Favas are a fleeting spring vegetable – like ramps and sorrel and morels – that show up at the market and quickly disappear. Like Kim O’Donnell’s artichoke confessional, I too, have something to admit about a spring veggie: I only cook fresh fava beans once a year, because the process of shelling them and removing their outer coats is such a tedious, mind-numbing process – usually one that I forget about until I’m knee-deep in carpal tunnel-inducing peeling. (But read on for some amazing tips on how to avoid serious fava-generated orthopedic damage!)
Fava beans – known in much of the world as ‘broad beans’ – are one of the oldest domesticated crops. Recent archaeological finds put possible domestication of favas around the 10th millennium BCE (probably around 9,000 BCE) on the border of what is now Syria and Turkey. Cultivation of the bean quickly spread to the rest of the Mediterranean and Europe; food historian Alan Davidson notes in The Oxford Companion to Food that by 3,000 BCE, cultivation of favas had spread to China. Somewhere along the line, fava beans became associated with the dead. Davidson notes that the ancient Egyptians, though they grew favas, “regarded them as unclean” (Egyptian priests couldn’t even look at one). Pellegrino Artusi, in his book The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well (published in the 19th century – I have the 1975 Elisabeth Abbott translation), says of Egyptian bean-eating, “[i]t was thought that the souls of the dead were enclosed in them and that they resembled the gates of hell.” The notion of beans containing the souls of the dead continued with the Romans; Davidson delicately explains that the association may have something to do with the fact that beans cause “wind” (aka flatulence) and that the Greek word anemos means “wind” and “soul.” Whatever the reason, fava beans, and beans in general, were (and still are) common funerary food in several cultures.
Also: it should be noted that any historical mention of “beans” prior to 1492 always referred to favas, because the common bean (in the Phaseolus genus, for you plant nerds) is native to the Americas and was unknown in the Old World prior to Columbus’s voyage.
Fava beans (Vicia faba) are in the legume family (Fabaceae), along with other New World bean varietals and peas. Fava plants grow upright on large stalks and do not climb, unlike most other beans, which tend to have a vining habit. They are grown in temperate climates throughout the world, but China, Ethiopia, Egypt and France lead worldwide production. A subspecies of fava, Vicia faba var. equina (“horse bean”) is grown primarily for animal fodder. Favas are also grown as cover crops, because they are cold hardy and, as a legume, fix nitrogen in the soil.
Fava beans are a cool weather crop, commonly found at the market in late spring through early summer. Some places may have a fall fava crop, as well.
Favas are relatively uncommon and highly seasonal in the US. They do not appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, and I could find no evidence of the bean being monocropped here in the US, although there are a couple of very large growers, like Earthbound Farms (the largest organic growers in the US) and Ocean Mist Farms (the largest growers of artichokes in the US), both of which cultivate them in drought-plagued central California. They are susceptible to a couple of different pests and diseases, including black aphids, so check with your local fava farmer about his/her growing practices and pesticide use. (*And check out our veggie rule of thumb.)
Fava bean pods are usually large (typically 6-12 inches long), green and leathery. The beans themselves are generally large (like an overgrown lima bean) and light green, with a lighter-colored outer “shell” or coating that can become very tough as the beans mature. (Other colors of fava beans exist, including purple varietals.) Dried favas are also common in many cultures and can be tan colored, dark brown, white or purple.
I frequently only see large pods (which will contain fairly large beans) at the market, but if you can get your hands on small pods (with small beans), grab them! When fresh favas are very young, they can be eaten whole – pod and all. Small fava beans also do not need their outer coat peeled (see Pro Tips, below) and can even be eaten raw.
Look for bright green, firm, plump pods with minimal blemishes (although some spotting on the pods are fine). Run your hand down the pod to feel the beans and pass on any pods with no beans. Smaller beans are sweeter, less starchy and take less time to cook. Avoid pods that are dried out, mushy or yellowing.
Like most beans, favas are packed with protein – one cup provides you with over 25 percent of your daily protein needs. The beans are also excellent sources of folate, important for the formation of red blood cells and super important for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, because it helps in the prevention of neural tube defects in the fetus. Favas have a lot of minerals, too – they’re good sources of manganese, copper, zinc, prosperous and potassium, and are even good sources of iron and calcium.
Did you ever see the movie Awakenings, with Robin Williams and Robert De Nero? It’s a true story, based on a book by neurologist Oliver Sacks, about helping patients temporarily recover (“awaken,” if you will) from an outbreak of encephalitis using the drug L-dopa. What does this have to do with favas, you ask? It turns out that fava beans are a very good source of L-dopa. In some cases (depending on things like growing conditions and variety) only three ounces of favas has as much L-dopa as an actual pharmaceutical drug. (L-dopa is a precursor for dopamine and adrenaline – you can read all about it here. Also, if you’ve never read anything by Oliver Sacks – do it!)
But that’s not all! Fava beans are the cause of a potentially deadly genetic disease called favism, which is a dangerous type of anemia caused by eating fava beans, or even by exposure to fava flower pollen. In susceptible individuals (who are generally from the Mediterranean and the Middle East), naturally occurring chemicals in favas are converted to red blood cell-damaging compounds. Like sickle-cell anemia, it is now understood that a milder form of the disease probably provides some immunity against malaria, once endemic to the Mediterranean.
What can’t you do with favas? Teeny, tiny fresh fava beans (i.e., the size of your pinky fingernail), if you can find them, can be eaten raw. Tiny fava pods are also edible (larger pods are generally far too tough to eat). Larger fresh fava beans can be pureed, boiled, sautéed, grilled and roasted (see Pro Tips, below for a recipe!) and are a staple in many culture’s cuisines – especially Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Chinese cooking. Dried favas are a great source of protein and are also an important staple food across the globe.
Fresh favas have a fresh, nutty taste that pairs well with bold flavors like mint, basil, onions, garlic and chiles. Favas are also excellent in dishes with their springtime friends morels, spring onions, peas and asparagus. Salty cheese (think pecorino, parmesan, feta or goat cheese) and favas are naturals together – check out the recipe below and this one for savory fava cannoli with sheep’s milk ricotta or this fava and pecorino salad. They also taste delightful with pork – like pancetta, Serrano ham, chorizo or prosciutto (but, really, what doesn’t taste delightful with prosciutto?). Sautée blanched fresh favas with onion or garlic as a side; toss in with pasta; or make a spring-y risotto with favas and asparagus. Favas are an important part of Sichuan Chinese cuisine, forming the base of a Sichuan chile bean paste called doubanjiang (here’s a fun review of premade Sichuan chile bean pastes on the market). Fresh favas can also be stir-fried.
Dried favas are eaten all over the world. Many countries have a dish similar to the famous Egyptian dish ful medames – stewed dried favas with parsley, lemon juice, onions and garlic. In addition, Egyptian falafel is classically made with dried fava beans instead of chickpeas. In China, the Middle East and elsewhere, dried favas are fried and tossed with salt as a crunchy snack. Mexican cuisine also employs dried favas – like in this dried fava bean soup.
Here’s a great fava recipe rundown (for both dried and fresh favas) from Saveur magazine.
Finally, favas’ connection to the dead is still represented in bean-shaped cookies called Fave dei Morti (Fava Beans of the Dead), usually baked for All Soul’s Day in Italy.
Here’s a great video (complete with jazzy soundtrack) that shows you how to prep favas the traditional way – by blanching and peeling. And here is an amazing tip that has you briefly freeze your favas – the freezing process makes the second skin super easy to peel. Or, you can roast them – as this mind-blowing article explains, roasting the beans in their pods makes that tough outer coating edible, eliminating the need for the blanch-and-peel that is so. Very. Time. Consuming. Or, you just suck it up, or even better; enlist the help of whomever you’re cooking for.
Eat your fresh favas as soon as possible. If you need to store them, keep them in a paper or open zip-top bag in your refrigerator for no more than 3-4 days.
Fava and Pecorino Crostini with Mint and Pea Shoots
This is the recipe that I make every year when I first see favas at the market. (That is, it’s my one and only fava dish of the year – though this year I’m inspired to roast some!) Fava beans, Pecorino-Romano cheese, and mint – a classic combination that’s just sooo delicious on toasty, garlicy bread. Top it with a handful of pea shoots, and you’ve just produced a crostini that screams “Spring.” Even the color is Spring-y – the fava beans and Pecorino become a beautiful spring green in the food processor. (Originally published on Brooklyn Farmhouse.)
For the fava bean puree:
1 pound fava beans in their pods
4 ounces Pecorino-Romano cheese, coarsely grated
5-6 large mint leaves, torn
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
For the toast:
6 slices artisanal bread (I used multigrain, but ciabatta would be nice), sliced on the bias
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, cut in half
1/4 cup pea shoots
10-15 small mint leaves
Special Equipment: Food processor
For the fava bean puree:
For the toast:
Top each slice of toast with a generous smear of fava puree. Top with a mixture of pea shoots and fresh mint leaves.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)