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Fabulous favas

(article, Trista Cornelius)

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I know you’re supposed to love all of your children the same, but when it comes to my garden, I love my fava beans more than the rest. 

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They’re the easy child — the one that takes care of herself, grows tall and strong, blooms beautifully, and somehow avoids the ugly-duckling stage, looking plucky and bright from the first moment she sprouts out of the ground.
 
Not enough people know about fava beans, which should be as common in the kitchen and garden as basil and parsley. Also known as broad beans, favas are easy to grow, abundant, and pretty, with porcelain-white flowers splashed in purple ink. The plants are also nitrogen fixers, making the soil they grow in more fertile for later plantings, especially if you fold the decaying leaves back into the ground.
 
[%image favaflowers float=right width=300 caption="Fava blossoms."]Unfortunately, if you know anything about favas, you've probably heard two unsavory things: that they’re just like lima beans (belch!), and that Hannibal Lecter mentions them in the film '"The: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” 

The former is blatantly wrong; limas are far more coarse and mealy than favas. And the latter is, well, less than appetizing. 
 
Even worse, maybe you’ve heard that fava beans can be fatal. And it's true: there's a hereditary disorder known as favism. The disease occurs mostly in people of African, Asian, and Mediterranean descent, and might be a negative side effect of an adaptation to protect against malaria. Luckily, only a small fraction of the general population has the genetic predisposition to the problem, and of those, only a few react badly to fava beans. 
 
So when fava beans arrive in the spring, don't avoid them; instead, embrace them as a vivid splash of vibrancy and hope after a dark, cold, wet winter. 

I grow and eat the Broad Windsor Bean. You can plant them in the fall for the earliest possible harvest, but only if you have a cold frame or live in a climate with mild winters. Otherwise, plant them as early in spring as frost allows. 

[%image favasincup float=left width=400 caption="The gray-green beans, ready to be parboiled."]Fava pods look like slender green bananas, and they’re almost that huge. When the pods begin to droop away from the stalks and you can see the fat beans flexing through the skins of the pods, they’re ready to pick. 
 
If you don’t have the space or the time to grow favas, buy them at farmers' markets or some grocery produce sections. Choose deep green, sturdy pods; avoid any that have turned brown or dry. Two pounds of pods will yield about two cups of beans. 
 
To prep favas, rip open the thick pods — waxy on the outside, felty on the inside. Scoop out the grayish beans, some larger than your thumb, and breathe in the sweet-pea scent. Parboil the beans for a minute or two. The grayish skins will soften and start to tear open at one end. Rinse the beans in ice water, then pick them up one by one, aim the torn ends away from you, squeeze between your thumb and forefinger, and squirt the emerald-green gems into a glass bowl. 

Trust me, these bursts of green will ignite the feel-good center of your brain like a ray of sunshine, wiping away any lingering winter blues. No more SAD for you. 
 
But you haven’t even tasted them yet. So pop one in your mouth; it will melt like silken mashed potatoes. I’ve read descriptions of fava flavor, but none of them match my experience. Richness is what I notice first, after the sensuous texture; rich and deep and nourishing. There's no vegetable bitterness; in fact, there’s almost a sweetness to them, not a light sweetness like spring peas, but a deep, molasses sweetness. 
 
[%image favaboiled float=right width=400 caption="A fava bean is a gem."]You can also grill favas. Just spray the pods with a little oil and grill until charred on both sides. This is by far the most fun way to eat them, with friends seated around a table with an empty bowl in the center, peeling the beans from the oily pods, then shooting them out of their extra layer of skin without squirting the fava right into a friend’s eye. Add a bottle of wine, and you’ll be the talk of the summer. 
 
Sautéing favas with other early spring treats, like garlic scapes and mushrooms, and serving them tossed with linguine makes a satisfying meal. However, the very best way to eat fresh fava beans is to whir them into a sultry green dip. Accompany them with a bowl of salty chips for dipping (pita chips are my favorite), and even the politest guest cannot help herself — the bowl will be scraped clean. 

It’s true that you can eat fava beans dried, too. The dried ones are brown, and simmer into a Middle Eastern stew a little like pinto beans, but more dense and robust. You can buy dried favas at most grocery stores, and they cook up as easily as any other dried bean. But the magic of favas is in the fresh green ones. 

Culinarily speaking, late winter and early spring is the hardest season of the year. There’s nothing fresh to eat, all the stored autumn squash is gone, and everything left in the freezer is just a cold reminder of the summer so far off. Looking out the window to the backyard, hoping to catch the first glimpse of fava green, gets me through the lingering dark and cold.  

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Fava bean dip."]When the beans come out of the ground, they start with two broad, full leaves; no wimpy seedling stage for them. Soon, stalks reach higher than your hips, and trumpet-shaped flowers with a splotch of squid-ink inside bloom and lure ants and bees. 
 
Somehow, I rarely see the first pods. I’m looking and looking and seeing nothing, until suddenly one day I notice four or five pods as thick and long as my fingers. When did they arrive? But now I know: spring is here, and the dark months are over. In a few more days, I’ll be eating something fresh, green, and vibrant again. 
 
p(bio). Trista Cornelius teaches writing and literature at Clackamas Community College in Oregon. When she's not reading and writing about food, she's busy eating it, growing it, and cooking it.


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