Two summers ago, my co-blogger Shana posted a brief photo essay and set of instructions on “what to do with squash blossoms.” Let me tell you, that’s the post that keeps on giving. Even in those times when our blog has been most neglected, readers flock to this post, and Shana recently graphed the seasonal trend on squash blossom post viewing . . . when late June hits, the curve goes vertical. I cook squash blossoms about once a summer myself, and have returned to Shana’s guide each time. Thinking about squash blossoms helps me to remember that one thing a good food blogger can do is give sensible advice on working with interesting foods that we (or at least many of us) didn’t grow up with.
The first time I ever heard of fava beans was in The Silence of the Lambs (search for fava in the memorable quotes — not likely to inspire hunger). I later learned that the British call them broad beans, which sounds much plainer and more boarding school than favas. I never actually tried them until Anne, our sometimes third on the blog, made them for a spring feast a few years back (sauteed with morels and fiddleheads, mmm),and I was immediately hooked on their delicate bean flavor and their tenderness. Since then, like squash blossom preparation, fava beans cooking is an annual ritual around here, and just as ritualistically, I scurry for the internet, trying to recall just what I’m supposed to do with the darn things (there’s like two layers to remove, right??). So in the spirit of squash blossoms (and future reference for myself), I offer a guide to coaxing out the wonders of the fresh fava.
Favas first need to be shelled. This is a fine job for small hands (those in the picture are four and three-quarter year old hands, so favas are not quite as giant as they appear). Simply pull the string along the seam and squeeze gently to pop open the pods, then run your thumb along the pod to loosen the beans.
When you are finished, your overflowing quart of favas will be much reduced, but still ample. You are, however, only halfway done. That thick light green skin needs to be removed so you can get to the heart of fava goodness.
Blanch the beans in boiling water for about a minute, then drain and run under cold water. The beans will now be loosened inside their outer skin and a bit of bright green will often protrude from one end. If you’re fussy you can use a knife, but I find it easiest just to slip my fingernail inside the slit and then squeeze to pop out the bean. Squeeze gently, as the beans can fly vast distances (or at least a foot or two) under pressure. This will amuse four and three-quarter year olds for short period of time but they will soon find this step tedious and will wander away. You will need to call in some older reinforcements (see fifty three year old hands above). When you are finished, your supply of favas will look smaller still. I find a quart really only enough to feed three or four fava lovers as a light side dish. Or me, if no one is looking, and I don’t cook anything else for dinner.
Once you have your fresh favas all shelled and peeled, there are many things you can do with them (purees, dips, a quick saute with pancetta, toss them in olive oil and add some shavings of pecorino cheese . . .). Some recipes will tell you that you need to cook the shelled beans until tender, for as many as fifteen minutes, but I find the heat of the blanching is more than enough to cook fresh beans. My current favorite fava dish is this simple preparation with mint:
Dice a small red onion and mince a good handful of fresh mint. Warm some olive oil over medium heat, add the onions and cook until softened, about five minutes. Add the fava beans and heat until warm through. Toss in the mint and fold through the beans, then turn off the heat and add a good sprinkling of coarse sea salt.
This year, we’ve eaten favas and mint with smoked duck and grilled lamb chops and those were both Good Things. But all on their own, these beans are a pretty Good Thing as well. It’s a small bowl of goodness for rather a lot of work, but one full of midsummer flavor.