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Fava Beans Can Be Difficult to Cook, but the Payoff Is Worth the Effort

June 16, 2002|CAROLYNN CARRENO

The plastic bag of big, tough-skinned and--by all accounts--ugly green pods sat on the kitchen counter for a week before I had the courage to look at them, much less cook them. I'd bought the fava beans at the Santa Monica farmers' market simply because they were there. I had noticed chefs clamoring over them, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

Truthfully, I was afraid of the beans. I'd ventured cooking favas once before. Two summers ago, I tossed some fava beans with quartered new potatoes, roasted corn, bits of bacon and snips of chives and parsley in what would have been a divine salad except for the fact that I didn't know that--after spending the better part of a morning prying the thumbnail-size beans from where they lie snugly inside their padded pods--I was then supposed to relieve them of their thick white outer skins. In essence, leaving the outer skin on a fava bean (unless it's a very sweet, young thing) is tantamount to leaving the peel on an orange. Not going to kill you--but doesn't exactly enhance the experience of eating an orange.

Fava beans, also called broad beans (which you find dried and in bags in this country), are pretty rare in Southern California. However, in certain parts of the world such as the Mediterranean, they're fairly common. Even so, I'm not the only one who's had a hard time facing favas. In fact, fava beans have a long history of dread--or, rather, of being dreaded. The ancient Egyptians regarded fava beans as unclean. Followers of Pythagoras were forbidden to eat them. According to the Greek writer Herodotus, priests refused to look at them. And all over Europe beans are associated with the dead and are served at funerals.

And so I pressed on. But by the time I had the courage to make something of my fava beans, those first pods had lost their vigor. So I chucked those, headed back to the market, bought another bag and, before I had time to think about what I was or wasn't going to do with them, put a pot of water on the stove to boil. After blanching batch after batch of the legumes until they were bright and tender, I found that under their tough exterior, favas weren't as strange or as hard to get to know as I'd imagined. They're the same size as lima beans, with the texture and flavor of green peas, though not as sweet.

And it turns out that they're very versatile. You can throw them in just about any dish, within reason. I particularly like their earthy flavor combined with fresh mint and green onions. I used them in a risotto, made a simple salad of fava beans with prosciutto and mint and finally tried them once again--despite my initial failure--in a potato salad, which was quite good.

I see why chefs like fava beans so much. But I see why it's mostly chefs (with their army of prep cooks) who cook with them; the labor involved can be prohibitive. Which isn't to say they aren't worth the time. I suppose it's a matter of taste.

Risotto with Fava Beans

Serves 4-6 as a main course

Adapted from "The Food of Campanile,"

by Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton and Ian Smith (Villard Books, 1997)

3 pounds fresh shelled fava beans

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium Maui or other sweet onion, peeled and finely diced

1 pound (about 2 cups) arborio rice

1 cup dry white wine

Kosher salt

1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

6 1/4 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock, simmering

1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In a large stockpot, bring 2 quarts of water with 2 tablespoons kosher salt to a boil. Blanch the fava beans in a stainless steel mesh strainer in the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Remove the strainer from the stock-pot and plunge it into a bowl filled with ice water for about 30 seconds. Allow strainer to drain. Using your fingers, remove the peel of the fava beans by pinching off the end opposite the growing tip and squeezing the bean out of the skin.

Saute the diced onion in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until translucent but still crunchy, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining olive oil and warm it over medium heat. Add the rice, stirring with a wooden spoon to coat the rice with the oil. Cook the rice, stirring continuously for about 5 minutes. When the rice turns opaque, reduce the heat to medium low and add the white wine and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring slowly but constantly, until the wine is almost absorbed and the risotto appears creamy. Stir in the garlic and 1 cup of the simmering stock and cook until the stock is almost absorbed. Continue to add the stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring continuously, until 1 1/4 cups stock remain. Dump in the fava beans and pour in 3/4 cup more stock and stir until that has been absorbed. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the remaining stock. The rice should be firm but not hard. Add the butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and stir, off the heat, for about a minute longer before serving.

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Carolynn Carreno last wrote for the magazine about food in Barcelona.

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Food stylist: Christine Masterson

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