The Green Plate: In Praise of the Fava Bean

ColumnFava beans are a seasonal superfood you should make time to enjoy.

People who don’t like to spend time in the kitchen tend to think that fava beans were surely invented by some sort of cooking sadist. I have a farmer friend who grows them and she won’t even prep them. Instead she puts a pile in the middle of the table and serves them as a “peel & eat” raw dish.

It’s true that you have to peel them twice and its also true that those big giant pods take up a lot of space for a distressingly small yield of actual beans, but I’m here to tell you the return is worth it.

They’re Tasty:

Otherwise, why bother? They have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor that is mild, yet pleasantly “beany.” Favas have a natural affinity for other spring vegetables like peas and asparagus and also pair well with mint, olive oil, and salty cheeses. Sauté them up as a side dish with a nice chop or roast chicken; add them to salads, risotto, or pasta; pureé cooked favas and make a bed for seared scallops or salmon; flavor fava puree with olive oil, lemon, garlic, and oregano and use as a dip for warm pita bread. You get the picture.

They’re Special:

They’re in season for only a short period during spring and they don’t get shipped from far away throughout the year, so enjoy them while you can.

They’re Ancient:

Consumed in ancient Rome, China, and the Middle East since antiquity, favas are one of the oldest domesticated crops. Often associated with death in ancient cultures, they were used in ancient Rome by Christians to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

Pods, Leaves, and Beans are all Edible:

Three cheers for no waste. These days you’ll see tender fava leaves in the farmer’s market all ready to take home and toss into a salad or sauté up like any other green. The pods that house the beans are tasty as a raw, crisp, green snack.

They’re Fertilizer:

Favas, like other legumes, are often planted as a cover crop to fix nitrogen into the soil. Farmers and gardeners call this type of cover crop “green manure.”

Favas have Highly Interesting Health Properties:

Like other beans, favas are a good source of protein and also contain concentrations of vitamins C, A, and B, as well as potassium. Fava beans have some other very appealing health properties that may improve your brain power, mood, and sex life. Their high concentrations of L-dopa (dopamine), an amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in the brain, may improve memory, energy, sense of well-being, and sex drive. L-dopa is also used as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, leading some experts to suggest that eating fava beans may alleviate the symptoms of the disease.

Favas are Just Dangerous Enough to Appeal to Extreme Eaters:

Favas come with their own rare syndrome called favism, which can make some people really sick. It’s a deficiency that sparks a severe form of anemia in sufferers that can even cause death.

The Low-Down on Shopping and Prepping Fava Beans:

Choose vibrant green pods that are smooth and not too large. Larger, more mature beans can be mealy and bitter. A little discoloration is normal. Shuck the beans from the pods and then boil them in salted water or steam them for about 30 – 60 seconds to loosen the opaque white sheath that covers them. Rinse them in cold water to cool and then gently pinch the bright green beans free of their protective skins. Sauté, or add to dishes as is. To serve as a purée, you may need to sauté or boil the beans until tender, especially larger, older beans.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: bhamsandwich via Flickr

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.