Spring vegetables are so inspiring. Asparagus is my favorite, but I also revel in artichokes large and small, little shelled peas, fresh carrots, young chard and those “barbecue onions” that make a great side dish. Sprouts, bulbs, greens – they’re all part of my repertoire.
All except fava beans.
The large Mediterranean beans are the famous side dish in one of Hannibal Lecter’s, ahem, menus and a celebrated harbinger of spring, but I’ve never been tempted to cook them.
They have this reputation, see, of being painfully time-consuming to prepare, before they’re even ready to cook. The big goofy pods have to be shelled, and then the individual beans have to be skinned. So fussy – who needs it? Especially when there are so many other wonderful foods in season.
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Here’s what changed my mind: a creative food “hack” I found online that’s also in a new cookbook.
The Food52 website has a section devote to “Genius Recipes,” with techniques or flavor combinations that are just plain brilliant. Some of the best are now published in “Genius Recipes” (Ten Speed Press, $35, 272 pages). In the Snacks and Drinks chapter, there it is: grilled favas.
The recipe, originally from chef Ignacio Mattos (of New York’s Estela), requires no shelling or peeling and uses my favorite appliance, the grill. The bean pods should be as small and young as possible, author Kristen Miglore writes, but the recipe will still work if all you have are the big pods. The beans are dunked in a spicy marinade, charred and redunked with a few more ingredients, then preferably eaten with the hands.
OK, I’m sold. Come along as this farm-to-fork cook knocks down her fava phobia.
Where to find the best selection of fava beans? One of the big farmers markets, of course. If I couldn’t find enough tender fava beans at the Sunday market under the W-X freeway, they were not to be had in the region.
Arriving just after the market opened at 8, I reconnoitered the awesome mounds of fresh produce. Hah, there’s a good pile of fava pods at one table – $1.50 per pound. A second vendor had a smaller collection, also $1.50. Then, oh wow, a mountain of fava bean pods loomed at the front table of a stand belonging to M&L Campuzano Farms of Stockton. Just $1 a pound, and I could already see there were smaller beans among them.
I snagged just over 2 pounds of beans and added a $1.50 bunch of green garlic, a bargain. (Oh, I do love living in California.) By the way, going early was a good bet: Half an hour later, that vendor’s mountain of beans was down to a hillock.
The recipe calls mostly for pantry items – olive oil, rosemary, a lemon – but I did make a few adjustments based on what I had on hand. The green garlic from the market substituted for the garlic cloves, and instead of ground chili, I measured out a teaspoon of red chili flakes and pounded them briefly using my mortar and pestle. For the fleur de sel, I used another fine salt on hand: Himalayan pink salt. But sea salt in a grinder also would work.
A tin of anchovies was my only other purchase – I’m not an anchovy fan, but along with Miglore I can make a good argument for including them here.
The recipe calls for 1 pound of fava pods, which got a good rinse, but otherwise I left them as purchased, some still with a bit of stem. (I figured that would be a good handle, if needed.) They then got a generous coating of the pungent marinade I had whisked together in a big glass bowl.
My Baby Q grill preheated on high, I spread the pods across the grate, shut the lid and waited 5 minutes, which produced a beautiful char on the one side. I flipped all the pods over (tongs worked better than a spatula) and waited another 5 minutes. In retrospect that second wait was probably a minute too long, since when I lifted the lid some of the beans were already coming out of their pods.
I scooped up all the pods and returned them to the bowl, then squeezed lemon juice over the whole pile (watch for seeds!). My daughter, who’s vegetarian, was over for dinner, so we pulled out some of the beans for her before stirring in the finely chopped anchovies. I used the optional bread crumbs, too.
Wow, these beans are delicious: The spongy pods turn meaty and, combined with the marinade, they deliver flavor that’s solidly Mediterranean – spicy, tangy and salty all at once. They were perfect with some good crusty bread and a glass of tempranillo.
A few caveats: Eating with the hands is messy but holding the pod makes it easier to deal with its pair of strings. Bite and pull, and the pod, with the beans inside, slides right off. Also, the occasional tough bean skin will get loose; just discard it with the strings.
Yes, this is a winner for spring. And I’ll bet that marinade goes great with asparagus, too.
Contact The Bee’s Kathy Morrison at (916) 321-1080. Follow her @kathmosacto
Peeling fava beans
If you don’t want to cook the pods, or if you want to try one of the more traditional recipes, here are three experts’ methods for attacking those fava beans:
▪ Russ Parsons, L.A.Times: First, you have to unzip them and remove their tough, thick outer pod. Then you have to remove the tough inner membrane that seals each bean. To do this, cover them with boiling water to blanch for a minute or two, then pop them one at a time. Use your thumbnail to break a slit in the membrane and squeeze. The bean will pop out fairly easily. If they don’t, blanch them a little longer.
▪ Martha Rose Shulman, New York Times: Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a bowl with ice water. Drop the shelled fava beans into the pot, and boil them for 5 minutes. Drain, and transfer immediately to the cold water. Allow the beans to cool for several minutes; then, holding several beans in one hand, slip off their skins by pinching the eye of the skin and squeezing gently. Place the shelled favas in a bowl.
▪ Food scientist Harold McGee: Add 1 tablespoon of baking soda to a quart of boiling water, followed by the beans (removed from their pods, but still in their skins). (The baking soda helps break down the structure of the plant walls.) Then fish them out as they pop their skins so they don’t pick up the soda soapiness, and drop them in a bowl of cold water to rinse. After 2 or 3 minutes, scoop the remainder into another bowl of water to cool them down. Peel them by gently squeezing on the thick end of the bean, if necessary nicking the thin end with your fingernails.
Bevy of beans and basil
Recipe from Gourmet magazine, September 2009. Note: Beans can be cooked in boiling water 1 day ahead and chilled.
1 pound fresh fava beans, shelled, or 1 cup shelled fresh or frozen edamame
3/4 pound young fresh Romano beans (Italian flat beans), stemmed and cut diagonally into 1 1/2-to 2-inch pieces
1/2 pound green or wax beans, trimmed and halved crosswise
1/4 cup packed basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons water
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Blanch fava beans in a pot of boiling well-salted water 1 minute, then transfer with a slotted spoon to an ice bath to stop cooking. Transfer favas with slotted spoon to a small bowl.
Cook Romano beans in same pot of boiling water, stirring occasionally, until just tender, about 5 minutes, then transfer to ice bath to stop cooking. Drain well and transfer to a bowl.
Cook green beans in same pot until just tender, 6 to 7 minutes, then transfer to ice bath. Add to Romano beans. Gently peel skins from fava beans (it’s not necessary to peel edamame, if using), then add to other beans.
Cut basil into very thin shreds.
Cook garlic in oil with a rounded 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, 1 minute. Add beans, water, and zest and cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through.
Stir in basil and 2 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice and remove from heat. Season with salt and additional lemon juice if desired. Serve beans warm or at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 6
Ragout of shrimp and fava beans
Prep time: 1 hour plus at least 1 hour marinate time
Cook time: 1 hour
Recipe from “How to Read a French Fry,” by Russ Parsons (Houghton Mifflin, 2001 paperback, out of print, 334 pages)
2 pounds of shrimp with heads or 1 pound without heads, peeled (heads and shells reserved)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 pounds fresh fava beans, in the pods
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Combine the shrimp, one-third of the garlic, the salt and oil in a bowl. Stir well to coat. Seal tightly in a zipper-lock plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, up to 4 hours.
Rinse the shrimp shells (and heads) well under running water. Combine them with the wine, the remaining garlic, the carrot and tomato in a large saucepan, add water just to cover and simmer over medium heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour to make shrimp stock.
Remove the fava beans from their pods, then place the beans in a bowl, cover with boiling water and let stand for 5 minutes.
Dump the beans into a colander and cool with cold running water. Use your thumbnail to cut a slit in one end of each bean, then, with the thumb and forefinger of your other hand, squeeze the bean out into a bowl.
Strain the shrimp stock into a medium saucepan. You should have 2 1/2 to 3 cups. Add the beans and bring to a simmer over low heat, cooking the beans just until tender, 5 minutes. (The dish can be made to this point up to 8 hours ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered.)
When ready to serve, bring the beans to a rapid boil and add the marinated shrimp and thyme. Cook the shrimp through, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste for salt and serve in bowls.
Kristen Miglore writes: Look for the smallest, cutest favas you can find. But even if you’re stuck with the big gnarly ones, you can eat the pods you want, and just pop out the inner beans for the ones you don’t – they’ll still slide out more easily after they’ve been cooked. (And trust us on the anchovy.)
Ignacio Mattos’ recipe was adapted by Food52 from New York Magazine and slightly more by The Bee’s Kathy Morrison.
1 pound fresh fava beans in their pods, the younger the better
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or other fine gourmet salt
1 teaspoon ground chili pepper or red chili flakes
1 teaspoon picked rosemary leaves, roughly chopped
3 to 4 cloves chopped garlic or 4 heaping teaspoons chopped green garlic
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to finish
2 tablespoons water
7 or 8 canned anchovies in oil, chopped finely
1 handful toasted bread crumbs (optional)
Mix first 7 ingredients together in a large bowl. Toss to coat the fava pods, then place them on the grill over medium-high heat.
Grill favas for several minutes, until charred, then flip them over and char the other side, cooking until the pods seem about to open.
Remove pods from grill, return them to the mixing bowl, and squeeze the lemon over them. Toss the pods to coat. Check the seasoning, and add salt if necessary.
Add the anchovies to the bowl, mixing well. Place the pods on a serving platter, drizzle to taste with olive oil, and sprinkle the bread crumbs on top, if using. Serve hot or at room temperature; eat with your hands or with forks and knives, depending on how messy you want to get.
Serves 4 as appetizer