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.

Scrap stock, III

Getting bored of my surely less-than-engrossing detailed account of what I put in my stock each week? Well, I’d like to keep track of it for my own purposes and something tells me there’s a short life-expectancy for the soggy little scraps of scratch paper I use to record all the components as I toss them in the pot.

This week was not as successful, I think because of technical difficulties. I left the pot alone for its simmering time (I’m usually in the kitchen with it doing kitchen things, but I was in another room this time) and I think the fire may have actually gone out. So this round of stock is very mild. However it will serve to add a bit of flavor and nutrition to something that wants a mild broth, like risotto, so perhaps it is actually a blessing to have one batch with a decidedly non-aggressive character. I was a bit let down, though, since I felt like I was being wild and throwing caution to the winds, what with all the ginger peels and lemon balm stalks.

More scrap stock fixin\'s

I googled “scrap stock” and found an interesting recipe from the civil war. Inspired by this, I added an apple core to my pot (although I forgot to save most of them this week – I need to get in the habit of putting them in the stock box and not the compost). I quite flagrantly ignored the admonition to never use cabbage scraps, however. Take what you like and leave the rest, right?

Into this week’s pot:

Leek tops
Green garlic tops
Onion skin
Garlic skin
Asparagus trim
Red cabbage trim
Apple core
Lemon balm stalks
Ginger peel
Potato peel
Portobella stems
Chard stalks
Beet green stalks
Kale stalks
Sugar snap pea trim
Carrot trim
Bok choy trim
Fennel trim
Thyme stalks

Lemon balm makes friends

Okay, there’s one thing that I feel needs to be understood right off the bat about lemon balm. In case my previous post’s “it’s like you’re eating in an aisle at Bath & Body Works” description wasn’t evocative enough, or if you have never set foot inside this beauty outlet where the air is heavy with the competing aromas of a hundred “scent collections,” I will say it more plainly. Lemon balm has a definite aftertaste (which I think is actually composed of scent rather than taste) of perfume or bath product, or “dish soap” as my friend labeled it tonight. I really enjoy this strange note, in part because it really lets me know I’m eating something novel, but your mileage, as they are fond of saying here on the interweb, may vary.

Leek-Potato Soup with Lemon Balm

So keeping this all in mind, here are some results of my lemon balm experimentation. I tried the vinaigrette I wrote about in my last post, a simple affair composed of olive oil and rice wine vinegar and lemon balm. It was yucky – too vinegary, too peppery, no lemon balm flavor at all. Dressings are like my kryptonite right now – I get all insecure and clueless around them, where usually I am quite an improvisational, roll-with-the-punches cook. So I called in Duck as a guest dressing doctor, and we added some lemon olive oil, some sesame oil, a dash of maple syrup, a dash of balsamic, and a shallot. And then it was quite decent, but not worthy of topping my lovely tender asparagus as I had hoped. Good enough for salad, though.

Instead, I threw a handful of lemon balm leaves in with my asparagus as I steamed it. I really liked the flavor it imparted. But it got mixed reviews from my dining companions, again because of the B&BW factor, which can go either way for people, I guess.

My final experimental result was much more successful – in part, perhaps, because I’m the only one who ate it. I made the Cream of Leek Soup with Lemon Balm that I mentioned in my last post. It’s kind of a strange recipe, not very detailed (says the queen of excruciatingly detailed and annotated recipes!), so of course I’ve given my annotated and tweaked version below. But in general, I thought it was a very tasty combination of flavors and a terrific easy lunch.

(Incidentally, I’m so excited to have finally written a post that I feel is worthy of submission to Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week at Coffee and Vanilla. Weekend Herb Blogging is a weekly event where food bloggers write about herbs and share their stories and recipes and factoids. Cool!)

Read on for my heavily annotated soup recipe… Continue reading

Lemon Balm

A lovely bunch of lemon balm arrived in my box this week. I’ve never cooked with it before so it’s quite exciting. It smells perfumey, like a bath product, perhaps a really decadent bar of French soap.

The first thing I did with it was put it in a fruit salad. It has the texture and basic appearance of mint, so IMy bunch of lemon balm thought I would try using it in the same way. I put together a salad of kiwi, grapefruit, apple, strawberries, lemon juice, and a little honey, and then threw in a handful of finely chopped lemon balm. Delicious! It has a very different quality from mint, and there is always that intensely floral scent that makes me feel a little bit like I’m consuming my fruit salad in the middle of a Bath & Body Works. When I took my first bite, however, the first thought in my head was, “I must tell every Eatweller to make fruit salad with their lemon balm immediately!” So yeah, I guess the lemon balm fruit salad idea is one I highly recommend!

Next up will be a Lemon Balm Vinaigrette, part of my ongoing education in salad dressing. Just googling about I found a simple recipe that sounds yummy, and I’ll come back and update this post with a review after I’ve tried it. It has been such an indulgence to eat plain sweet steamed asparagus, but this vinaigrette sounds like an intriguing asparagus topper.

I’ve also come across a recipe for Cream of Leek Soup with Lemon Balm that I think sounds fantastic. The recipe is simple and light (I would not use cream, myself, but maybe a little Redwood Hills Farm goat yogurt) and I think the leek and lemon flavors would go really well together. Oh yum. I think that may be what’s for lunch.

EDIT: Check out this post for my reviews of the above recipes and more fun with lemon balm!