When people ask what’s the best time to come to Tuscany, I usually answer: In the fall. That’s when the weather is glorious, warm days, cool nights, lots of golden sunshine, markets filled with autumn produce, new wine bubbling in its casks, woods filled with wild mushroom foragers and truffle hunters, and olive farmers spreading orange nets under trees, getting ready for the upcoming harvest.
But I’m beginning to change my advice. Spring in Tuscany this year has been fully as wonderful as any autumn I can remember. Watching the hillsides slowly green up as the trees–beech, chestnuts, oaks, poplars–come into leaf, one after the other, and join the evergreen cypresses and olives—is just as dramatic in its way and a whole lot more satisfying than witnessing autumn leaf-fall knowing that the onset of cold weather is around the corner. This year we’ve reveled in the sequence of harvests, beginning with late-winter artichokes, unrolling through asparagus, then wild asparagus, fava beans, agretti (aka barba di frate–I will say more about this later on), sweet peas, and now at last strawberries.
Fava beans are far and away my favorite, as they are of most Italians. Raw fave are a Tuscan treasure, consumed with special gusto, the beans in their thick green pods piled in the center of the table, accompanied by pale, creamy wedges of fresh young pecorino cheese and a spritzy, mineraly white wine. They call this cacio e bacelli, which simply means cheese with fave. The salty, slightly sour, milky cheese makes a perfect foil for the earthy flavors of raw green beans. My daughter features the combination in a salad at her restaurant Porsena in New York City, with beans the size of your little fingernail, paired with diced pecorino, the whole dish dressed with her most excellent extra-virgin.
I’ve fought the fava bean battle for years, but I think I’m losing. That battle centers on the insistence of restaurant chefs—as well as food writers who listen to them—that not only must the beans be shucked, they also must be peeled, each individual bean, a laborious process that might be okay in a well-staffed restaurant kitchen, but certainly is unnecessary if the beans are harvested at the right moment, i.e., when they are not much bigger than your thumbnail. I once persuaded the cooks at Chez Panisse to serve the beans with their skins intact—but I’m certain sure they went back to their old French-restaurant ways as soon as my back was turned. Honestly, you shouldn’t have to do that. When they’re young and tender, plump and juicy but not at all tough, fave are at their very finest. All too often, even in good farmers’ markets, the beans available are too fat and old and too tough to do anything with them beyond boiling the bejeesus out of them and then peeling each individual. Or vice-versa.
My rule is:
- Size between little fingernail and thumbnail, eat raw;
- Size a little bigger than thumbnail, braise with olive oil, minced onion, and pancetta or guanciale, or make it vegetarian—see recipe below;
- Size a good bit bigger than thumbnail, leave on the bean stalk to dry for winter storage—dried fave are a cold-weather resource for soups and purees in the most provident kitchens of the Mediterranean.
This recipe comes from the Greek island of Corfu but it’s typical of the way fresh young fave are treated all over the Med. In Lebanon and Palestine, very young beans are often cooked this way right in their pods, cut like green beans but not shucked. This comes from my Essential Mediterranean (HarperCollins):
For four servings:
- 2 pounds fresh fava beans in the pod
- 4 fresh white spring onions, chopped
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped fennel leaves (optional)
- 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Juice of 1 large lemon
Shuck the beans; or if you wish, shuck half the beans and with the other half, simply top and tail the pods and cut them into 1-inch lengths.
Combine onions and oil in a saucepan and saute very gently over low heat until the onions are tender and melting into the oil. Do not let the onions get brown. Add the beans and continue cooking very gently until the color of the beans changes and becomes more opaque.
Add salt and pepper and stir in the fennel and parsley. Add a small amount of water, just enough to come to the tops of the beans. Bring to a simmer and cook gently 15 minutes or so, uncovered, until nearly all the water has boiled away and there are just a few tablespoons of syrupy liquid left in the bottom of the pan. Stir in the lemon juice, bring to a simmer, remove from the heat, and serve immediately.
Variation: Instead of adding lemon juice, when you remove the beans from the heat, stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons of plain yogurt, preferably made from sheep’s or goat’s milk, if you can find it.