Advice from a magical kitchen to yours—
Dear Kitchen Witch,
What’s the deal with fava beans? I feel like I’m seeing them everywhere these days, but are they worth it? And how do you deal with them?
—Not Yet a Fava-rite
I love fava beans. They are a beautiful bright green color, taste like spring distilled, and have some particular virtues in the garden, namely that they fix nitrogen in the soil and thus are an excellent cover crop. The season seems to be a bit late this year in California—they lasted in my garden longer than usual.
I’m just going to level with you: unfortunately, they’re a pain in the ass, like most of the fussy, high-maintenance spring vegetables out there (cough, artichokes, cough). I can only assume that back in the day by April or May people were so desperate for any green things that they were willing to eat literal thistles (the artichokes) and wade through enormous pods full of slightly unsettling fluff (the favas) to get at it. It is worth it for spring dishes, but I reserve cooking favas for people I really like—including, sometimes, me and me alone.
There are three ways to deal with fava beans. The first is the easiest, and that is to order them in a restaurant, where someone else has done the rather tedious and fiddly labor of preparing them (on which more later). This is, of course, also the more expensive method and is not always accessible.
The second way is to peel them yourself, which is a little labor-intensive, but I think overall worth it. First, pop them out of those fluffy pods. Then, you will find they have a thick skin over the bean. (When the favas are really young—like pinky-fingernail-sized—you don’t need to take this off, but it gets tough fast. You want to choose beans with pods that are swollen but not absolutely huge; their glory is in their green tenderness, and the beans turn mealy and yellow when then get to be an inch wide or so. They’re still good, just not the same.
Anyway! Back to the peeling, which is vastly easier if you blanch them. Boil some salted water and dump the fava beans in their skins into it, boil for about a minute, drain, and run under cold water. When they’re cool enough to handle, the skins will be wrinkly and loose and you can pop the beans right out. I have found children surprisingly willing to do this task.
Once you have your bowl of doubly peeled fava beans—so small compared to the enormous mound of pods you started with—there are many tasty things you can do with them. One is to just eat them, with a little salt. Another is to make a spring vegetable medley or put them alongside something equally springy, like salmon; the pink and green together are gorgeous and the flavors are great too. Another is to put them in pasta sauces, maybe with a little cream and some fresh herbs, or tossed in carbonara or risotto. In fifth grade, my daughter came home one day with a recipe for fava bean dip that we still make, though we’ve lost the recipe and just make it by feel now: fava beans, olive oil, parmesan, lemon, a little garlic, salt and pepper, and a handful of tender greens like spinach or arugula, whirled up in a food processor. Favas pair really well with fresh herbs like mint, as in a dish with zucchini noodles and ricotta salata.
The third fava method is unorthodox, but kind of fun: pretend you’re having a vegetable version of, say, a crab boil and make your guests peel them. If you toss the whole fava pods in olive oil and some spicy salt and throw them on the grill until they’re wilted, then turn them out in a glorious mound on a big table covered with butcher paper, you and your pals can peel and eat them like edamame or shrimp. (Speaking of edamame, they’re a decent enough facsimile for favas if you’re making a dish, like the dip above, that calls for favas and you are too lazy, or favas are too out of season.) If you do this, I strongly suggest a mound of paper napkins or wet wipes and other finger foods, since you’re going to get messy. Might as well make a night of it, right?
That said, if you love the taste of favas but not the labor, there is a fourth way: wait until next spring, plant them, and eat the leaves instead of the pods. Tender early-spring fava greens make a lovely salad or saute—with absolutely none of the work.
Every week, the Kitchen Witch answers your culinary questions with an eye towards seasonal, sustainable cooking. Ask your question by email email@example.com or on Twitter @ECkitchenwitch.