I know it’s a little silly, but I celebrate the arrival of favas at the market here in California just as much as I did when I suffered through snowy Boston winters. Even though Californians have a much more abundant supply of fresh produce available to us throughout the winter than much of the country, I think we still all tire a little of winter squash and roasted root vegetables by the end of our “cold” season. To me, those big piles of bright green pods stacked on farmer’s tables mean that, finally, we can look forward to tender, young asparagus, rhubarb, English peas, fiddlehead ferns, and all the bounty of spring and summer.
Favas are hardly a traditional food here in the U.S., though they’ve recently seen a growth in popularity as a result of the farm to table movement. But, fava beans, often also called broad beans, have been eaten throughout the world for thousands of years. In fact, it’s thought that favas became a part of the Mediterranean diet around 6,000 BC, or earlier. Traces of fava beans have even been found in the tombs of the pharaohs in Egypt!
In part, this is because favas are an easy crop to grow and are, therefore, one of the oldest in cultivation. They are hardy, can grow in cold climates, and belong to a little known but important part of the legume family known as vetches. Vetches are the organic farmer’s best friend because they aid in the process of nitrogen fixation, which converts atmospheric nitrogen to a form available to plants in the soil. In the late winter and early spring, vetches, like the fava bean plant, can be tilled back into the soil to enrich it for summer crops. It’s an all-natural fertilizer!
Favas occasionally scare away busy home cooks because they require a few steps of preparation, but if you enlist the help of others, shelling and peeling favas can be a fun group activity and a good way to get kids involved in the kitchen.
When you buy fresh beans (favas are also available dried), you’ll need to remove the seeds from the pods. Then, you have a choice: with young, tender fava beans and for dishes that are cooked for a long time, you can add the favas directly to your recipe as they are, being sure to remove the tiny stem at the head of each bean after you remove it from the pod. For salads, pastas, and other quickly sautéed fava dishes, you’ll want to remove the outer skin of the bean as well. To do this, bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and add the favas to the rapidly boiling water. Cook them for 30 seconds to one minute, depending on their size. If you blanch them too long, they’ll lose their bright green color! When you remove the favas from the boiling water, plunge them immediately into an ice bath. When cooled, you can remove them from the ice bath and pinch each one at the top and remove its outer skin.