Let’s be up front about it: Favas are a bit of work. But their rich and complex flavor is so delicious, they’re worth the effort it takes to shuck the floppy pods and then peel each bean.
Favas are nutty and slightly sweet, with just a hint of bitterness and a discernible and intriguing taste of cheese. Cooked until tender, they turn buttery and can be added to soups, salads, or pastas, braised as a side dish, puréed for a dip, or eaten plain out of hand as a delightful snack.
Technically, the fava isn’t a bean at all; it’s more closely related to peas. But this vegetable has been called a bean for hundreds of years, and the appellation continues to stick. Fresh favas are a spring favorite in England (where they’re called broad beans), and both fresh and dried favas are eaten throughout the Middle East. In North America, fresh favas are considered a specialty vegetable and can be hard to find, but they are well worth seeking out. Small to medium fava beans are more tender and sweeter than large beans, which are starchier.
Showcase favas’ flavor simply
Peeled favas (directions in “Getting to the heart of the matter” below) need to be cooked just until tender, anywhere from several to about 12 minutes, depending on size and freshness. Most fava recipes call for braising, starting by warming the favas in a little oil or butter and then adding liquid and cooking until tender. For soups, add peeled favas during the last quarter hour of cooking, so there’s time for them to get tender and for the flavors to meld. Or you can boil peeled favas in salted water until tender and store them in the refrigerator (for up to a week) to use cold in salads or to add to risottos and pastas near the end of cooking. In the sidebar at bottom right I’ve included some ways to use favas when you don’t have a lot. If you find yourself with 3 pounds or more in the shell, though, make the versatile and delicious Fava Bean Purée or try one of the suggestions in the panel “If you have lots of favas.”
Favas’ flavor is enhanced by onions, garlic, and their kin and by cured pork, olive oil, butter, cream, and cheeses. Good herb companions include rosemary, thyme, savory, chives, dill, and mint. Classic vegetable partners are those that are in season at the same time—artichokes, asparagus, peas, beets, new potatoes, spring onions, and fennel. Lemon and vinegar add zip.
Favas grow inside bright green, fleshy pods that have a thick, white, cottony lining. Each flat fava is encased in a pale, fairly thick skin, which becomes thicker and bitter as the favas grow larger. It’s this double shelling that gives favas the reputation of being labor-intensive.
Getting to the heart of the matter
If you have lots of favas…
- Make a classic Roman-style braise. Sauté pancetta (or bacon), garlic, and chopped herbs (rosemary, savory, or thyme) in olive oil, add the favas and stir, then add water (deglaze with a little white wine before adding the water if you like); cover and simmer just until tender.
- Toss together a savory bean salad. Boil favas, drain, and turn into a bowl. Toss gently with best-quality olive oil, sea salt, and grated lemon zest (use Meyer lemon if you have one) and let cool. Stir in chopped tender herbs like dill, chives, or chervil and serve at room temperature. If you don’t have quite enough favas, extend the dish with cooked chickpeas.
- Arrange an antipasto platter of boiled favas drizzled with a little olive oil, thin slices of salami or cured ham, interesting olives, some good cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano or a first-rate sheep’s milk cheese), pieces of preserved lemon, and slices of crusty, chewy bread.
- Create a cold side salad by tossing boiled favas with a sprightly dressing of plain Greek-style yogurt thinned with a little lemon juice and mixed with thinly sliced scallions and lots of chopped chives or dill.
If you have a handful of favas…
- Make a classic seasonal mixed vegetable braise with artichokes, onions, plenty of garlic (use new “green” garlic if you can), baby carrots, and peas or fennel. Use a combination of white wine and water or broth for the braising liquid and finish with chopped herbs.
- Put together a pretty salad plate. Pile boiled and peeled favas and tiny beets on a bed of endive, mâche, and beet greens dressed in red-wine vinaigrette. Add some toasted bread and a good goat cheese.
- Braise a flavorful primavera sauce for pasta using favas, asparagus, onion, garlic, mushrooms, a little cream, and lemon zest. Or skip the cream and use shrimp, bacon or pancetta, and a little hot pepper.
- Compose an elegant seafood salad. Start with a base of hearts of butter lettuce tossed in a lemon-shallot vinaigrette. Add thick slices of avocado, lumps of lobster or crab or shrimp, boiled favas, new potatoes, and a couple of baby beets or turnips. Spoon a bit more vinaigrette over the additions and serve with homemade saffron-scented aïoli for dipping.