By Eric Skokan
Fava beans are hard to beat for flavor, versatility and soil health. They remain somewhat unfamiliar to most Americans, and they come bearing baggage — rumor has it, fava beans are “difficult” in the kitchen.
But as a longtime chef, I urge you to resist the rumor-mongerers. Preparing fava beans for eating requires a little bit more work than a bouquet of red oak leaf lettuce. But the work is not onerous. And the payoff is exceptional.
For starters, fava beans are legumes, and fix nitrogen in the soil. This saves money and time — no need to broadcast nitrogen amendments to soil that has been fortified with favas. So the payoff begins long before the first farmers’ market sale, with rejuvenated soil.
It continues in early spring, before the pods are harvested. At Black Cat Farm in Boulder, Colorado, where we farm 130 acres to supply our two restaurants and our farmers’ market stand with vegetables, meats, herbs, and more, we plant a bed of favas to supply us with greens as well as beans. The greens taste like favas, and they sauté like spinach. Early in the season, when your market and restaurant customers start coming down with spinach fatigue, you surprise them with fava greens.
And then you astonish them – with fava flowers. The edible flowers are captivating, gorgeous, multi-hued blossoms that carry fava flavor with great delicacy and nuance.
Finally, the pods, the long, curved sleeves packed with plump beans. We harvest a lot of young favas, and urge customers to slick them with olive oil and salt and toss them on the grill until blisters begin appearing on the skin. The next step is a breeze: commence eating. No need to open the sleeves and scrape out the beans, no demand for the removal of the jackets that encase the beans. The juvenile pods, hot from the grill, are a treasure.
Mature fava beans do require a little bit of work, but it is not a big deal. For example, fava beans make a superb hummus, and my approach does not require the removal of the jackets from the beans. You simply open the sleeve, remove the beans with their jackets, boil them until tender, toss them in a food processor with garlic, sesame oil, lime juice and salt. The dish is a wonder.
Plenty of dishes for mature fava beans will demand slipping-off the jackets from the beans, and this is the “difficult” part that the rumor-mongerers love to crow about. The work can be mildly time consuming, but I don’t find that it is any more toil than cleaning, peeling and dicing carrots for a dish. With the beans, once the jackets have been doffed, it is time to move on to the next bean. There is no back-and-forth with a vegetable peeler, no meticulous cutting.
Fava beans remain fairly exotic in most part of America, which is a gift. We find that an awful lot of our farmers’ market customers are food-savvy, and always on the hunt for new vegetables and varieties. And for those who sell to restaurants, too, are likely to find eager buyers. Good chefs live for local, seasonal treasures like fava beans and will find ways to quickly incorporate them into their menus.
A cover crop that we eat and sell? A plant that gives us early greens and flowers, young fruit that petitions for one style of dish, then mature fruit that wants a variety of different preparations? A one-of-a-kind flavor?
Even if fava beans were indeed “difficult,” I would grow them. But really, they are a cinch.
Eric Skokan is the chef and owner of Black Cat and Bramble & Hare restaurants in Boulder, Colorado. In addition, he grows (organically!) and raises nearly all his own vegetables and meat for the restaurants and a farmers market stand. Last year he published his first cookbook: Fork, Farm, Food which was an IACP finalist for best cookbook of the year. More information can be found at http://farmforkfood.com