On an early morning, the sight of a high stack of giant velvety pods on a stall at my favourite greengrocer catches my eye.
“What are these?” I asked the lady working that morning. “Fresh fava beans” she replied. “We are in high season.” I had eaten fava beans before at restaurants or used frozen ones when I could find them. I really love their delicate earthy flavour and they are so healthy. I couldn’t miss such a rare occasion to try them fresh.
Back home with two kilos of the lovely pods, I realized that I didn’t even know how to prepare them. Well now, I am quite an expert. Do you want to become one?
Let’s start at the beginning.
An ancient member of the pea family, native to north Africa and Southwest Asia, the fava beans have a nutty taste with a buttery texture. In the Middle Ages, before being overshadowed by the common bean imported from the New World, the fava beans were the only beans known in Europe. In fact, they have a long tradition of cultivation in the Old World, being among the most ancient plants cultivated and among the easiest to grow. They are still very popular and widely used in the Mediterranean countries, quite the icon of spring there.
Yes, fava beans have been part of the European history and folklore for a very long time. In ancient Greece and Rome, beans were used to vote. They were also used as food for the dead during festivals. Did you know that in Egypt, these beans, along with lentils and chickpeas, were found in 4000-year-old tombs? In Italy, some carry a fava bean for good luck. In Portugal, a Christmas cake called Bolo Rei is baked with a fava bean inside. In Estonia, the magical beans found in the Jack and the Beanstalk story are fava beans! Some people might tell you that dreaming of a bean is a sign of impending conflict. Others will claim that planting beans on Good Friday or during the night brings good luck. Whatever you believe, fava beans have been around for quite some time.
Now, back to basics…
- How to call them: You might know them already as these beans have many aliases. Broad beans, horse beans, pigeon beans, field beans, English beans, faba beans, or even Windsor beans, they are all the same.
- When and where to find them: Peak season is late March through early May. Fresh open markets or greengrocers are the best locations to find fresh fava beans. Try also the frozen or canned food sections at grocery stores. They are not always easy to find, though.
- What to look for: Seek out sturdy green crispy pods with a velvety fuzz. Avoid any pod with slimy brown spots. The beans inside should be tender and medium sized. If the beans are bulging out of the pod, it means that they are a bit old and overgrown.
- How to store them: If bought fresh, you can refrigerate for up to one week.
- How to prepare them: It will take some work to enjoy them. They have to be shelled then cooked in boiling water for about one or two minutes. This step is called blanching. Transfer the cooked beans to ice water then drain. To remove the outer skin, gently squeeze the bean. It will come off easily. This step is by far the longest. Don’t forget that one kilo of unshelled fava beans yields only about a cup of shelled ones!
- How to use them: Don’t eat them raw. They are wonderful as appetizers, just blanched, with a sprinkle of salt and olive oil. You can add them to your omelets, salads, soups, dips, pasta dishes, and casseroles. They can even substitute for garbanzos in falafel. You might also enjoy them Hanibal Lecter’s style, from the film “Silence of the Lambs” with liver and a nice Chianti.
Now that you are acquainted with these magical beans, will you neglect them or are you ready to give them a try? And if the time-consuming skinning part still stops you from enjoying these strange fellows, well, I found that peeling the beans with my daughter was quite an experience in itself, a great way to spend time together and chat. So worth it!