Probably every one of us has triggers that signal the arrival of Spring. It may be the sight of wildflowers in meadows; daffodils alongside the road; blossoms in trees; abundance of bird song in the mornings; on farms, the birthing of calves and lambs; it’s something very personal that makes sigh inwardly with satisfaction and relief, “Ahh! Spring is REALLY here now.”
For me, it’s the appearance of fava beans in the farmers’ markets. It’s got to be my all-time favorite bean – unfortunately for me, the only one I’ve ever had fresh off the vine. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s why I like them so much; they have the satisfying depth of legumes with the sweet freshness of Spring.
I always buy a ridiculously large bag when I see them; the darned pods are so huge, but by the time you get the beans out of the pods, then get the husk off the beans, that huge bag is reduced to a mere cup of edible beans. Actually, you could eat the beans with the husk on; I had them that way when I visited my relatives in Italy. In the heart of Genoa, in a multi-level condominium crawling up a hillside, my Aunt had fave growing in a tiny terraced garden right outside her door. She served the beans scattered on a plate with thin slices of fresh, sweet salami that she had made herself. It was ultra simple, and incredibly delicious. I don’t think we have anything comparable here, but that was the initiation of my love affair with the bean.
When you’re shopping, be sure to look for pods that have a shine to them, feel firm, and are not yellowed on the ends; they should have a nice fresh, green scent too, and no black spots or wrinkles (another indication of age). Feel the pods; see how many beans are inside: is the pod full, with well-formed beans, or is it mostly cellulose with a few tiny beans inside? Some people say the small beans are sweeter, but I like them all, and feel I don’t have to buy quite so many pods if they are full.
When you get them home, they can keep in the refrigerator for a week or so in the pods, but will go quickly once they’re shelled. They’re going to take some time to prepare, so you might as well make an event of it. Think of it as the women of yore used to do, rocking on the front porch on a spring evening, shelling peas and beans from their pods, relaxing with their work. There are a couple ways to shell them. You can pull the strings down the sides of the pods, run your finger or thumb along the sides and split them open, then scrape the beans out. Or, you can just feel where each bean is, slit the side by the bean and squeeze it out. Now you’re ready to blanch the beans in boiling salted water for 30 to 60 seconds, depending on how crisp you like them and what you’re going to do with them. If you’re going to cook them further, you’ll want them a bit al dente so you retain that bright, spring green color. Then you need to remove the husk: you can slit the side with a little knife and squeeze them out, or I use my thumbnail and pinch a tiny bit of the husk off the top, then squeeze the inner bean out. Find your own rhythm and they’ll go fairly quickly.
So what do you do with them after all that work? You can simply drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil, a tiny squeeze of lemon juice, freshly grated Parmesan, salt and pepper and dig in. My personal favorite is braised with some red onion slices and prosciutto, and topped with Parmesan. In Coho restaurant, you might find them blended with white beans and pureed with roasted onions, used on crostini or as a bed under grilled lamb. Tonight they make their appearance with pea vines and asparagus over fresh house-made fettuccini, with a saffron cream sauce and topped with island-made goat cheese – the essence of Spring. Hmmm, guess where I’m eating tonight!