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The beauty of fava beans, or why strawberries taste better from the farmers’ market

May 10, 2015

Our garden changes with the seasons, regardless of how involved we are in the process. The most we can do, is pay attention to the hints it gives us, follow the weather forecast, listen to our neighbors and friends (and sometimes the research of agriculture schools!) and follow the intuitions that whatever previous experience we have has given us to try and guide these changes so that they unfold in ways that benefit us. Right now, the favas that were planted late last fall have down all they can for us and it’s now time to uproot them and plant something new. Right now, it’s tomatoes, peppers and indigo (an exciting experiment!). Next it will be herbs, possibly some local bee-friendly flowers and maybe radishes. These summer crops get most of the attention but the Walnut garden just wouldn’t be the same without the forest of wonderful favas that take over between March and mid-May. I’d like, then, to devote the first new blog post in a long while to this humble, easy-going legume. Oh, yeah–and strawberries? Hopefully the connection between favor and flavorful berries will be clear by the end.

"Baby" favor--too green to store; just right for fresh eating!

“Baby” favor–too green to store; just right for fresh eating!

Why do we plant them?

Favas make an excellent winter cover crop for urban gardening, although they need a milder (read: warm) climate. First off, they’re legumes so at the very least, they’re occupation of our otherwise fallow soil is not going to reduce the amount of nitrogen. At best, they “fix” nitrogen, pulling it in from the air and then adding it into the soil. However, if the soil is already nitrogen-rich, they switch tactics and pull nitrogen from the soil like other crops. Our soil is nitrogen rich, since we compost and also since our garden, at five years, is still quite young. So, we don’t plant the favas for nitrogen, really.

5" tall fava plants out-compete the weeds, protect the soil and provide shade.

5″ tall fava plants out-compete the weeds, protect the soil and provide shade.

Something else they do very well, though, is to grow easily, abundantly and with great tolerance for crowded conditions. We sow the large beans in the late fall and, depending on how cold the winter has been, they start coming up in late February. By this time of the year (early May) they are five feet tall, except where the stalks have collapsed from the weight of the bean pods, and are incredibly dense. During this whole time, we never water the beds where they’ve been sown. They are incredibly resourceful with water, especially here in Eugene, and they muscle out any weeds. After pulling them up to make way for tomatoes, I did find a fair amount of weeds growing between them, but these weeds were pretty pathetic: sickly and some just completely dried up. The favas are weed-killers! For this reason, they make a good “place-holder” in-between summer crops, keeping the soil from washing or blowing away and also keeping it clear of weeds. And they require almost no care. Not only do they take care of their own water and weeding needs, they are also very tolerant of snails and slugs.

Once they are grown, the weather has started to get to be what you want it to be for planting the crops that we DO care about. At this time, the favs serve another purpose, providing valuable shade. Seedlings and starts dry out quickly, even in mild Eugene. A few strategically spared fava stalks can reduce the amount of direct sunlight exposure crops get while they are in this vulnerable stage.

Finally, they aren’t out-of-control seeders, easily going wild and taking over your garden and everywhere else, like leafy vegetables and clover tend to do.

For all these reasons, favas are a popular crop with urban (and other) farmers.

Let them grow!

People like to plant favas around here, but they aren’t used to eating them, it seems. I was introduced to favas late in life (in spite of being able to quote Anthony Hopkins’ line in Silence of the Lambs–“…with some fava beans and a nice Chianti!”–since childhood) , as a sort of exotic luxury food at the legendary Berkeley Bowl. It was love at first sight, but lots of people know them as a sort of homely culinary cousin of the lima bean: most of the time, they are eaten dried in soups or mashed up and, frankly, they can taste kind of dull. They are incredibly nutritious–packed with protein–and very cheap, but they don’t have much taste. It turns out, though, that favas, like limas and shelling peas, have two kinds of edible stages: they can be left to mature to a giant size and dry out on the plant, as we do for Scarlett Runner beans, or they can be harvested green, as “baby” favas, and eaten with minimal cooking. I prefer the babies, the tinier the better. At this stage, they are a brilliant lime green and even the pods can be eaten (once technique is to roast the whole bean on the grill). I prefer to pop out the beans and parboil them, then substitute them for peas in any recipe. Word of advice: they are a more delicate flavor than peas, so are easily overwhelmed by strong flavors. For this reason, my all-time favorite way to eat them is to make a mash with a bit of tomato and a bit of hard, salty farmer’s cheese, either myzithra cheese, or cotijo cheese or homemade, dried-out paneer. Moister cheeses work, too, like cottage cheese. You could use feta, but, again, the sour flavor might drown out the favas.

How to prepare “baby” favas

Look for pods that are about the thickness of your ring finger, maybe a little thinner, but that have clear bumps where the beans are. You can collect larger beans, but these will need to be cooked slightly longer and they also will have a skin on the beans, which some people recommend peeling off the bean after cooking, a task I rarely bother with for obvious reasons. The pictures below should give you some idea of what to look for.

These guys are as thick as my index finger and bulging with beans

These guys are as thick as my index finger and bulging with beans

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Harvest them without hurting the plant by pulling downward. Especially if you’re harvesting babies, you’ll start collecting beans at the beginning of the fruiting cycle, which can last for about a month. There’s no reason, then, to uproot the plant, unless you happen to need to patch of ground its occupying.

To make a mash, you’ll need lots of beans, which is no problem because favas are fertile!

I filled two 1-gallon buckets with beans to get this pile, enough to make ragu for a large feast of fettuccine!

I filled two 1-gallon buckets with beans to get this pile, enough to make ragu for a large feast of fettuccine!

Harvesting is quick and easy and the beans in their pods will stay fresh in the fridge for a week or so, so if you value having beans of the all the same size, you can take a couple of days to collect the number of pods you want to make something, storing them in the fridge as you go. The tedious part is getting the beans out of the pods. Fortunately, at the “baby” stage, the pods are thick and soft–filled with a kind of cottony white insulating layer. This makes peeling fairly easy. It’s still a lot of work to get enough beans to make a meal. Totally worth it, though!

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How I do it is I find the true seam of the bean, poke my thumbnail into it at the base and then just slide my thumb through the seam. Then I press into the center of the pod and slide my thumb back down to pop out the beans. This usually prevents smashing or cutting the delicate baby beans.

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It’s easy and if you do it while listening to the radio or talking to a friend, not a shabby way to spend a half hour. So, now you have a bowl of tender, green baby favas.

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Next, bowl some water and then par-boil the beans. Depending on how little they are, 1-4 minutes is fine. I think they taste best as close to raw as possible, but undercooked favas can be hard to digest, so if you’re cooking them for the first time, err on the side of slightly mushy. Perfectly blanched favas will be a bright green. You can’t always see this, though, because of the skin.

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The skin is just extra fiber. It has no taste, but it does kind of dampen the taste and texture of the beans themselves, because it’s kind of mushy and, hopefully, your beans are now slightly firm, but smooth. This is why people recommend peeling them. As you can see, though, that’s a lot of work. Cooking for the co-op, or even just myself, I generally skip this step.

I always let my beans cool off immediately by soaking them in cold water. I then mince up a shallot and three cloves of garlic and salute them in olive oil with salt till clear. I will then add a single roma tomato or possibly a bit of tomato paste and cook the mix on low heat till the tomato/paste has more or less disappeared and everything is now a reddish, golden color and quite reduced. You can add a splash of wine or leave as is. I remove it from the eat and then add the cheese and beans and then mash them altogether. You don’t want probably about 1 part cheese and 1 part shallot-tomato reduction to 3 parts beans. Just enough to make them really savory, but only a little, so that the natural flavor of the favas takes center place. I am pretty half-assed with the mashing, because I enjoy the texture of the whole beans together with the mashed mixture. I might add a touch more salt or a little black pepper, but that’s it. You can substitute firm tofu for the cheese, but crumble the tofu and add it to the shallot mixture when the shallots are halfway done, so that the tofu gets infused with flavor.

Another, even more basic recipe is to parboil the beans and then roughly toss them (so they get a little broken up) with oil, salt and pepper. This is a great way to use non-cooking oils, like walnut oil, for example.

I think most people who plant favas as a cover crop pull them out before they produce beans. We usually do this, mostly because most folks at Walnut are not crazy about the taste of dried favas, the form we are most familiar with in this part of the world. The plants themselves can be fed to our chickens, who aren’t crazy about them like they are about clover, but who will at least pick at them. However, I think favas present an amazing opportunity to grow something with minimal effort, at a time when nothing else grows and that grows in abundance. I myself love favas enough to buy them from the store. I hope others can learn to love them, too. I think the trick is finding recipes that let the natural flavor and texture of the beans shine–they are delicate, slightly sweet and with a firm, yet smooth mouth-feel. They don’t need much more than salt, honestly, to taste amazing. They also really need to be eaten fresh–picked at the perfect age and cooked as soon as they are shelled. Though they dry well, they lose their special flavor very quickly and even bought fresh at the store, they seem to lose the delicate zest if they’ve sat on the shelf for a couple of days. This brings me back to the title of this post–why strawberries taste better at the market than at the store: grocery stores, even fabulous ones like Berkeley Bowl, sell produce to you that is days, sometimes a couple of weeks old. Anything that is not local, for instance, has had to travel to get to you and it has had a few stops along the way. This is fine. Shipping food quickly from SoCal to Eugene, for instance, would require burning even more fossil fuels than just doing it slowly. Because the produce has to sit around, sometimes under extreme temperature changes, a lot of it goes bad. To minimize this, farmers harvest things before they are completely ripe, when they can. This works out ok for lots of plants, like bananas and tomatoes, which continue to ripe after being picked, and even better for things like pears, which only ripen after being picked. But lots of fruits and veggies don’t age so well, strawberries being among them. Ripe strawberries that got that way on the plant taste best, but they also rot incredibly fast and, on top of it all, they smash easily. Underripe, however, they lack that incredible, mouth-watering flavor. All stores have to compromise by buying strawberries that are just slightly shy of ripe. A farmer at a market, however, can harvest his berries the morning of the market or the day before and sell them to you at peak flavor. I’ve certainly bought amazing berries from stores, but the best berries I’ve ever had are the ones I’ve bought from stands next to the growers in Watersville or some other place where strawberries are born–or from a stand at a market. Or from my own garden.

What’s true for strawberries is even more true for favas, which can’t really be gussied up with sugar and lemon juice the way underripe strawberries can, to be cooked in a dessert. For this reason, if you’re lucky enough to have a garden that favas can be used as a cover crop for, I urge you not to pass up the opportunity to eat super-fresh fava beans.

Now that we’ve started pulling the plants up to make room for our summer crops, the look and feel of the garden has changed dramatically. We’ll leave a few plants in specific locations to provide shade to our delicate seedlings, but the effect is somewhat desert-like.

Our garden looks bare and lonely without the favas--but just till the tomatoes grow up!

Our garden looks bare and lonely without the favas–but just till the tomatoes grow up!

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