Fava Saga

Once upon a time, there was a small vegetable plot in the garden of a home in Oakland, California. During the winter of 2019, the bathroom of the home attached to the vegetable plot was remodeled and the vegetable plot lay fallow. But it was not too late to plant a late winter crop of fava beans, according to the architect who had designed the bathroom, who was a fava bean enthusiast. Fava beans were miraculous, she said. The leaves could be used to make pesto. The pods could be harvested early and stir-fried without having to husk the beans. Simply growing them in the garden would add nitrogen to the soil.

I was SOLD! In late January, I planted six hills of fava beans. In mid-March, after I had returned from what was possibly my very last trip on a plane and recovered from the flu I had that was probably not Covid, the plants had sprouted and had enough leaves to harvest for pesto.

Blending the leaves with olive oil, garlic, hard cheese, and walnuts in lieu of pine nuts, I made pesto and used it to make a pizza with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and kalamata olives. Tasty, but I missed the distinctive, pungent flavor basil brings to traditional pesto. I decided to leave the leaves, and let the bean pods develop. I managed to harvest a few immature pods to cook without husking. However, once the pods started coming in, they matured quite quickly. Perhaps because my crop was so late.

Before harvesting, I read up on how to prepare fava beans. The information was not encouraging. Chefs were enthusiastic about all the tasty dishes that could be made with them but cautioned that kitchen staff hate them because they are so laborious to prepare. But I couldn’t just let them rot on the vine… This is what the six beanstalks yielded.

Fava beans have both an outer pod and an inner membrane that surrounds the beans inside. When the beans are mature, both the outer pod and the inner membrane need to be removed for the beans to be palatable. Removing both is indeed laborious and involves shelling the beans and then blanching or heating in some other way to loosen the membranes. That’s why kitchen staff hate them. One chef suggested grilling the beans. Heat from the grill pops the pods, loosen the membranes and gives the beans a smoky flavor. So, that’s what I did. On the left–fava beans on the grill–on the right, grilled beans before shelling.

Even after grilling, shelling the beans and removing the membranes was a laborious process and yielded a pathetically small pile of cooked beans!

Just enough for a batch of hummus, made in the traditional way, with tahini, garlic, and lemon juice but with grilled fava beans in place of garbanzos. It was truly delicious, especially with the smoky flavor from the grill. But I will never have it again! That’s it for the fava saga!

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