Fava beans are a centuries-old, archetypal “fast food” that used to be eaten in the fields, sustaining men and women working up to twelve hours in rugged conditions, keeping them going until the long-awaited evening supper. In recent years, this dormant habit from bygone eras has been revived in the finest Parisian and New York restaurants. But whether cacio e fave are served up in nouvelle cuisine or enjoyed around the kitchen table with friends—this is a marriage that everyone approves.
During the so-called Italian “boom” period—the industrial explosion of the 1960s and the decades that followed—fave and other staples of the Italian diet, such as lentils, beans, polenta and whole wheat, all but disappeared from the table. Throughout provincial Italy, there was a kind of tacit agreement to reject food that was associated with war times or the food of the rural classes. But, thanks to progressive movements in Italian gastronomy that have worked to re-educate Italian consumers and encourage healthy, ecological food production and eating habits, there has been a comeback in recent years of many wholesome, natural foods. Fava beans, which have extraordinary nutritional qualities, are just one of many foods that have been rediscovered and adapted to contemporary Italian life.
History of Fava Beans
These green legumes were most likely first grown in Neolithic times, about 6000 years ago, probably in Persia and Egypt; traces of fava beans have been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. Over the centuries, these beans—along with other legumes such as chickpeas and lentils—became a major part of the Mediterranean diet. Today, fava beans, which flourish in warm weather, are consumed in most of the world’s temperate regions. In Italy, they are grown mostly in the central southern regions, where they are still planted and picked by hand. The seeds are planted in November, and the early harvest starts at the end of March or beginning of April.
Like all other beans and legumes, fava beans (also referred to as “broad beans”) have a very high content of what nutritionists call “perfect proteins”—meaning they are loaded with amino acids; they are also rich in fibers and vitamins A, B, C, K, E, PP and mineral salts. The beans grow inside a pod, which must be shelled in order to eat. The smaller, younger beans can be eaten as is—just shuck them from the pod and pop them into your mouth. Since young fave are more tender and sweet, they are preferable for eating raw. Before eating or cooking the more mature beans, the skin around each bean will need to be removed.
Fave can be consumed either fresh or dried. If dried, they must be rehydrated by soaking in water for several hours. Eaten fresh—with a good pecorino, some fresh bread and a glass of red wine—the pods should make a nice, crisp snap when you open them. When you buy fresh fava beans, look for pods with an overall light green color. In Italy, fave are appreciated in soups and salads, or in frittatas or fried as an appetizer—and they are the main ingredient in many delicious pasta recipes (see below).
Preparing and Cooking with Fava Beans
Fresh fava beans are like fresh spinach…once prepared, a lot turns into a little. A good estimate for recipes is 1 pound of unshelled beans equals to about 1 cup of shelled beans. This depends, of course, on size.
To shell the beans, bend the tip of the pod and pull down the seam of the pod and unzip the entire pod to reveal the beans inside. Discard the fuzzy outer pod. But you’re not done. Now take the shelled beans and drop them in boiling salted water for 30 seconds to loosen the outer skin. Remove and place into ice water, and peel off the beans’ thick waxy outer covering. Now they are ready to use in recipes. The two step shucking process makes any recipe with fava a labor of love, even a simple salad.