Have you been to the farmer’s market lately? Cherries, raspberries, lettuce, the earliest peaches… it’s a feast for the senses! And among all those springtime delights, you may spot these giant, bulbous green pods:
What are they? Favas! Or Koukiá, as we call them in Greek. A remarkable-yet-remarkably-underappreciated bean. They are very easy to grow, they’re one of the first springtime vegetables, and they’re delicious — and yet, it does take some searching to find fava beans. I’ve seen them a few times in the grocery store (usually in very small quantity), but by and large, if you want to get your hands on some of these tasty legumes, you’ll have to grow them yourself or go to the farmer’s market. Life is hard, huh?
And as much as I love, love, love the farmer’s market — our local markets are fantastic — I’m all for the backyard plot on this one! Not only are favas simple to grow, they also have lovely sweetpea-scented flowers and, being a legume, they’re great for the soil. You can even grow them (or their cousin, bell bean) as a cover crop; just be sure to cut and compost or till them in before they start to bloom for the highest nutrient level.
See, they’re just such happy-looking plants! We plant the seeds in the fall, usually November or thereabouts, when the rains begin but it isn’t yet too chilly out. They grow all winter long, getting taller and taller — by harvest time, the topmost leaves (which, incidentally, are edible and tasty when young) are brushing my shoulders. We plant them in a block and fence the plot on all sides with chicken wire, about two feet high; it keeps hungry critters like rabbits away from the young sprouts, and when the plants get taller, it provides just enough support to keep them from falling over. Which they absolutely will, if you let them.
They’re also abundant producers. Our fava patch this year was about 6 by 8 feet, and we ended up with a tremendous harvest — I’m guessing 20 to 25 gallons of beans in the shell. Of course, there is one catch with fava beans: they’re mostly shell! The beans themselves are wrapped in a tough, spongy-textured pod, and it can take quite a lot of time to shell them if you don’t have help… so, like many things of this nature, it’s really best as a communal activity! Round up a few friends and make some lemonade — you’ll find it’s quite pleasant work that way.
Here they are, ready to shell. That’s just a small fraction of the crop! (And, yes, that bucket does say “for FOOD” on it, to distinguish it form the many other buckets for dirt, fertilizer, etc around here.) There are a handful of tricks for getting the beans out of the pod; I usually snap off one end, “unzip” the little strings along the sides, and then pop the shell open along its length. Everyone has their own technique:
Once you have the bean out of the pod, flick off that little “cap” on the end:
Annnnd, the final bean-to-shell ratio. Take heart — those empty pods will do wonders for your compost pile!
Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Most fava-bean recipes will tell you to take the shelled beans, dip them in boiling water, and then shell them again, removing the peel that surrounds each individual bean. By the time you do this, you’ll be wondering why you even started in the first place — a bushel of beans will result in a handful! But the Greeks know that this is silly: why, after you’ve gone to all the work of growing those beans, should you throw most of your harvest away? Stew them up with some lamb and tomato, or blanch and freeze them ’til Summer to add to eggplant, zucchini, okra, and tomato with some dill — as long as you pick the beans while they’re tender, there is no reason you have to peel and toss that inner shell. You might want to for certain dishes, but it’s by no means a necessity! (An interesting bit of koukiá history here.)
Ragout of fresh favas with artichokes from Bob Roan and Teri Ueki, with our own dried tomatoes and spanakorizo (rice with spinach, Greek-style) …. mmm-mmm!