In the course of writing an article on a local CSA (Talley Farms’ Fresh Harvest, Arroyo Grande, CA), I ended up with a couple bags of freshly picked fava beans. I also ended up with a big dose of appreciation for any chefs and home cooks that serve these delectable broad beans on any sort of regular basis.
Fava beans are essentially the vegetable equivalent of Russian nesting dolls, except that the beans take FAR more effort to convince them to give up their mysteries. The person who figured out how to eat them was clearly nothing short of tenacious because favas are not a fast food. Like most beans, they need shelling as a first step, but that’s only the beginning. (I now think of favas as a communal food, with old women dressed in black gathered together in the courtyard and sharing time together, or several generations standing at a big table and catching up on the town’s gossip).
The beans grow into large fibrous pods that are not, repeat not edible, so let the shelling begin. You’ll end up with lima-shaped beans, which are not, repeat not edible, so they need to be blanched or steamed. After the outsides of those have loosened up, you gently shell them and unwrap the delicate little nuggets inside, which are very, repeat very edible. (Here’s a alternative that supposedly renders them akin to edamame, but I haven’t tried it. Let me know if you do.)
In short, though I would make them again myself, I’ve added fava beans to the list of things I will greatly, greatly appreciate when someone else serves them to me. Unless, of course that person is Hannibal Lecter! Yes, c’mon, you knew that was coming. Until fairly recently, that’s been the fava bean’s big claim to fame – co-starring with liver and “a nice Chanti” in one of the most gruesome, wince-provoking, food-and-wine pairings in cinema history.
Despite their stubbornness (or perhaps because of it?), fava beans are enjoying a good deal of American popularity of late, but it’s not their fault they’re just hitting their stride here. Food historians have placed them in ancient diets as far back as 6000 BC, and anyone traveling to Mediterranean countries (and many other parts of the world) will become immediately familiar with them. Reportedly, even Thomas Jefferson grew them in his Monticello gardens, but they never became popular stacked up against other easier-access New World beans.
Fava beans are far easier to grow than to prepare for eating, a characteristic that makes them a good crop for soil replenishment (as beans/legumes, they fix nitrogen) and even erosion control. Nutritionally, they’re low in things we should avoid, such as fat and sodium, but high in fiber, iron and protein. In fact, one website noted that their protein content has gained them the moniker “meat of the poor.”
Certainly these broad beans deserve a place at our tables, especially if you can use favas as an excuse to gather friends and/or family around and get them to help with the shelling!