FAVA BEANS – A harbinger of spring!

I love introducing people on tour to fresh broad fava beans – fave fresche. The culture of the fava bean is thought to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean in late Neolithic times and in the Middle Ages the fava bean was a staple food throughout the Mediterranean. Favas were the only bean known to Europe until the discovery of the New World. In Central and Southern Italy fava beans are a harbinger of spring, as they are the first green vegetables to come out of gardens after a cold winter.

The pods look like giant thick green beans – slightly fuzzy, long and plump varying in length from 6-12 inches. They should be heavy with a hint of rounded beans inside. Although best when used within a few days, they will keep up to a week in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer. When very young (2-3 inches long) they can be eaten whole, but we rarely see these in our market. We are most accustomed to eating the immature seed inside the larger pod. To shell the favas, pull off the “string” of the pod and press open the seams. You will see 4-6 beans that look like small to medium sized lima or butter beans nestled in a white fuzzy lining that vegetable expert Elizabeth Schneider describes as cushioned sleeping bags for the beans. Each bean is enclosed in a second thick, inner skin, which becomes quite bitter and tough as the favas mature. Taste a bean with the skin and see for yourself if you want to skin them.

To skin the beans, drop them into boiling water for a couple of minutes to loosen the skin. Drain and plunge them into ice cold water to stop the cooking. Use your thumbnail to break open the skin and pop out the bean.

From Tuscany to Sicily they are enjoyed most when served raw either as an antipasto to begin or as dessert to end the meal. I love to serve them raw as an antipasto, piled high in a basket and on the top of the beans I place a wedge of fresh pecorino or provolone cheese with a small paring knife. Perfect for casual company; while you’re chatting, just pull out the fat beans from their plush, cushioned pod and if you prefer a bitter taste, eat the beans unpeeled or peel each bean for a sweeter flavor. Savor the slightly bittersweet, nutty bean with the cheese and of course–a glass of red wine. Fresh favas can also be sautéed, and they make a wonderful addition to soups, salad, pasta, risotto and frittatas.

A Word of Caution and Interest – there is a very rare disease called favism, which is a serious reaction to eating raw fava beans or breathing their pollen, causing severe hemolytic anemia. The disease affects certain ethnic groups of Mediterranean descent and is most common in males and most severe in infants and children. The risk of eating cooked fava beans is apparently quite small. Fava beans are mentioned in a famous line from the movie The Silence of the Lambs, when Hannibal Lecter says “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”, which was voted as the #21 best-known movie quote by the American Film Institute.

This favorite Sicilian vegetable medley celebrates spring.

  • 2 lbs. fresh green peas, shelled
  • 2 lbs. young fava beans, shelled
  • 12 small artichokes, well trimmed, cleaned and cut into quarters
  • 4-5 spring onions with the green tops, thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 C. water
  • 1/2 C. olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 T. white wine vinegar
  • pinch of sugar
  1. Put the olive oil in a heavy saucepan, add the spring onions and 1/2 C. of water. Cook over a medium flame, stirring often until the onions become translucent and all the water evaporates.
  2. Add the artichokes with 1/2 C. of water and salt to taste. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the fava beans and another 1/2 C. of water. Cover and cook for 5 more minutes.
  4. Add the peas, lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer another 5 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally.
  5. Season with salt and pepper; add the vinegar and sugar, and cook uncovered for 2-3 minutes until the vinegar has evaporated. Refrigerate and serve cool or at room temperature.

Option: omit the vinegar and serve warm with a dollop of ricotta cheese.

First published in the “The North End News” May, 2007

Provolone and fresh pecorino cheese available at:
Salumeria Italiana
151 Richmond St.
Boston, MA
Tel (617) 523-8743

Fresh fava beans available at:
Alba Produce
18 Parmenter St.
Boston, MA
no telephone

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