Monday, April 20, 2009

Favas: Not Just for Liver Anymore

My friend Sam (who might be the best California guitarist you never heard of and an extremely talented cook to boot) invited a group of people over last night for an impromptu gathering at his tiny abode with the only instructions being "Bring something Mediterranean to nibble on. It's too hot to cook anything." It'd been a scorching weekend, and we were all a bit sunburned and wilted. Having picked up some favas at the Farmers Market on Saturday along with some blood oranges, I decided to bastardize a recipe for a fava bean bruschetta I’d seen and put together a little crostini. I like to do that—find something to reinvent or experiment with ingredients. It’s like the foundation of a joke:  One day this piece of manchengo walks into a bar and sits down next to some grilled artichokes and roasted tomatoes . . . . You're waiting for the punchline and hoping it's a gut-buster. But sometimes my little “culinary dalliances” don’t end well and I have to call out for pizza (which is not a total loss because I love pizza).

With some leftover rosemary and lemon bread as the base of the crostini, I spread on some lovely bucheron goat cheese. Next I added a dollop of fava bean puree, a blood orange segment and sprinkle of microgreens on top. And with Russ helping with the assembly, it took just minutes to come together with very little slaving over a hot stove. And I’m very pleased to report that it was tasty. And it was beautiful. And it was healthy. And it was gobbled up. 

I think part of the success of the dish was that it was satisfying--you tasted the different layers as you bit into it--but it was refreshing. And even with the doors and windows open at Sam's, it felt like a sauna inside. It was too oppressive to possibly consider expending the energy to pick up a cracker, spread on some gorgonzola and drizzle it with honey. That was just way too much work. You wanted something that could be fed to you as you reclined on the sofa while someone fanned you. Unfortunately, the party did not come with any such service, but the crostini made a good food substitute. 

Tamara was in attendance and wearing this beautiful teal green maxi dress that was perfect attire for being fed grapes to. She is a total movie buff and is amazing to talk to as she exposes you to movies you'd never know to watch and offers such interesting perspectives. Well, it's difficult for me to think of movies and fava beans without hearing Hannibal Lecter's creepy voice saying, "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." According to the AFI, this is the 21st most popular movie quote in America cinema.

Thanks to Silence of the Lambs, I think fava beans have kind of gotten a bad rap (or at minimum a very unappetizing association). It's the opposite of the "Sideways Effect" on Pinot Noir, where the obscure wine varietal in the US was catapulted to an almost overnight success in the wake of the movie. While it's likely you've developed a soft spot for the fickle grape that put the Santa Barbara wine region on the map, you may still be holding the fava at bay. But I would encourage you to give it a go this Spring. I don't like liver much myself and I assure you there are lots of other fabulous ways to delight in one of spring's most under-appreciated legume. 


The ancient fava is one of the oldest cultivated plants, believed to date back to 6000 BC. They were the only beans Europeans ate before they discovered America's plethora of legumes. However, they took our beans home and left us the fava, which never really caught on here. It's surprising because they're easy to grow, make excellent ground cover and help prevent erosion, and are delicious to eat with a buttery texture, slight bitterness and lovely, nutty flavor. Granted they do look a bit cartoonish at first sight--think bumpy string beans on steroids. [These are clearly the beans Jack used to grow his beanstalk.] 

And you do have to do some work to prepare them. Maybe we've become too lazy as a society to warm up to the fava. First they must be shelled, which isn't too bad because of their size. But then if they're not young, you must parboil them to remove the outer waxy shell around the bean. They really just slide off but it is an extra step. Since I can have lazy tendencies (which I call my "quest for efficiency") at times, I try to buy the young ones so I can avoid that whole boiling scene. But trust me; they're worth the extra effort. [I just recalled a childhood memory: I had to help my grandmother shell a bunch of peas and I would search out the largest ones which made for the easiest shelling, leaving her all the dregs. What an embarrassingly horrible thing to do to your granny! I bet she'd be a bit surprised to find me promoting any kind of bean shelling.]  If you're lucky, maybe you can find them already shelled fresh at a farmers market. If that is the case, snap some up immediately. And then head to your nearest convenience store and buy a lottery ticket. 


Fava Bean Puree


1 3/4 cup fava beans (double shelled, if necessary)

1 cup water

1 garlic clove, minched

2-3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil



Place the fava beans, water and garlic in a large skillet. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium. Simmer uncovered until beans are tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Drain favas, reserving cooking liquid. Transfer to food processor. Add olive oil and lemon juice and puree until smooth, adding a little reserved cooking liquid as needed. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a small bowl. 


Lazy Man's Directions

Since fava beans aren't always available or we don't always have the time/desire to go through the whole shelling drill, you can also "cheat" on this recipe and use a bag of fresh english peas. They don't have exactly the same flavor but it's still delicious. Just put the frozen peas in a microwave safe bowl with 1/4 cup of water and zap them in the microwave for 3 minutes. Then follow the recipe as noted above. 

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