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GARDEN FRESH : Honor Thy Fava

March 31, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

F eves. Fave. Habas. Bakla. Paghlah. Koukia. Ful. The French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Armenian, Greek and Arabic names for an ancient bean that is as treasured in those kitchens as it is neglected in ours. Even the British are mad about these broad beans.

How, in this inquisitive, vigorous ferment called America--where radicchio, tomatillos and bok choy keep company with lettuce and tomatoes in our crispers--have we let favas get away?

It would make sense if favas weren't delectable from start to finish. From the time the pods are a couple of inches long to when the nubbins inside are pea-size, you can prepare the pods just as you would snap peas or beans. When seeds reach the soft shelly stage (the fresh-shelling stage between snap and dry), they'll remind you of limas--with more flavor. And the mature dried beans, which can be the size of a small daisy, creamy or coppery in color, are meaty-rich.

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One reason favas are so popular abroad is their versatility. Although any bean can be eaten at every stage, I can't think of another whose fine quality, flavor and texture at every stage match these.

Typically, the French simmer fava beans at the shelly stage with sprigs of summer savory and thyme. They make a veil of sauce by whisking an egg yolk, olive oil and lemon juice into the reduced cooking broth, then top the dish with more summer savory.

As a rite of spring--the way we dive at the first asparagus--Italians pack a heap of raw young fave pods into a picnic basket with a bottle of golden wine and a wedge of salty sheep's milk cheese, then head off to the country, a pretty ritual.

North of Madrid in Segovian soil, favas are grown to perfection. In winter, the dried beans might be stewed with ham, sausage and a pig's foot and ear, then finished with tomatoes, pimiento, onion and garlic. Glasses of a deep-red vino de la tierra wash down this lusty dish.

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Turks enjoy cooked favas cooled and heaped with yogurt flavored with garlic and dill. Dill also figures in an Armenian spring stew--snap favas and chopped dill are added to almost-tender chunks of lamb and onions in tomato sauce, then simmered until all is tender and ladled over pilaf.

In Greece, baby artichokes are ready to be harvested while favas are still in the snap stage. The artichoke hearts are quartered and simmered with the beans, some of the juices thickened with flour and sharpened with lemon, served hot with chopped wild fennel. And retsina!

Ful medames , the national dish of Egypt, is cooked in huge, nearly spherical pots and sold by street vendors the way hot dogs are here. The small dried fava beans are simmered with garlic and served in soup bowls with a variety of garnishes, such as hard-boiled egg, chopped parsley, olive oil and lemon juice. The Egyptians have a saying, "Even the pharaohs have feasted on ful medames ," and certainly the name comes from the old Egyptian language, Coptic ( phel mithems ).

The English fancy their broad bean pods young and pale and boiled with mint or parsley.

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So does it make sense we are largely deprived of such feasts? Perhaps it's that fava beans aren't always sweet. Depending on the soil in which they grow and the cultivar, favas can have a spirited flavor, sometimes even a hint of herbal bitterness (larger dried beans, however, are most often sweet). But this can't be the reason. Americans are fond of tastes with an edge: Cheddar cheese, garlic, dark chocolate.

Even fava leaves are good to eat! Pick young top leaves and tear them into salads, or chop them for soups, or use them as garnish with their fragrant pale-sweet-pea-like flowers.

Underappreciated favas. It would make sense if raising them weren't foolproof. Favas will produce on lean soil as long as it's well drained, but of course the more fertile it is, the finer the plants. The plants will leave the earth in which they grew richer than they found it; favas contribute lots of nitrogen to the soil. They need sun and a modicum of water but usually no irrigation if there is rain. Aphids are likely to be attracted to the top leaves. When the plants are tall enough and setting blossoms, pick off those leaves and bring them into the kitchen. Until then, douse the critters with the hose or soapy water.

Favas are vigorous, some plants growing five feet tall. For them, set pea sticks--slender prunings from trees and shrubs that the plants can lean against as they grow--in the ground at sowing time.

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Bushes of favas are appealing. They can grow close together and make a deep-green hedge. (Spring flowers such as columbine, daffodils and larkspur are delightful against the hedge.) Fava leaves bear no resemblance to those of summer beans, because they don't belong to the same family. Both are legumes, but favas are in the vetch clan and native to North Africa and Southeast Asia. Most of our sunny summer beans are in the pea clan, native to this continent.

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