Thursday, March 27, 2008

fava beans

Even though there is still snow on the ground here in Vermont, and we have had wickedly cold nights, the sun during the day feels hot on the skin, and the snow banks are getting smaller. The melt has started and there is a fine sheen on the snow as it becomes more like ice than snow. It is perfect weather this year for sugaring, the warm days and the cold nights, and the sugar houses are going full steam, the smoke from the boilers curling out of their chimneys.

This time of year also brings the tease of spring. Baby artichokes and aparagus start to make appearances in grocery stores and on restaurant menus, and even though they are not growing here now, it is too difficult to turn away from their spring promise. And of course there are the fava beans, their broad pods that pull us into the next season.

Fava beans. Horse beans. Broad Beans. Field Beans. Tic Beans. Faba Beans. The vicia faba, more commonly known as the fava from the Italian are native to north Africa and southwest Asia, but have been grown in old world agriculture since as early as 600 b.c. Along with lentils, chickpeas, and peas, they have long been staples in eastern Mediterranean cuisine. While used for food, they are also used as a winter cover-crop because they prevent erosion, and as a legume, theyadd nitrogen to the soil. They are also rich in vicine, isouramil, and convicine, organic compounds which can cause hemolytic anemia or “favism” in people with a hereditary blood condition. It is believed that the favas origins correspond to malarial hot spots as the anemia resulting from favism acts as a protection from malaria because the protozoa cannot feed off of blood lacking in iron. Evolution at work.

Fava beans should be eaten young when they are tender and have a slightly bitter-sweet and nutty flavor. They can be steamed, dried, and mashed. Fried, causing the skin to split open, and then salted and spiced is a popular way to eat them in China, Peru (habas saladas), Mexico(habas con chile) and in Thailand where their name means "open-mouth nut". In Egypt, fava beans are shelled and dried, then cooked by adding water on very low heat for several hours. Egyptians add oil, lemon, salt and cumin, then the mixture is eaten with bread and onions.

In ancient Greece and Rome, beans were used in voting; a white bean was a vote yes, a black bean was a vote for no. In Ubykh culture, a nomadic horseback tribe originating in the Caucasus, casting beans on the ground and interpreting the patterns they make was a common method of divination, also known as favomancy, and the generic term for “bean-thrower” in their language has become a word for seers and soothsayers. In Italy, favas are traditionally sown on November 1, All Saints Day. In celebration, small cakes are made in the shape of favas and called fave dei morti, “ beans of the dead”. In Sicily, fava beans are placed on church altars on Saint Joseph’s Day because according to legend one year all the crops in Sicily failed, except for the favas, and the beans kept the people from starving and thanks were given in honor of St. Joseph. Some people carry a fava bean for good luck; some believe that if you carry a fava, you’ll always have what you need in life.

In ancient Greece and Rome, beans were used for food for the dead. In Portugal, they make a cake baked with a fava bean inside called Bolo Rei at Christmas time. Dreaming of a bean is said to be a sign of impending conflict. Some say planting beans on Good Friday during the night brings good fortune.

At the restaurant, we make risotto with artichokes, favas, and asparagus, or crostini with mashed fresh favas, shaved Pecorino, cracked black pepper and drizzled with olive oil. The best, of course, is just shelling them fresh like the Romans on the first day of May, eating them with a good Parmigiano, or Pecorino Romano, the spring green taste on the tongue tempered by the sweetness of the cheese.


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