How to Cook Fresh Fava Beans

Fresh fava beans are such a treat, and are totally representative of springtime.  They can, however, be a little intimidating. How do you turn a gnarly looking pod into a succulent, nutty, tender, bright green little bean?  It is a time-consuming process, but worth every minute.  Plus, spending all that time peeling beans makes them taste really good when you finally get around to being able to use them.  My dad and I embarked on our first fava bean adventure last summer, and I've been excited for this year's fava season ever since.  When I saw some at the co-op the other day, I couldn't resist putting them in my basket.  So, I cooked them up and made a delicious Italian-inspired dish that I"ll be sharing very soon.  Before posting the recipe, I decided I wanted to demystify the fava bean for any of you who haven't yet prepared them fresh, so here's a little guide.

About the beans

Fava beans, also known as broad beans, are native to north Africa and southwest Asia, and are one of the most ancient cultivated plants.  According the ever-useful Wikipedia, it is believed that fava beans, along with lentilspeas, and chickpeas, became part of the eastern Mediterranean diet in around 6000 BC or earlier.  Beans can be eaten young and fresh or allowed to grow to maturity and used as dry beans.  Both fresh and dry favas are used through the Middle East, Mediterranean, and northern Africa in a variety of dishes, as well as China and Latin America.  In addition to being tasty, fava beans have great historical cultural significance, playing an important role in various festivals, traditions, and even being used as currency. 

Fava beans are extremely nutritious, and are high in fiber in iron.  They are more starchy than other beans, however, and therefore are higher in carbs and calories.  They also have a couple of very strange quirks. If you have the rare hereditary condition hereditary condition glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD), the high levels of certain naturally occurring chemical substances in the raw fava bean can cause hemolytic anemia, a potentially fatal condition (this seems to be eliminated if cooked). It is called "favism", after the bean. Crazy, right?  Apparently, eating too many fava beans can also be harmful if you are taking MAO-inhibitor, due to the high level of naturally occuring tyramine.

Fresh fava beans are available in spring and summer, and can be found at natural food markets, well-stocked grocery stores, and farmers' markets.  You can generally find them all year long at Middle Easter food markets.

Buy the beans

Fresh fava beans are purchased in the pod.  Pods should be bright green, smooth, and plump.  Wondering how many pods to buy? Each pound of bean pods yields roughly 1/2 cup of shelled, peeled beans.   Figure out how many cups of shelled, peeled beans you need for your recipe, and do the math!

Prepare the beans

Fresh fava beans have three parts - a tough, green outer pod, a light greenish-white skin, and the little inner green bean. You cannot eat the pod. You can eat the skin and, of course, the little inner bean. The skin is slightly tough, and depending on how you are using them you may want to peel or not.  I prefer them peeled, so the tender little inner green bean can really shine through.  But again, as long as you cook the bean, you can eat them with the skin on or not, up to you.

Step 1: Shell

Rinse pods under cool water.  Break off the tip of the bean at the stem end, then peel the string down the length of the pod.  You can then peel the pod open easily, and remove the beans from the pod. Put the beans in a bowl, and discard the pods.

Step 2: Blanch

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Blanch the shelled beans in boiling water, until the first beans start the rise to the surface, about 2-3 minutes.  Pull out a large bean, and peel back the skin; the bean inside should be bright green and tender.  When done, drain, and transfer immediately to a bowl of cold water.  Let sit a few minutes to cool; this will make peeling the skin much easier!  If you are leaving them unpeeled, go ahead and use as is.  If you want them peeled, continue on...

Step 3: Peel

To peel the skin off the bean, pinch the skin to loosen, or use a small knife to cut a slit (my preferred method).  Pinch it, and your lovely green fava bean will slip out from the white skin. Fun!  Discard the skin, save the bean.  Keep peeling. Keep peeling. Keep peeling. Patience is a virtue, remember that...

Step 4: Use

Hooray! Your beans are now ready to use!  Add them to soups, stews, braises, casseroles, salads or whatever else you'd like.  

If you peel them and realize that - uh-oh! - your beans are not fully tender after all, and you will be adding them to a dish that doesn't require additional cooking (like a salad), you can cook them briefly in a pot of boiling water.  Bring a pot of water to boil once again, and cook the shelled, peeled beans for about 2-4 minutes, until bright green and tender.  Drain beans and cool.  If you want to cool them quickly, you can place in a large bowl of cold water.  

Feeling inspired?

Very soon I'll be posting a really awesome Italian-inspired recipe I made for Fave Fresche, Finocchi e Piselli Brasate al "Latte" (Fresh Fava Beans, Fennel, and Peas Braised in "Milk"). Seriously yummy. In the meantime, here's a few tasty recipes that use fava beans to really get your mouth watering: