. Choose fava pods that are full, plump, and bright green, avoiding those with black, mushy spots. The interior of the pods are covered with a soft, cottony lining, and the beans cradled within should also be plump, with smooth, tight outer skins.

Conventional wisdom holds that after they are shucked from their pods, favas need to be blanched in unsalted water (salt toughens the skins) for a couple of minutes in order to remove their skins. But chef-owner Chris Rossi of Oakland's Citron has a different method.

"I like to peel favas raw, then cook them," he says. "I think it preserves their flavor. Sometimes, the immature beans are tender enough to eat raw and don't even require removal of the skins. Otherwise, they do need cooking, but cooked favas don't hold up overnight -- they tend to get a bit mucilaginous and musty, and the flavor gets muddled, so it's best to use them up that day. After peeling the raw beans, I'll heat a bit of water and olive oil in a saut pan, and steam them until the liquid evaporates. That way, they won't overcook and the flavor and bright green color is retained."

Although a bit time-consuming, favas are really quite easy to prepare. Whether you choose to blanch them first, or use Rossi's method, you only need to pinch the beans from their protective skins, and they're ready for use. I love favas so much that I'm happy to snack on the cooked beans solo, but that's depriving these sweet legumes of the culinary glory they're capable of.

Says Rossi, "We've done just about everything imaginable with favas. They lend themselves very well to rich applications, so I really like to do them as a confit. We infuse a buttery, low-acid extra virgin olive oil with some garlic and fresh herbs, such as rosemary, over low heat on the stove. Then we'll add the favas and slow-cook them in the oven. When the beans are very tender, we'll puree them with one or two of the cooked cloves of garlic, and spread them on crostini. I also like to do a Napoleon of morels and favas, using a little of the confit puree to hold the layers together, and a layer of fresh ricotta."

Rossi also likes to serve his fava puree underneath seared scallops. "The richness of the scallops works well with favas, especially when paired with a Meyer lemon sauce. Or we'll do prawns wrapped in prosciutto, grill them, and serve them with the puree."

If you don't have a crew of prep cooks at home to help you shuck favas, there are simple ways to cook with this seasonal treat that don't involve lengthy preparation or excessive quantities of beans. "I think succotash is great," says Rossi. "You don't need a lot of favas -- just add fresh corn, diced bell pepper and fresh peas. Sometimes I'll add diced potato, as well. It's a wonderful, simple accompaniment to chicken or fish."

I love to use favas in pasta, making a sauce with reduced vegetable or chicken stock to enrich the dish, and grating on a little aged cheese such as Parmigiano.

The Italians have a way with favas, and perhaps one of the most classic preparations is a simple salad of raw or cooked young favas topped with shaved Pecorino and fruity olive oil. Macabre connotations aside, it's a heavenly way to celebrate spring.

Recipe courtesy of "Olive Oil: From Tree to Table," Peggy Knickerbocker, Chronicle Books, 1997, $19.95.

2 pounds fava beans

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

6-8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup pecorino cheese

To shell the fava beans, remove the beans as you would peas from a pod. Bring a saucepan filled with water to a boil, add the favas and blanch for 1 minute. Drain and immerse the favas in ice water to retain their bright green color. Drain again and slip the skin off each fava bean. If the beans are very small and tender, you need not peel them.

In a salad bowl, combine the garlic, mint, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add the favas to the oil mixture. Toss gently. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the pecorino cheese over the top and serve.

Serves 4-6.

Per Serving: 656 Calories; 17g Fat; 41g Protein; 89g Carbohydrate; 38g Dietary Fiber; 5mg Cholesterol; 76mg Sodium.

Favas are available from the following farms: Riverdog Farm, Berkeley and St. Helena farmers' markets; Firme Farm, Berkeley farmers' market; Catalan and Avalos Farm, Berkeley farmers' market; and Terra Firma Farm, Berkeley and Marin farmers' markets.

E-mail contributing writer Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
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Last modified: March 26, 2002