introducing the favalous fava bean!

Although the lingering chill has affected the hot weather crops, our cool weather ones are doing just fine! I continue on with sweet snowpeas, and the favas are happily ripening in other gardens.

Today, I am on assignment for my CSA, because their favas are finding their way into boxes for the next few weeks. Widely used in the Mediterranean and Middle East, favas are used in myriad ways both healthy and lovely. I’ve been looking at some beautiful recipes from Italy, Tunisia, Morocco and Japan. You can’t go wrong with preparing fresh beans and pureeing them with some olive oil and garlic for a wonderful dip, but there’s much, much more to try.

Fava beans, if they had an advertising campaign, would bill themselves as “Europe’s First Bean.” Thorngrove Table, an absolutely wonderful medieval food blog, featured their history in a post a few years ago. As with all ancient foodstuff, the fava bean is associated with otherworldly legends. Some cultures cast fava beans for divination (favomancy), and others plant them as magic beanstalks to reach up to a giant’s castle. Having planted mine as green manure in February, I missed the traditional day in Italy to plant them, November 2 (All Souls’ Day), which gave the title “beans of the dead” to the fava, and the other traditional day in Europe, Good Friday, seems a bit late. I also failed to plant them in the night, another superstition for good luck.

Favas were seen as both good and evil. On the dark side of the force, they were seen as the vessels that held the souls of the dead. Other mortal dangers include favism (a serious chemical intolerance of the bean that creates anemia in some people of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent) and, of course, the reputation they have as an accompaniment to human liver, with a nice Chianti. The pods are said to be toxic, and you should avoid eating the beans raw.

When the force is with them, favas have pretty little white and black flowers, and the young beans are tender and just as green as can be. The plants fix nitrogen in the garden via little nodules on the mature roots, so they’re not only pretty but great for your soil. You can eat the young plant tips sautéed with butter and garlic, the young beans as you would green beans, and the older beans shelled, which taste of the essence of spring.

Shelling fava beans involves a double commitment: first you need to remove them from their tough pods, then, after boiling the beans for 2-3 minutes, you need to remove the tender green innards from their waxy shell. But honestly, they’re worth it. And if you’d like to skip a step, you can buy the shelled beans frozen at Middle Eastern markets, but you’ll still need to remove the waxy shell after boiling them.

Some delicious ideas for the beans:

  • Lamb stew with favas and green almonds, eaten by Moroccan Jews in the spring – apparently the Israelites ate favas when they were slaves in Egypt, so they are a symbolic food at Passover;
  • Italians eat young favas with watercress and pecorino in a salad, or creamed with melted pecorino and cream (see recipe for the latter in The Silver Spoon Italian cookbook);
  • Japanese vegetarians puree the beans and serve them with thin slices of fried eggplant seasoned with soy;
  • Alice Waters has a quick, simple recipe for fried artichoke bottoms topped with freshly boiled, warm fava beans in Chez Panisse Vegetables;
  • Another recipe from The Silver Spoon is a lovely variation of fava puree – boil the shelled beans with small cubes of raw potato in vegetable stock, then mash together and serve with some olive oil.

But the most unusual and lovely one, in my view, is the most seasonal, too. Until sundown tonight, many Jews all over the world are celebrating Shavuot, a holiday that honors the Torah. It also coincides with the grain harvest in Israel, so it makes sense that North African Jews would celebrate with a traditional dish of buttered couscous topped with fava beans and sautéed onions. Claudia Roden has a great description of the classic recipe in her The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. The classic often includes powdered sugar or cinnamon and raisins, plus dairy drinks on the side, to symbolize “the land of milk and honey.” I decided to add a non-traditional ingredient to the dish, local fennel from our weekly market, to change and layer the flavors in a different way. It’s a delicious and beautiful side, perfect for everything from a vegetarian meal to fish to chicken.

Couscous Topped with Favas and Caramelized Fennel and Onion

Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side

1 cup quick-cooking couscous
5 T. salted butter, separated
1/2 t. cinnamon
1 bulb fennel, sliced thinly and chopped
fronds from the fennel, rinsed and chopped
1/2 cup chopped sweet white onion or spring onions
at least 1 cup prepared fava beans (shelled twice)
salt and pepper

Shell and cook the fava beans: Remove the beans from the pod, then boil them for three minutes. Shock in cold water, then slip off the white, leathery skins. Set prepared beans aside in a bowl.

Prepare couscous according to the directions on the package, using 1 T. butter instead of olive oil. Keep covered and warm as you make the topping.

Fry the onions in 2 T. butter over medium heat until they are beginning to caramelize (color dark golden). Add fennel bulb (save fronds for serving) and continue to sautée until the fennel and onions have some dark brown caramelization. Add salt and pepper to taste, then fold in the prepared fava beans.

Just before serving, season the couscous with 2T. butter, cinnamon, and fennel fronds. Mound couscous into cone shape with flattened top on a platter, and crown the top with favas and fennel mixture. Serve warm.

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