The fava bean gained notoriety in the movie "The Silence of the Lambs" when its main character, Hannibal Lecter, uttered the bone- chilling words, " I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." For many folks, this was their first introduction to the fava/faba bean whose botanical name is vicia faba. They are also known as broad beans, field beans, Windsor or horse beans. The word fava comes from the Italian meaning "broad bean."
Fava beans are one of the oldest crops known, being the common food for many Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations. Archeological remains found in Israel indicated that the fava bean's cultivated origins were recorded as early as the Neolithic period (6800-6500BC). Their cultivation spread along the Mediterranean into southwestern Asia and Africa. They are now grown in over 50 countries, preferring cool seasons and temperate regions which are very much like those in which they were first cultivated.
Although, they are available year-round spring time is the peak season for fava beans. They are often used as ground cover during crop rotation to preserve the soil and inhibit weed growth. As it requires a large area to produce a small harvest, most fava plants are used as a cover crop later being turned into the soil to enrich it with nitrogen and organic nutrients.
While fava pods may be roasted, and eaten, in most cases, it is the plant's tender and sweet beans with their mild grassy flavor that folks are seeking. The beans themselves are similar in shape to a lima bean. Their skin is thick with a texture that ranges from starchy to creamy, this depends upon the age of the bean and its method of preparation. The young gray-green leaves, shoots, tendrils and white and black flowers of the plant are all edible.
The pods of the fava plant resemble a large sweet pea. When shopping for fava beans, make sure that their green pods are tight, not bulging. Pods that are bulging are usually old and their beans often have a bitter flavor. Remember, that it takes a large number of fava pods to produce a small yield of shelled beans. Two pounds of unpeeled fava beans are the equivalent of approximately one cup of shelled beans. Keep in mind that this measurement may vary depending on pod and bean size. Therefore, when shopping err on the side of caution and opt to buy more, rather than less, it will save making another trip to the grocery store.
Removing the beans from the pod is similar to shelling peas, but the preparation method is a tad more complicated and time consuming. First, run your finger, or sharp knife, up the seam to split it open, there should be four to five beans inside. These beans have a thick white skin that surrounds them which needs to be removed. Using a small knife, make a tiny slit along the edge of each bean to enable it to pop easily from this skin. For a more simplified method, put the fava beans in boiling salted water and blanch them for about one minute. This will soften the skin making the beans easier to remove. Quickly, remove the beans from the boiling water and submerge in ice water to stop them from cooking. This should enable you to easily squeeze the beans out of the skin.
Fava beans are often prepared with other spring vegetables such as peas, asparagus and morel mushrooms. Their mild flavor and delightful texture add a unique individuality to salads, soups, pastas and risotto. Fresh fava beans can be pureed and made into spreads which make delicious appetizers when paired with fresh herbs and cheeses. When pureeing, boil smaller beans in salted water for approximately two minutes, larger beans for about eight minutes, or until soft. The beans are done when you can crush them with the back of a spoon. Puree fava beans in a food processor until smooth, adding olive oil as needed. Season with to taste with salt. A potato masher may also be used in lieu of a food processor.
If you use late season fava beans, they will be starchier requiring a second peeling of the outer bean. Do this by either blanching or braising. Helpful hint: When you buy fava pods, keep in mind that the number of beans they contain may vary which will impact yield. Some cooks use chickpeas or lima beans if they run short but, because of the fava bean's unique flavor, there really is no good substitute. The beans will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days although, the sooner you use them the better.
To freeze, shuck and then blanch for one minute. Immature beans are best for freezing or canning. Freeze in a single layer on a cookie sheet in the freezer before placing in bags. When ready to use thaw, peel and prepare as usual. Now you can have fresh fava beans at any time of year, not just in the spring when they are plentiful. To simplify the process, fava beans may be purchased either canned or frozen. Dried fava beans are also available, prepare them as you would most dried beans by soaking overnight and cooking low and slow.
Fava beans contain lots of fiber, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, zinc, copper, iron, calcium, magnesium and folate. They are rich in antioxidants. One cup of fava beans contains 36% of the daily recommendation for manganese which helps increase bone mass. A cup of boiled mature beans contains 187 calories.
Folks who have G6PD, a hereditary enzymatic deficiency, should NOT eat fava beans! They can develop anemia which may become severe. This problem is found in a high percentage of people of Mediterranean and African heritage, including Sephardic Jews.
Whether you are enjoying your fava beans with a nice Chianti, or as a savory addition to soups, salads and pasta the end result will be a healthy flavor-filled dish that adds a pleasing alternative to any menu. These delicious green beans bring a classic simplicity to mealtime, offering a unique infusion of flavor that truly shines. Eat your heart out Hannibal!