I’ve been singing this mantra for years, it seems, to absolutely no effect as Americans stubbornly persist in doing what no self-respecting Italian cook would ever do. What’s that? you ask. Peeling fava beans—that is, peeling the outer tender skin of each and every individual bean. What a waste of time! What a waste of flavor!
Where does this weird practice come from? I suspect from the French professional kitchen where chefs are constantly challenged to come up with new tricks and trucs to keep their enormous brigades de cuisine in operation. In Italy, where restaurant kitchens are run much more economically, no one has to dream up tasks—there are enough to go around and more.
But why do Americans insist on this? Every food writer except one (me) says you have to peel beans. Then they go through elaborate rigmaroles to show you how to do it. No wonder fava beans are not exactly popular despite their magnificent, slightly earthy flavor, so very different from string beans or limas. Every spring or summer I feel like climbing up in the pulpit and shouting: YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THAT—IN FACT, IT IS COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE!!!
You see, by removing the skin of each bean, you also unquestionably remove much of that very earthy flavor that makes these tender early-summer delights so, well, delightful. Without the skin, hmmm, you might as well be eating peas. (I think Elizabeth David said that but I can’t find where.) So leave the skins on, as British and Italian and Spanish cooks all do, and enjoy the earthy sweetness of fresh fava beans. And if the French want to persist with their fiddly chore, let ‘em do so but don’t be drawn into it in your own kitchen.
The English call them broad beans, which is what they used to be called, not surprisingly, in this country too before they somehow drifted out of favor, to return only recently under their Italian name of fave (fava in the singular which is seldom used). So why don’t we prepare them the way Italian cooks do? Don’t ask!
The illustration shows the right size for fava beans and maybe that’s the problem. Baby bean is for eating raw (as we do in Tuscany in the early spring, pairing small tender fava beans with fresh young pecorino cheese); mama bean could also be eaten raw as part of an antipasto, but mama and papa beans are at their best cooked. Anything bigger than papa bean, in my kitchen at least, gets chucked. Great big beans like that are suitable only for drying. Dried fave are an important winter store in the Mediterranean and make a magnificent pureed bean soup, especially if served with bitter chicory greens in the soup or on the side. But we’re concerned with fresh fave at this time of the year.
Baby bean brings up another issue: when they come across a pod the size of baby bean’s, my Middle Eastern friends don’t even shuck out the beans. They just top and tail and cut up the pods, as if they were green beans, and cook them right along with the shucked beans. (When I tell Italians about that they wrinkle their noses, same as you Americans when confronted with unpeeled beans. Chacun à son goût, babe!)
Whenever you make fave or broad beans, you need plenty of garlic, olive oil and fresh lemon juice. For a recipe, see my post on May 17, Springing for Fave: http://nancyharmonjenkins.com/posts/springing-for-fave/