Recently I wrote about a pasta-bean salad that included fava beans. Carol had told me that they had appeared in a local market, so I immediately went there to buy a pound for the salad. Fresh fava beans, along with green peas and asparagus, are among the joys of the spring garden. They also become a labor of love and of diminishing returns. Preparing them requires a couple of labor-intensive steps (at least in the USA and France). As well, a large pile of bean pods wind up as a handful of bright green beans.
Favas, also called broad beans, have been around for thousands of years. They have been an important part of the diets of many civilizations in the Middle East and around the perimeter of the Mediterranean. In Egypt they were considered to be a food of the common people. In other places, they have been elevated to the status of a delicacy, and of course they were included in the menu of Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s request for a final meal in the terrifying movie, “Silence of the Lambs.” The beans are versatile: they can be an alternative to chickpeas in hummus; they can be fried crispy and serve as a snack; they can be sauced with vinaigrette and stand alone; they can be eaten as any other bean. And they are delicious.
Fava beans also gave rise to the term, favism, a mysterious illness that puzzled medical people for many years. Victims who ate fava beans could develop anemia, jaundice, fever, pain, kidney failure, and even death. Careful research eventually demonstrated that the illness was due to substances, vicine and related compounds, in fava beans that caused the red blood cells of susceptible individuals to break down, releasing their contents including hemoglobin. This resulted in all of the serious effects. Susceptible individuals were found to have an inherited deficiency of an enzyme, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD), that is important in glucose metabolism and produces glutathione, a critical protectant against oxidation within red blood cells. Vicine is a potent oxidation agent, and similar substances in various foods and medications can cause the same illness. An irony is that the populations most commonly affected by the deficiency are those surrounding the Mediterranean – people who often use fava beans as an important part of their diet. The nature of the genetics is that men are much more likely than women to be affected.
When you prepare fava beans, you need to be ready for a lot of effort. In the USA, there are 3 steps and a pound of raw bean pods will yield only about a half cup of brilliant green, flavorful beans. You need to decide whether or not they are worth the effort. Removing the inner shell is a step that is often skipped, especially if the beans are young and tender. Also, the inner shell adds to the crispiness if you decide to fry the beans for a snack.
Step 1: Shell the beans. This is easy and uses the same method that one employs for shelling green peas or black-eyed peas or Crowder peas. Select pods that are full. The beans in younger pods may be more tender and may obviate the need for Step 2. If you have a lot of beans to prepare, this is a perfect place for the old East Texas approach of several folks sitting on the porch in rocking chairs, gossiping while they pop the beans into bowls in their laps.
Step 2: Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Plunge the shelled beans into the boiling water, working in batches if necessary. Return to the boil for 1 minute. Then transfer the beans rapidly to a generously sized and well-iced bowl of ice water. When the beans have cooled, transfer them to a bowl.
Step 3: Using your fingers or the sharp tip of a paring knife, open the thick shell of the bean and pop out the bright green inner bean. Repeat the process until all of the beans have been harvested. Use the beans in whatever recipe appeals to you. In general, the simpler the preparation the better the result because the flavor of the bean stands out.