I bought my first fava beans on the Danforth, years back when Fruit King still stood on the corner at Logan. They were big beans. You couldn’t really miss them when perusing the usual green grocer contenders, be it potatoes, carrots or spinach. But in this basket was a stranger. Unlike their skinny cousin, the humdrum green bean, fava beans were bulging, army-green giants with shiny, leathery skins and brown, pointy tips.
Eternally curious when it comes to fresh produce, I stood staring, incredulous at these five-inch-long, soft and spongy beans until I took a sharp elbow in my side from an elderly Italian woman dressed in black, head to toe.
No, it wasn’t an elbow, it was the corner of her shopping basket that she was in the process of shoving between herself and me as she stretched out one determined little hand towards the pile, ferreting out the greenest, plumpest ones.
“What are these?” I asked and she spat out “fava” like it was a revolting, dirty word. Then she stopped for an instant, looked up from her clutch of beans and examined my ignoramus face just long enough for me to instantly understand the meaning of “evil eye”.
I decided to move towards the spinach and declined fava that day.
Fast-forward to now. My fridge is full of Ziploc bags stuffed with freshly picked fava beans from my Cowichan Valley garden. These aren’t any, run-of-the-mill fava beans, these are organic beans from bean grower Sal Dominelli on Gabriola Island. He’s dubbed this fava variety “Exhibition Longpod Fava” and instructions on the seed packet called for sowing in “early spring”.
Owing to the carpet of snowbells under the magnolia and the clutch of daffodils ready to pop in our courtyard, I figured the cold wet soil of mid-February was ready to receive these seeds (dried, brown fava beans). Amid the fog and incessant rain, I tucked them one-by-one into the soil telling myself the heavy layer of wet, chestnut leaf mulch would keep them warm enough to germinate.
Two months later, the bean stalks were already 18 inches high and needed stakes. In March, they had white flowers with big black eyes.
In June, long, fat beans were growing up towards the sky. The phallic nature of my crop almost had me blushing. A hiking friend and fellow farmer sagely shared “they’re ready to pick when they drop down.”
Meanwhile, back in Toronto, my favourite wannabe-Italian, Randy of Scottish origin, had already tucked into fresh fava flown in from Italy that he’d purchased on the Danforth. Toronto was experiencing its usual lack of spring with a heat wave in late May.
“All day long, I can do this!” Randy enthused, sitting outside on his new deck, his mouth full of Pecorino cheese and freshly shucked fava, savoured with a “young Chianti, slightly chilled”.
My hiking friend shook her head and sighed when I told her of this flavour pairing.
“Anything tastes good with wine and pecorino,” she scoffed.
Randy, I explained, was a dedicated fava aficionado. Who else but this mangiacake would de-robe the fava, not once, but twice, before he ate it?
My fellow fava farmer wasn’t listening to any of this gibberish, knowing full well the work and time invested in simply growing these beans. Shucking fava from the pod was an add-on compared to the ease of bean brethren like snap or pole, who are ready to cook right off the vine.
Once shucked, the spongy fava casing reveals a loveable row of five to six, light-green-tinged beans each sweetly indented. I shucked out bowl after satisfying bowl full of beans and carted away bags full of fava shell refuse for the compost.
Scientist that I am, I measured my harvest. Ten cups! Was I up for Randy’s second peel out?
I gave a couple of beans a good try only to discover that the tight skin encasing each bean needed a small knife or long fingernail to remove it. Even still, I was nicking and separating the inner goodies. The process per bean, took the same amount of time as it did to simply shuck one pod and see five to six beans drop out.
It was, in the wise words of my engineer father, “A statistical nightmare!”
Unless you are Randy who awaits fava season with bated breath, ready to shuck all pods then tenderly hand-peel, each and every individual bean that comes his way. Last time we spoke, he cautioned me against over-cooking, too, suggesting that no fresh fava bean should be sautéed for more than a minute.
No wonder I reached for a glass of chianti when pondering culinary creations for the multitude of green orbs lingering in my fridge. I crowded Arborio rice with the, um, little buggers to create a risotto failure that even my carb-loving husband declined. I made a luscious Mexican black bean soup and finished it with a scattering of fava, cooked only a minute or two (following you-know-who’s recommendation). The fava beans bobbed in the soup like buoys and I watched my guests politely skim their soup spoons around them.
Finally, I had a fava epiphany, based on the cooking laws of terroir and desperation. My garden was spilling over with not just fava but an heirloom, purple streaked pole bean called Dragon Tongues. Wouldn’t they be perfect with the fresh pattypan squash I had pounced on at the Duncan farmers’ market that day? The cooking gods and I collaborated on a very fusion, very vegan dish that can be served hot over rice like a curry. Or it can be served French haute at room temperature, just like a Provencal ratatouille, tucked inside a lettuce leaf and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. C’est ca.
No matter what you do, be sure to serve with wine. While Randy’s go-to is Chianti, he also recommends two crisp Italian whites: Vermentino di Sardegna or Falanghina.
And if your larder isn’t plum-full of fava and dragon tongue pole beans, substitute fava with lima beans, and try yellow wax string beans instead of the heirloom variety. Raise a glass to Randy and remember that 2016 was the International Year of the Pulses.
Herd Garden Bean Curry
If you are obsessed enough, consider pulling out the just-cooked fava beans and squeezing each one out of its jacket, returning the deep green fava hearts to your curry. (Use my name in vain if you burn your fingers.) Like most curries, this will taste best the day after you cook it. Leftovers freeze well.
2 tbsp organic canola or sunflower oil
½ large sweet onion, chopped
2 garlic, chopped
1 garlic scape, finely chopped *optional
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 tbsp finely chopped or grated fresh turmeric OR 1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander powder
1 cup tomato puree or passata (I like Mutti brand)
2 cups water
1 Poblano chile, membrane and seeds removed, thinly sliced
4 cups Dragon Tongue beans (topped, tailed and sliced in half. Julienne if really thick)
½ yellow bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces
½ orange bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces
2 cups fava beans
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp hot smoked paprika (I like La Chinata)
Fresh sage, sliced
Toasted pumpkin seeds
Heat oil in a large pot add onions, garlic, garlic scape, ginger and turmeric and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add cumin seeds and coriander powder and cook another minute. Add passata and water and bring to a boil. Add poblano chili strips, Dragon Tongue (or wax beans) and bell peppers. Cook, simmering uncovered for 5 minutes. Add fava beans and cook until tender. Season with salt and paprika. Serve hot or at room temperature garnished with sage and toasted pumpkin seeds.