Fava beans make you work.
"They're worth doing yourself if you enjoy repetitive, meditative processes," said Margo True, with a chuckle from experience.
A fava fan and Sunset magazine's food editor, True has shelled her share of home-grown beans.
"There's nothing like bringing in favas from your own garden, then going through all that work," True said. "It can be very relaxing, like meditation; being one with your vegetables. You feel such pride in every little bean you double shell."
Popular in Mediterranean cuisines, favas also called broad beans are a herald of spring. In Northern California, they're a favorite backyard winter crop that matures from March through June.
"They're so easy to grow and still seem so exotic especially if you didn't grow up with them," True said. "They're so sophisticated and European."
Favas' emerald color is as distinctive as their flavor.
"They have a wonderful, sweet, green flavor," she added. "It's so fresh; it tastes like spring."
The beans' time-intensive preparation also makes them a delicacy. It takes 2 pounds of unshelled beans to make one cup of skinned favas.
Added True, "In spring when I go out to restaurants, I always order favas if they're on the menu because I know how much work they are."
Although lack of winter rain made some other crops struggle, local favas will be fine.
"We are having a good fava bean season due to the weather," said Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanical, who grows bushels of favas for Sacramento-area restaurants and community-supported agriculture customers at her West Sacramento farm. "It was a little difficult early due to the lack of rain, but recent rains have really helped."
Unlike most of its bean relatives, fava plants also have edible leaves. They can be used as a substitute for spinach (fresh or cooked) but with a subtle fava flavor.
"They're something not many people know about unless they grow favas themselves," True said. "That's the gardener's privilege.
"They're a wonderful, robust green," she continued. "I love them in salads. They go great with citrus such as ruby grapefruit. Or use them in a quiche, frittata or omelet.
"I like the flowers, too; toss them in a salad," she added. "Favas are such a generous plant."
Chefs like fava greens as a way to stretch the flavor without the labor, Ashworth noted. They're often used in pasta fillings and soups.
Baby favas picked when no bigger than a pinky finger can be treated like green beans with a fraction of the work of regular favas.
"Fava green beans with the flavor of the shelled fava; that's my favorite tip for home and restaurants," Ashworth said. "Shelling fava beans is hard work and is best done at the table."
Often, restaurant chefs use fava green beans for fava flavor in purées, soups and sauces, then top the dish with a few shelled beans.
"Chefs really appreciate the fava greens and fava green beans in purées and soups," Ashworth said, "and are then able to use the shelling favas for accent."
Fava Beans 101
Nutrition: 1 cup shelled, cooked mature fava beans contains 187 calories and 13 grams of protein. Full of dietary fiber, these beans are rich in folate, thiamin, potassium, manganese and copper.
Selection: Available from March through June, fresh favas can be found in farmers markets and (shelled) in some Middle Eastern or Italian specialty markets. Look for fresh, large, evenly shaped green pods the bigger the better. Avoid yellowed pods; those beans may be too mature, dry and bitter.
Storage: Place unshelled beans in a perforated plastic bag and store in the refrigerator, set at high relative humidity. They'll keep for at least a week. Processed beans may be frozen for up to six months.
Preparation: Baby beans smaller than your finger can be prepared like fresh green beans. Remove any string and cook whole, or cut with the outer shell intact.
Otherwise, favas should be shelled, then skinned; it's a two-step process that can be tedious.
After shelling the beans, blanch them. Plunge the shelled beans in boiling water for two minutes. Remove and rinse in cold water.
When cool enough to handle (about two to three minutes), pop the beans out of their skins. A pinch with a thumbnail helps.
After all that, the beans are finally ready to cook. Treat them like fresh lima beans (simmer until tender, about 15 minutes) or use in other recipes. Or they can be mashed, mixed with a little olive oil and spread on crostini.
Roasted favas: Del Rio Botanical's Suzanne Ashworth recommends this method as a group activity. Put the whole pods on a cookie sheet in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes. Remove the pods and transfer them to a plate in the center of the table. After the beans cool for a few minutes, diners can shell them out, skin them and eat them with some bread, wine and cheese.
"It's the perfect appetizer and a fun way to dine," Ashworth said.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.