To prepare fresh fava beans for cooking, I start by unzipping the fuzzy green pods and plucking out the handful of smooth-skinned nuggets hemmed along their length. Next, I plunge the beans into boiling water, just for a few moments, to soften their taut, waxy sheath and drop them into ice-cold water to halt cooking. Then, after toweling them dry, I slit each sheath with the tip of a paring knife and squeeze gently so that the green gems pop out—gleaming and completely unscathed.
Food for People and the Planet
Fava beans are packed with protein, fiber, and a slew of vitamins and minerals. And not only is it an exceptionally robust crop that has thrived worldwide for more than 10,000 years, but the plant itself is also something of an agricultural superstar. Whereas almost all other vegetable crops deplete nitrogen from the soil, favas, like other legumes, fertilize it by drawing nitrogen from the atmosphere and funneling it into the ground.
Their dual-purpose potential is what compelled Hossein Zakeri and Kyle Brasier, plant scientists at California State University, Chico, to study and promote fava beans as a vegetable. Despite being a staple in other parts of the world, they said, favas aren’t popular in the United States because pulse crops can’t compete with the revenue generated by high-value, soil-depleting harvests like lettuce, strawberries, and almonds. Highlighting favas’ nutritional and agricultural benefits, they hope, will turn consumers on to them.
It’s a heck of a preamble for any produce, but I’d argue that it’s a meditative spring ritual and that the willingness to undertake it is a testament to just how special fresh favas are. After months of hardy brassicas and dense roots, their newness and delicacy feel refreshing and trigger a real sense of urgency to snap them up before their brief season wraps. They’re a lot like English peas, ramps, artichokes, and other fleeting spring crops in that way but are uniquely versatile because they walk a line between fresh vegetable and nutty, earthy, full-bodied starch. You’ll never eat a creamier bean, whether it’s mashed on griddled bread or pureed into a lush dip or sauce, or a more vibrant one when it’s flashed in a simple, herby sauté or tossed whole and plump into a salad or pasta.
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Favas’ Coats of Armor—and How to Remove Them
1. SHELL Tug along seam of pod to open. Remove beans.
2. BLANCH AND SHOCK Blanch shelled beans in 1 quart boiling water for 4 minutes. Using spider skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer beans to large bowl filled halfway with ice and water. Let cool about 2 minutes. (Alternatively, place fine-mesh strainer in ice bath to capture beans.)
3. SLIT SHEATH Drain beans and dry well. Using paring knife, make small cut along edge of each bean through waxy sheath.
4. PEEL Gently squeeze sheath to release bean; discard sheath.
Why Bother with Blanching?
Blanching and shocking the beans makes it easy to remove their waxy sheath without damaging the flesh itself. The cooking process softens pectin in the coating, making it flexible enough to be squeezed or peeled away.
As a result, favas play an essential role in cuisines around the world, particularly throughout the Mediterranean and Levant. Cooks roast or grill whole pods, serving them much like edamame beans, and also celebrate the shelled beans in elaborate stews and pilafs. Sicilians, who credit the hardy plant with staving off famine during the Middle Ages, not only cook with favas but also enshrine them at the altar of St. Joseph and often carry a bean in their wallets as an omen of good fortune.
Science: What Makes Favas So Creamy?
Water-soluble proteins within the bean make it luxuriously creamy, even when cooked only briefly. In fact, fava protein is sometimes used to add richness to vegan cheese and other dairy-free products.
The following two recipes were designed to leverage the beans’ range. First, you can try a very green, lemony sauté with crisp-tender asparagus, soft leeks, and whatever tender fresh herbs you have on hand. Second, a pesto riff taps into favas’ rich body. Buzz most of the blanched beans in a food processor with some almonds, olive oil, Pecorino Romano, dill, and lemon, and you’ve got a velvety, protein-rich pasta sauce. Then toss in a handful of whole ones for bursts of grass-green color and supple smoothness.