Monday, May 3, 2010

Favas: A Love Story

I am truly enamored with fava beans. They are buttery, melt-in-your mouth succulent, a very special spring treat. You will see them pop up as a component in a fancy restaurant meal, studding the risotto or enveloping the lamb chop in their soft pureed arms. I always think of favas as an Italian ingredient, perhaps because they pair so well with lemon and pasta, or atop crostini. The word "fava" itself is Italian, however, favas are not inherently Italian. Rather, they hail from the Middle East and are ancient plants, first cultivated thousands of years ago alongside such staples as lentils and peas. They can grow in relatively harsh climates or in relatively poor soil, and they have been used historically as a cover crop. In the Middle East, favas are often eaten for breakfast in the dish ful madames. They are also a key ingredient in the Egyptian version of falafel.

Favas in their complete form.

After the initial shelling.

Favas are also known as broad beans, and they grow encased in a long, spongy shell. When you peel open the outer shell to expose the beans, they resemble limas. However, unlike limas, they require an extra step. Unless your beans are very young, you should blanch them quickly and then peel or pop them out of their skin. This will yield the buttery, tender inner bean, which can be sauteed, pureed, etc.

To me, there is something so enticing about favas, and I think it is rooted in their fleeting harvest season. Plus, they are so labor intensive for such a small volume of beans. I think they are simply special. With favas, you must strike when the iron is hot, and relish the moments spent shelling and coaxing the beans from their skins.

Last night**, we ate our favas as part of a spring minestrone, another Heidi Swanson recipe from her book "Super Natural Cooking." (Check out her blog, This is really a light broth enriched by rice and spring veggies, including asparagus and favas. I like to brighten the flavors with lemon and add a salty kiss of parmesan. Some fresh basil wouldn't hurt either, though I balked at paying $2.29 for a limp packet of basil this time around, and nobody noticed its absence. (I need to get started on an herb garden!)

Our favas were particularly tiny last night. Our farm newsletter indicated that we could eat them without doing the second peeling process, but I thought that they looked a bit tough in their skins. I forged ahead with the full two-step shelling process.

The results of shelling and peeling a big bag of favas. For comparison, a 32 oz. bag of rice.

Veggies prepped for stock.

A big bowl of stock, flecked with thyme.

I like to eat this soup in the spring when the favas pop up at the farmers' market, though you can replace the favas with regular peas and/or sugar snap peas. Because the broth is such an elemental part of this dish, I recommend making your own stock. I am including a recipe inspired by Heidi's basic stock recipe below, though any light veggie stock will work well.

Spring Minestrone
Adapted from Heidi Swanson

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, sliced thinly
3 small stalks of green garlic, sliced thinly, or 2 cloves regular garlic, minced
3/4 cup brown basmati rice, rinsed
6 cups of vegetable stock (see recipe below)
fava beans - start with about 1 pound in their shells - this will reduce down dramatically
1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
Juice from 1/2 a lemon
Grated parmesan for garnish

Prepare the fava beans: Shell the beans out of their first layer (the spongy outer bean pod). Boil a medium pot of water. While the water is heating, make an ice bath. Add the beans to the pot; cook for one minute then strain immediately and place in the ice bath. After a minute or two, strain again. If your beans are young and tender, you can just pop them out of their second layer (the skins). Alternatively, use a small paring knife to slice each bean individually, then pop it out. [Practice patience - this is a repetitive task.]

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and cook for about 4 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the rice and cook for one minute, stirring frequently. Add the stock and salt to taste, if needed; bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 35 to 45 minutes, until the rice is just tender.

When the rice is done, turn the heat back up to medium or medium-high (you want it to be simmering), then add the asparagus and favas. Cook for 3 minutes, making sure that the veggies remain bring green and don't get overcooked. Add salt and pepper to taste, plus the lemon juice. Ladle into bowls and top with parmesan.

Enjoy a little slice of spring!

Vegetable Stock
You can double this recipe by adding twice as many of each veggie, and twice the water. I like to use stock to make rice, couscous, pan sauces, etc. You can also freeze stock in ice cube trays and pop them out as needed.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, quartered
2 shallots, quartered
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
Trimmings from any other veggies left over from the week - I used the woody ends of a bunch of asparagus
1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly smashed
Thyme - either a couple fresh sprigs or a sprinkling of dried
salt to taste (about 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt)
2 quarts filtered or spring water (that's 8 cups)

Heat the oil in a stock pot over medium-high heat and add everything except the salt and water. Saute for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the veggies begin to brown. Add the water and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes (you can simmer longer if you like). Taste; add additional salt if necessary. Strain into a large bowl, removing all of the vegetables.

**You will note that last night was Sunday ... an Amazing Race night. Spring minestrone won out over week two of Chinese food. We ate out on Friday and Saturday due to gardening fatigue, and I knew I wouldn't have time tonight or tomorrow night to do the favas justice. So we compromised on making the global-inspired AR dish, in favor of enjoying spring's fleeting bounty!

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