Fava beans: I tackle the mystery

Fava Beans with Mint and Pecorino

The favas are lurking. Deep in the belly of the crisper drawer they wait, inscrutable behind their thick, padded pods. To learn their secrets I’ll have to penetrate not only that puffy outer shell but also the pale green bitter skin that coats each and every bean.

Yet I cannot, for the life of me, remember what a fava bean tastes like. This may be because I’ve only had them in the most minute amounts – as a swirl of puree atop a soup, for example. I tend to avoid ordering them in restaurants because, well, as much as I love to try new foods, I shy away from the ones that might kill you. But here I am with two giant bags of fava beans in my fridge. Favism (the genetic condition that makes fava beans into deadly weapons) tends to show up mostly in men, and tends to only kill children, so I decide to take my life in my hands and cook up these bags of beans, with 911 on speed dial of course as I sit down to eat.

But I have no idea how to prepare them as I have no idea what they taste like, or even what their texture will be like. I have never cooked any kind of fresh bean. Online everyone is raving about the favas as heralds of the advent of spring, but I notice no one ventures forth with the classic food-description cliche to say they “taste like spring,” like people do for fresh peas or sweet asparagus. I’m starting to gather that there must be something unique about the flavor of these little guys, something that makes them worth an extraordinary amount of work, something indescribable that makes their marketplace arrival a celebration.

By now I’m beginning to get excited. I check out a lot of recipes online. There are spreads and purees, and some risottos, but I want to showcase the beans more simply and especially get a sense of their texture this first time. I decide to make a dish from an article written by a fellow Eatweller, Fava Beans with Mint and Pecorino Romano. I have the Pecorino and the beans, but no mint. I consider substituting thyme or lemon balm but I’m too nervous as I have NO idea what these beans taste like, so my mouth can’t picture the variations ahead of time. I walk to the corner produce market, but all they have are huge bunches of non-organic mint, so I walk back home, pensive and empty-handed.

On my walk back I remember what I forget and remember again every year – there is a small patch of mint growing out of the cement step down to my back yard. (I live in a flat – the shared back yard is only accessible through a dark, dingy basement and a door with an ominous splintery wood beam across it, and I live right next to one of the best city parks in the US, so I don’t get back there much. Lest you think I am insane for forgetting what grows wild in my own back yard.)

I run outside and harvest a stalk of gorgeous mint, and then stick it in a glass of water to keep it fresh when I realize I have who knows how many hours of shelling ahead of me. I watch a movie and split pods and peel skins, and the time passes relatively painlessly. (Although the sore edges of my thumbnail beds feel like they’ll never be the same.) I’m interested to see that each of those huge bags produces a half a cup of peeled beans. (I put this in bold not because I think it is horribly shocking – I’d been warned – but so future Eatwellers can know ahead of time how much they’ll have for a recipe.)

I take my hard-won cup of magic beans back to the kitchen and prepare them as directed. A scent fills the air as I sautee the fava beans. It is just exactly the scent of walking into a room and saying, “Oh my god, it smells disgusting in here!” It the scent of pure foulness, unadulterated by any other aromatic element. Needless to say I get a little nervous about the outcome of my dish. I do the salt and the mint and the cheese thing. I take a bite.

I wish this story had a happy ending. I really do. And I guess it actually does, in a way. Even if I still get a little queasy every time I remember that smell (they didn’t taste bad, but they didn’t taste good, either, to me), even if I’ve found yet another vegetable that, against all sense of myself, it turns out I don’t like, on looking back I think I can say that I got my happy ending.

After all, I ate at last the mysterious and intimidating fava beans. And I didn’t die.

7 comments on “Fava beans: I tackle the mystery

  1. Oh yeah! I joined a CSA as well, but I won’t get my first box until June. It’s still snowing around here (Colorado) on occasion! Since you’re getting farm fresh treats already, I’ll watch, wait, and steal recipes from you.🙂

    Thanks!
    In good health,
    Melissa

  2. scrumptious says:

    Melissa – I’m so happy to see you here. I really like your blog – it’s friendly and fun and it seems like your style and tastes are similar to mine. I’ll steal recipes from you, too, and then we won’t be stealing, just trading!

  3. Angelique says:

    Hi! Just a thought….over the winter, fava greens kept appearing in my CSA box and despite my farmer’s enthusiastic prep recommendations (“use them just like spinach!”), I decided I was liking them less every time and even getting irritated at the scent in the air as they sauteed, and I eventually started composting them. So then when I go to pick up my box a few weeks ago at the Culinary Institute and Chef Jeremy tells me with childlike glee “Guess what? Fava beans this week!”, I groaned on the inside. But I too just had to find out what was so amazing about these beans, so I prepared them as suggested (20-25 min @ 350F, spread out on a pan) and could smell that sadly-familiar scent, but grudgingly continued the steps (fresh out the oven, peel at the table and put 1 bean on an oil-dunked piece of good bread or foccacia and pop into mouth) and was pleasantly surprised! Kind of addictive actually. Not so great by themselves, but that little combo did make it tasty. My husband and kids weren’t impressed, but I guess I was expecting it to be much worse. So the moral of the story I guess is to maybe try them again with this really simple presentation. I’m still don’t “get” their mystique, but at least I feel I have climbed another culinary mountain (OK, hill) and will feel a hint of confidence the next time I see them in my box. HTH!

  4. scrumptious says:

    Angelique – Thanks for the fava-bean commiseration and the tip! I will definitely give that technique a try. Right now my thumbs – with the memory of their torture still fresh – can’t even be convinced to shell this latest giant batch waiting in my fridge.

  5. Angelique says:

    p.s. I should’ve noted that the best part of the above recipe is that you don’t have to shell them raw. You throw them on the baking sheet in their naked natural state and only shell them after they’ve been roasted so they’re all soft and pliable — easy peasy! And no sore thumbs, hooray!
    And BTW, thanks for the info about them being occasionally deadly — yikes! Good to know!

  6. scrumptious says:

    Oh Angelique… The fava bean season in my box seems to have ended but you may have redeemed the whole species for me, come next season! The roasting in the shell is a technique I have never encountered and I am super excited to hear a happy-thumbs report from the trenches!

  7. Skitten says:

    I used our fava beans yesterday (for the first time ever) – it helped that I already knew that I liked them having had them in salads before.

    I followed along from Alice Waters’ Simple Food book, which had me blanch the beans. I then just added them straight into our salad rather than cooking further or making puree or anything – no nasty smells. But yes, a remarkably small amount of beans for all the effort.

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