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Skip the liver, eat the beans

Maligned and mysterious, vetch is spring's best-kept secret


Favas, favas, good for the heart, the more you eat
  • Favas, favas, good for the heart, the more you eat

Mainstream media culture affects our views on food in powerful ways. Don't believe me? Let's play a little word-association game and see what happens, OK? I'm going to name one of my favorite vegetables, and you're going to quickly scribble the first thing that comes to mind. Ready? Fava beans.

First, let me make a few guesses at associations you did not make: harbinger of spring, warm weather, tasty. Right? I figured. Hollywood and Hannibal Lecter have given these delectable legumes a bad rap. Mention them and people shudder, capable of imagining them only as an accompaniment to human liver and Chianti.

Don't feel bad. I used to feel the same way. Besides, we're hardly the first generation of "civilized" people with a cultural fava aversion. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras ordered his disciples to avoid them, a fair warning for Aegeans who suffered from favism, a potentially fatal allergy.

Other ancient Mediterranean peoples believed the souls of the dead migrated into the beans themselves, making their consumption a macabre form of ancestor cannibalism and providing an ironic connection to our friend, the good doctor.

Others in the past received the fava more favorably. During periods of famine, it tided communities over, earning it the name "lucky bean." For this reason, fava beans still are part of the ritual complex around altars to Saint Joseph, where they represent a divine gift ensuring sustenance.

Now, it's my turn to join the fray. On this fine page I hope to flex my own media muscle, however puny in comparison, and reshape our perception of fava beans. Why bother? Because they're versatile, nutritious, delicious and one of the first spring vegetables to find their way into local stores.

Fava beans are also old really old. Unlike the kidney and pinto, favas are indigenous to the Old World and have been found by archaeologists in connection with some of Mesopotamia's first settlements, going back no fewer than 8,000 years.

This has given people plenty of time to experiment and innovate. Technically a vetch in botanical terms, the fava long has been used as fodder for livestock, generating yet another moniker: horse bean.

Folks in other places dry them for long-term storage. For years, Mediterranean people have converted them into lentils, and dried favas are the main ingredient in one of Egypt's national dishes, ful medames.

Spring, however, is time for fresh favas, when the work involved in coaxing delicate, complex flavors and creamy richness from the big green pods is absolutely worth a little time and effort. Fresh favas not only taste great, they also have few calories and are rich in potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, protein, iron and fiber.

At the store, pick up about half a pound of fava pods per person. At home, set a pot of water to boil. Grab the beans and remove them from their husks by ripping the tips and pushing them through the seams, removing any little stems as necessary. Dump the beans into the boiling water and blanch for 30 seconds. Drain, then immediately submerge them in a big bowl of heavily iced water to stop the cooking.

At this point, you'll notice the beans themselves have a second skin, which can now be removed. Using your finger or a small paring knife, slit the skin slightly and push the bean out carefully. It'll be a bit slick and should be a deep, lurid green. Your favas are now ready for use.

A quick saut with a bit of butter and a pinch of salt will produce a perfect mate for fresh white fish or seared scallops. They also go well with lamb and pork dishes, particularly when some of the drippings are added to the cooking liquid. My favorite way to eat them, however, is as a pure, spread over crisp toast.

The recipe that follows comes from Alice Waters by way of my friend Ian Lindsay, who first got me eating favas. Using favas prepped as described above which Ian recommends as a communal activity, accompanied by cocktails produces a deep green paste that is at once alarmingly fresh and sinfully rich. Try it, and you just might find yourself asking, "Hannibal who?"

Fava bean pure

3 pounds fresh fava beans (weight before husking and shucking)

1/2 cup good olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped fine

1 sprig rosemary, whole

3 sprigs thyme, whole

1/2 lemon

In a small pot, infuse olive oil with garlic over medium-low heat until you can smell the garlic. Add favas, herb sprigs, salt and a splash of water. Stew the favas about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

When the beans are very soft, remove the herbs and mash the favas with the back of a fork. For a smoother paste, add a bit more olive oil. Adjust seasoning and finish with a squeeze of lemon juice to cut the richness. Spread onto crostini. Serves six.

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