At last, fava beans are flooding the farmers markets again. These plump, shiny legumes are among my favorite vegetables. When they’re fresh off the bush, they deliver the bright, green taste of spring.
Last weekend, piles of gleaming pods graced several stands at my local farmers market and I couldn’t resist. Part of the charm of favas is their season is short. You eat them when you can get them and they’re best young and tender.
Afficionados eat them raw, unzipping the leathery pods and plucking the beans out of their cottony beds. The tiniest beans, no bigger than a thumbnail, need no further preparation to enjoy their sweet young flavor. But the larger beans hide within a slightly bitter, pale green jacket and really should be peeled before eating.
There’s good reason to eat them raw. Cooking with favas can be daunting since it takes so many pods to get a cup of beans. But serve them au naturel and the shucking and any peeling become part of the entertainment. Add a glass of fruity zinfandel, a loaf of crusty bread, a chunk of salty ricotta salata cheese, and you have an immensely satisfying meal. A handful of good olives and some slices of salami round it out nicely.
To pick the best favas, look for pods that are smooth and pale green without wrinkles or blackening on their ends. Bulging, exceptionally thick pods are a sign of large beans, which are likely to be starchy and less flavorful. When you rip open the pods, the cottony white lining should be moist and the beans should be plump and fill out their skins.
To peel larger beans, pop them in boiling water for 30 seconds to a minute, then drain and plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking. Using a knife or your thumbnail, slit the peel at the top, where it attaches to the pod, then squeeze each bean between thumb and forefinger until the seed pops out.
A word of warning: Not everyone can eat fava beans with abandon. A small number of people with an inherited enzyme deficiency known as favism can become very sick from eating them. Most of the people who suffer from the disorder are males of African, Mediterranean or Southeast Asian descent. For them, eating fava beans and taking some medications can produce serious flu-like symptoms.
If the beans you buy are relatively mature or you just feel an urge to cook them, I like this recipe adapted from ”Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook,” by Alice Waters (Morrow, 1999). It also calls for ricotta salata, the dry, aged sheep’s milk cheese available at better cheese shops, as well as an uncommon tubular dried pasta called garganelli, which may be found at Italian specialty stores. In a pinch, you may substitute the more widely available feta or pecorino Romano cheeses and small penne rigate pasta.
2 pounds fava beans in pod
4 ounces ricotta salata
1 pound garganelli pasta
Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups thinly sliced spring onions
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon chopped savory
Salt and pepper
A few drops lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Shell favas and plunge into boiling water 30 seconds to 1 minute. Drain, plunge favas into cold water to stop the cooking, and peel. Set aside. Use a sharp vegetable peeler to cut shavings of ricotta salata and set aside.
Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta in boiling water until al dente, 7 to 10 minutes.
While pasta is cooking, prepare fava bean ragout: Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add peeled favas, onion, garlic, rosemary and savory and season generously with salt and pepper. Gently cook mixture until onions are soft and favas are tender, about 5 minutes. Do not let vegetables brown much. Add a splash of water as needed so ragout is a bit moist at the end of cooking.
Drain pasta, reserving a cup of cooking water. Return pasta to pot and add ragout. Stir over low heat until pasta is thoroughly cooked, adding a bit of reserved pasta water if mixture seems dry. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and taste for seasoning.
Transfer pasta to a warmed bowl. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and reserved cheese. Toss and drizzle with olive oil. Serve.
Adapted from ”Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook,” by Alice Waters