Few things in the world make me say, “Oh crap!” and “Yay!” at the same time. The first arrival of fava beans in the kitchen always generated a polarized ambivalence in the cooks. On one hand, they are delicious—especially during those first few weeks of the season when you can eat the small beans whole, pod and all. On the other hand, they are extremely time consuming. After a time, the bean matures, elongates, and
requires a three step preparation process: 1. remove the beans from the pod; 2. blanch the beans; 3. pop each bean out of its skin. A few handfuls of these luscious beans can take hours to prepare. We cooks used to take back packs of fava beans home at the end of our shifts so that we could pop the beans from the pod while we had idle hands at home. We “lovingly” (I use the term loosely) called it “fava homework.” But they are totally worth it. Few foods more than young fava beans—their rich and yet fresh, delicate flavor, their vibrant green color—truly capture the essence of spring time.
The fava bean, known elsewhere in the world as simply the “broad bean” is a member of the Fabacae family, which also includes lentils, chickpeas, shelling beans, and soybeans. Its genus, Vicia also includes vetch. Bitter vetch is one of the oldest cultivated legumes, first cultivated in the early Neolithic times (9000 B.C.). It’s cousin, the fava bean, though a smaller version than what is grown today, was foraged first in the Himalayan hills and in Afghanistan. It later became domesticated around 7000 B.C., as evidenced by dried pods found in the archeological site of Spirit Cave in Thailand, occupied by the ancient peoples, the Hoabinhian, between 9000 B.C. and 5500 B.C. Many ancient Egyptian and Hittite glyphs illustrate the seeds of the broad bean, dating back to 6000 B.C.
The name “fava” is derived from the Latin term “faba” which means simply “bean.” The Egyptian name for fava is “fūl,” also “bean,” and the name for the medium-sized round ones are “fūl hammām,” meaning “bath bean.” One of the oldest dishes recorded to have been made with favas is “fūl medames,” using the
fūl hammām. Traditionally, the coals in the bath houses of Egypt were used in the night time to cook fūl, giving fūl hammām its name.
Broad beans are also incredibly powerful for encouraging nitrogen fixation in soil, and so it is a very popular green manure, in addition to a wonderful food source.
Fava beans contain certain alkaloids which can cause hemolytic anemia in certain people with the genetic disorder known as “favism.” It is hypothesized that the condition coincides with malarial areas where fava beans were produced as a mechanism for protection against malaria. They also contain L-dopa, a compound used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Plus, fava beans cause sore, discolored thumbs from hours of cleaning.
More importantly, after the cleaning is over, and you have beautiful tender spring green droplets of splendor. I love to mash them up with some Bellwether Farms ricotta, parmesan, pecorino, and sea salt, and spread that onto grilled bread. I also love them tossed into some nice green pasta fresco with other spring vegetables. There are these few weeks of spring when English peas are juicy before they turn starchy, sugar snap peas crisp, and the fava beans are small and perfect and can be sliced and eaten in their entirety. Put them all together in a dish and you have perfection, absolute spring time perfection. Enjoy this special fleeting moment of pure spring!