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FAVA BEANS

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.

 

 

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PAPPARDELLE WITH FAVA BEANS AND PROSCIUTTO

This past week I discovered a new vendor at the farmers market, a young man with a big basket of fava beans. I bought what I thought was a huge bag, forgetting that fava beans are one of those joys of fresh vegetables that is associated with a lot of effort and a very small return except in flavor. I shelled what looked like a quarter bushel of favas,  blanched the beans, took off the rubbery outer layer, and wound up with a cup of bright green beans. It’s no wonder that many cooks consider them either the equivalent of gold or not worth the effort.

Fava beans are one of the few (only?) Old World beans, and they have been grown for centuries in the Mediterranean basin. It seems a quirk of geography and genetics, then, that some individuals of Mediterranean extraction, most commonly, may harbor a deficiency of an enzyme, glucose-6-phosphate-dehydrogenase (G6PD for short) that makes them susceptible to substances found in fava beans. If an individual is sensitive, he – more common than she – may experience a sudden illness with rapid breakdown of red blood cells, and even kidney failure and death unless it is recognized and rapidly treated. The illness is well-known and has been called favism to show the link with fava beans. Fortunately, the vast majority of individuals can eat fava beans without worry.

I had thought that favas and prosciutto would go well with lightly sautéed bucatini pasta, but alas there was none to be found in any of the local stores. At that point I turned to my copy of Encyclopedia of Pasta, written in Italian by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated by Maureen B. Fant (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009). If you haven’t seen that little volume, you should check it out. It describes nearly every pasta shape you can imagine, tells how each pasta is made, and suggests how to use each one.

With all of the sensory overload of that beautiful book, I remained undecided until I remembered some wonderful pasta that I had purchased at our village market. I found it in the pantry, four-foot lengths of pappardelle folded in half and dried for “easy storage”. The manufacturer, Maestri Pastai,  makes all kinds of unusual types and sizes of pasta. That’s great if you have a hard time finding exactly what you are looking for and don’t have the time or skill to make it yourself. Check out their website.

The rest of the ingredients for this dish were easy to find. I had a spare package of prosciutto in the refrigerator, and that seemed like the perfect foil for the favas. The scallions came from the market, the mint from the back yard, and there is always a chunk of Parmesan in the refrigerator.

RECIPE

Pappardelle with Fava Beans and Prosciutto

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds fresh fava beans
  • 5 ounces dried pappardelle
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 scallions cleaned and cut into ½ inch slices, white and green ends
  • 3 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced and cut or torn into bite-sized pieces
  • 25 fresh mint leaves cut finely into chiffonade
  • 2 ounces fresh Parmesan, grated
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Shell the fava beans by breaking off one end and opening the pod along the seam. Collect the beans in a small bowl
  2. Plunge the shelled beans into two quarts of vigorously boiling salted water. Return to the boil for one minute – no more – and then drain the beans and transfer to a large bowl filled with ice water.
  3. When the beans have cooled, remove the outer skin with your fingers, being careful not to mash the beans. Collect the bright green inner beans in a small bowl and set aside.
  4. In a large pot, bring three quarts of salted water to the boil. Add the dried pappardelle and stir occasionally until the pasta is cooked, al dente, about 12 minutes, longer if you live at high altitude. Drain the pasta but do not rinse.Return to the pot along with the butter and olive oil. over medium heat. Add the scallions. Stir occasionally until the butter is completely melted and slightly colored. The pasta should have absorbed the oil and butter and sautéed lightly, but not browned.
  5. Stir in the fava beans and prosciutto until they are warmed through – 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in the mint leaves.  Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Top with grated Parmesan,  and serve immediately.

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