I pulled the fava bean plants out yesterday and tossed them on the compost pile, after picking and filling another shopping bag full of beans that will ultimately be shelled, blanched, inner membrane peeled again, and thus be whittled down into modest-sized servings. One Saturday a couple weeks ago, at least three people took their turn in the kitchen over an afternoon shucking beans. If you haven’t already done so, get some music into the kitchen specifically for this chore. Surprisingly, after all the unexpected labor involved with eating fresh fava beans, I can truly admit to loving them. I’m glad their season is over, and we’re moving on to summer’s green beans, but being able to grow a bean this substantial during the cool months of late winter/spring is a luxury I want to repeat next year. Here in Los Angeles the seeds are sown in fall.
At home what ground isn’t needed for shelter and related pursuits gets filled with my latest plant enthusiams, almost alway nonedible. All this fava bean action is taking place in my community garden plot, where I’m surrounded by seasoned vegetable growers, none of whom, from what I could tell, chose to grow fava beans over winter. Lots of them stopped to admire mine, though, which grew into husky plants 5 feet high. Is it fear of favism, a rare syndrome triggered by eating fava beans which affects mostly men of mediterranean ancestry? (Pythagoras wouldn’t go near them.) For one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, uber nutritious and a great source of protein, the community garden this winter had very few takers. I grew them mainly for the soil-improving qualities and their ability to put up with my crap soil, which is why I’ve grown them in the past. But this time it seemed exceedingly foolish not to even give them a try. So I did. And that’s when I discovered all the prep that’s involved.
They are an undeniably beautiful bean.
Once the beans are unzipped from their fuzzy sleeping bags, the work has just begun. The beans must be blanched briefly, 30 seconds to a minute, then plunged in an ice bath. And after all this, the outer membrane of each bean still has to be removed, a tricky and slippery business. And because I’ve had fava beans on the brain this spring, wouldn’t you know that one of the Saturday public radio cooking shows delivered a bombshell while I was driving out to Riverside for a plant sale: adding baking soda to the boiling water, say a tablespoon, on its own will slip the membrane off. Except not really. I’ve tried this twice, and maybe a small percentage of the beans voluntarily shed their skins after this alkaline bath, but it’s by no means the answer we’ve all been waiting for. It helps, but there’s still plenty of work left to do.
I found this little video that describes the prep process.
We’ve added the beans mostly to pasta, but here’s nine recipes to try, including the classic Italian version with pancetta.
Fava, it’s a complicated bean, with a nutty flavor all its own, undeservedly reduced to the object of punchlines having to do with chianti. Is it worthwhile? I say yes. Just don’t forget that essential ingredient, something to listen to while you’re getting them ready.