A few weeks ago I posted a photo of the week of some seasonal roman cauliflower and later some super fresh artichokes from the local market that – somewhat unintentionally – transformed into mini cooking adventures. It turns out that while I am by no means a “chef,” I can read a recipe and improvise reasonably well in the kitchen (who knew?). It also turns out that doing so is quite rewarding. More than that…it’s empowering! I used to avoid the fresh artichokes in my grocery store. I looked at them as foreign, unknown, and as a potential threat to my cooking confidence. I fear them no longer. As soon as I noticed this amazing transformation, I started to look around my grocery store and see veggies I had never tried before just waiting to be cooked, eaten, and conquered. So I made a deal with myself. I decided that I would try to always buy what is in season, find out the best way to eat it, and well…eat it. If I am feeling frisky I may even try a recipe of my own, but let’s not get too crazy. For a full list of what vegetables are in season when see this site. For my own simplified list of what is in season in Italy, scroll to the bottom of this blog. OK. Onto the first veggie victim.
This month I tackle: The Fava Bean.
First, if I may: a mini-vent. What is it with seasonal veggies and their apparent dislike of being confined to plastic bags?! The fava are as bad as the artichokes! They have destroyed a disproportionate number of plastic bags. None of the other people buying them seemed to mind. This can only mean one thing, either: 1. They are just that good, or 2. I’ve got a real troublemaker on my hands.
For those of you not familiar with the fava or faba bean, also known as the broad bean, it is a springtime veggie. They were one of the main foods in the ancient Mediterranean Civilizations of the Greeks and Romans and were an important source of protein in the Middle Ages. Basically, imagine your average green bean on ‘roids. However, unlike green beans, they are not eaten bean and pod together. They are harvested while they are still young so the pods are still rather thick and tough (and not so yummy). What we’re after are the beans.
Left: using a knife to open the pods; Right: The beans in their pod
The best bet to get the pod open cleanly is slicing up its seam with a sharp knife and exposing the beans all at once. You will see that each pod contains anywhere from 4-8 beans neatly cocooned in an unexpectedly soft mossy bed. If you’re not comfortable with a knife, I have had good success with just using my finger and ripping the pod into bits (like I said, not a chef). However you get it done, pop those beans out and put them aside. You’ll need to go through a lot of pods to get the number of beans to a respectable quantity.
Left: The fava beans once they have been removed from the pods; Right: The beans after being boiled and blanched
The next tricky part (who said eating was easy?) is dealing with the “skin” around the beans themselves. Generally speaking, you don’t eat this part of the bean. Should your fava be extra fresh or should you be a proud southern Italian, you can go ahead and eat them raw with a nice young pecorino to cut the bitterness. Otherwise, parboiling and blanching will be required. Each technique results in a very different but equally delicious final product.
For those that would rather cook the beans, take your bounty-o-beans and throw them in salted boiling water for 3-5 minutes and then toss them directly into ice water. This will help loosen the skin and prepare for the second labor-intensive part of the meal: de-skin-ing. It sounds harder than it is. Just pinch those little buggers (see photo below) and the two-part inner bean will pop out. Continue until you’ve got enough for a side dish (4lbs of pods should yield about 2 cups of beans). Then comes the “cooking.” Don’t worry. I always pick the simple recipes.
Take the beans and add:
- olive oil
- cubed or shaved pecorino cheese
- fresh lemon juice or zest (optional)
Left: Pinching the beans to remove the outer skin; Right: the final result, happiness in a bowl
Full disclosure: I only learned to make this a week ago and I have now made something incorporating fava beans three more times. That is how good they are. The above recipe – an Italian classic – is so easy and yet delicious, salty, savory, and healthy (ahem, depending on how much pecorino you throw in there.) Throw these beans into a salad, on pasta, add salami, or just snack on them alone. They, like artichokes, are well worth the effort.
What is in Season in Italy:
Spring: Fava beans, Carciofi (artichokes), Ciccoria (chickory), Asparagi (asparagus), Rucola (rocket or arugula)
Summer: Zuccini and Fiori di Zucca (zucchini flowers), Melanzane (eggplant), Peperoni (bell peppers)
Fall: Barbabietola (beets), Cavolfiore (cauliflower), Porri (leeks), Castagne (chestnuts)
Winter: Cavolo Nero (cabbage), Finocchio (fennel), Cavolini di Bruxelles (brussel sprouts), Cavolo Riccio (kale), Radicchio Rosso (red chicory)
*Note: some of these fall into multiple seasons