Jack and the Fava Beanstalk
By Dennis Linden
Before the Americas were discovered, along with this continent's profusion of bean varieties, Favas were the only legume that Europeans consumed
Fava Beans are one of the oldest crops cultivated by man. Archaeological findings at Iron Age and Bronze Age settlements in Europe, dating back to 3300 BC, indicate that the bean has been an important staple food source for thousands of years. In doing research for this article, I even found one source claiming with matter-of-fact expertise that, "the easy-to-grow Favas were probably the magic beans that Jack used to grow his stalk into the clouds." Obviously an historian who takes his or her unicorns a bit too seriously!
Before the Americas were discovered, along with this continent's profusion of bean varieties, Favas were the only legume that Europeans consumed. Still, in spite of the bean's long history, as well as being a key ingredient in Hannibal Lecter’s infamous recipe in the movie Silence of the Lambs, the Fava has never garnished much attention in the U.S. marketplace. The bean does require a bit of labor-intensive preparation that is not a good fit for the typical American TO GO lifestyle. This need for culinary speed misses out on the buttery texture and delicious nutty flavor that the Fava offers those who do appreciate the journey of slow cooking.
I actually enjoyed shucking these beans, which I found to be a kind of Zen-like experience. There is something soothing and meditative about slowly filling the bowl in your lap with these beautiful, large green beans. Add a fireplace, some music-to-shuck-by and a glass of a favorite vintage...that's my kind of multi-tasking!
In their pods, fresh Favas resemble very large, long and bumpy string beans. They are about seven inches long and lined with padding that looks like cotton batting. Stay away from beans that are bulging out of the pod or have more yellow than green as those are symptoms of age and toughness. Select pods that are evenly green and fresh looking, with as little discoloration as possible. Favas can lose their flavor quickly; use within three days of purchase for optimum goodness.
To prepare Fava beans, cut off the tips of the pods with a sharp paring knife. Press along the seam with fingernails to spread open the pod, remove the beans and cut off any small stems that remain attached. Each bean is covered with a tough skin that is inedible and must be removed, which is made a lot easier by blanching the beans in boiling water for 30 seconds, draining and then plunging them into an ice water bath. Note: if the beans are boiled longer than a minute they will turn mushy. Once blanched, just slit each skin with a fingernail and simply squeeze each bean between one's fingers to pop them out.
If this kind of preparation is not something that appeals to you, or you just do not have the time it takes to go through such a lengthy process for a bean, take heart -- Fava beans are not out of reach. Try Melissa's Steamed Fava Beans
, which come in a convenient, microwavable pouch for quick cooking without all the fuss.
While Fava beans are tasty in soups and stews, they are best enjoyed as the starring component of a dish. A spring salad of fresh Fava beans and goat cheese, tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, and a little hot pepper has been a favorite in Italy since before Caesar was an emperor or a dressing. Another simple prep would be to sauté Favas in butter with shrimp and thyme. Deep-fried or roasted Fava beans are a deliciously addictive bar snack that is very popular in Spain. Leave it to those Spaniards to realize that Favas also contain L-dopa, a chemical the body uses to produce dopamine, which has been associated with the brain's reward system and a key factor in addictive behavior.
Fava bean purée kept coming up in my search for recipes and then this month’s Guest Chef included one in her crêpe recipe. Start with about three pounds of beans in their pods. Once shucked, blanched, and their outer skin has been peeled, put the beans in a food processor and add two cloves of garlic, a large pinch of fresh savory, two tablespoons of lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. As the food processor is running, add a gentle stream of extra virgin olive oil until it all emulsifies and the consistency of a thick paste or spread is achieved. Do not use all that suggested vintage grape juice for the shucking process as a glass of wine pairs perfectly with this simple purée recipe, spread on crostini, crackers, or crudités!
Delicious and nutritious, the Fava bean is very high in fiber and iron, while being very low in sodium and fat. Favas have no cholesterol and so much protein that they have been called "the meat of the poor". They also seem to be very helpful in stalking giants!