Fava Beans

April 6, 2010 12 Comments

Fava Beans

Fava Beans:  The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

A Little Fava Bean History

Pythagoras (c. 580 BC – c. 500 BC), was a Greek philosopher and mathematician whose thinking influenced Plato and Aristotle.  He is eternally familiar to mathematicians for his Pythagorean Theorem which states that in any given right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse, (the side opposite the right angle), is equal to the squares of the other two sides.

Although credited to Pythagoras, it is possible the theorem was developed by his disciples.  The problem is Pythagoras left no written account of his works.  What we know of him is based on his followers disquisitions (and in all likelihood interpretations), of his teachings.  Even the exact circumstances of his death are open to speculation.  One interesting piece of folklore about his demise involves the fava bean.

Conflicts had arisen amongst various factions at the time and Pythagoras had his detractors.  As the legend goes, he detested fava beans.  He hated them so much that rather than escape through a bean field, he opted to be captured and disposed of by his enemies.

If Pythagoras’ revulsion of fava beans has any merit, he may have been one of the rare individuals who are allergic to them.  Some people from the Ancient Near East, (roughly the modern day Middle East), where favas probably originated, have a hereditary vulnerability to them.  Certain substances found in favas can cause susceptible individuals to develop anemia.   Technically this genetic disorder is known as Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, or more simply “favism.”  Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of us can enjoy these wonderful beans, with no fears of blood disease or pursuing assailants.

Tell Me More

Fava beans, also called faba, broad, horse, tic, bell, or field beans, have been consumed by man for thousands of years.  The people of the Ancient Near East began to cultivate them during their Bronze age, (3300-1200 BC).  They spread like wildfire and can be found in the dietary portfolios of Europe, (where they became a staple), Ancient Egypt, China, India, Africa and even Latin America.  The US, true to its culinary-challenged nature, never really got on the bandwagon and thus they remain somewhat obscure in our country.

Favas were also the original bean in the traditional 12th night cake. Some branches of Christianity celebrate the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” The 12th night marks the coming of the epiphany, (the revelation of Jesus’ divinity to man), and concludes the twelve days of Christmas.

The fava’s inclusion in the 12th night cake bestowed it with an auspicious reputation as it then became a symbol of good luck. And then at the other extreme”¦”¦”¦. Hanibal Lechter, the cannibalistic serial killer of “Silence of the Lambs,” came along and announced his relishment of favas, Chianti and his victim’s liver. Apparently favas can be savory or unsavory.

What Do They Look Like

Favas look like big lima beans and come in large pods. They are complicated to peel.  The pods must first be split open, thus releasing the beans. This is the easy part.  Next, each individual bean must be peeled.  Unlike any other bean, each one is encased in its own jacket. This outer hull is fibrous and basically inedible. To remove it, a slit can be made in on end of the bean with a small knife or even a fingernail.  Then it can be peeled away.

Some chefs drop them in boiling water for one minute.  Then the outer layer can be more easily removed, simply by squeezing each bean between one’s fingers and popping them out.  It is because of their labor intensiveness that favas are uncommon in most restaurants.  When they are offered expect the portion to be limited and/or the price to be high.

Interestingly, their rarity on American menus has imparted them with an air of cachet.  This is reinforced by the fact that the restaurants that do feature them are usually upscale establishments.  Ironically though, their scarcity-based-prestige is ultimately rooted in simple laziness or labor costs.

Fresh favas are available in the spring but you’ll have to do some searching to find them.  Not all supermarkets carry them and you may need to peruse farmers’ markets.  Look for large, plump pods, and squeeze them to ensure there are no vacancies.  Favas are also sold canned and dried but there is no comparison with the fresh.

How to Prepare Fava Beans

Like almost all beans, favas can be eaten on their own or mixed into any number of other concoctions.  Personally, I find them to be too special, and more importantly too delicious, to be diluted into a more complex recipe like a stew, casserole or soup.

Favas are best appreciated as the star of the show.  Simply sauté them in butter and add salt, pepper, and the herbs of your choice.  The classic herbal pairing is savory.  Savory is a potent herb that tastes like a marriage of thyme and mint.  You can also add some heavy cream as a finishing touch.

Another popular recipe for favas is a fava bean puree.  It is hypothesized that purees of favas originated in Europe when the beans were sometimes pressed through a sieve to release the outer skin.  To make a fava bean puree, start with three pounds of beans, (prior to removing their pods and outer hulls).

Add the podded and hulled beans, one or two garlic cloves, the herbs of your choice, salt, pepper, and a tablespoon or two of lemon juice to a food processor.  Give the ingredients an initial whiz and then with the food processor running, add a gentle stream of extra virgin olive oil until it all emulsifies and you reach your desired consistency.  Serve it on crostini, crackers, or crudités.

Chef Mark R. Vogel

Last modified on Thu 23 January 2014 5:42 pm

Comments (12)

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  1. Marcia Sanders says:

    Really interesting! Thanks. I had a friend who savored them and recall tasting them on one occasion but too long ago to know what my reaction was. Are they related to Edamame?

    Edamame are soy beans but I don’t think they are related. – RG

  2. Betsy Hitchcock says:

    Thanks for the info.I’ve seen FAVA beans in the store but could not find anyone who had ever prepared them.

    You are very welcome Betsy. Thanks for commenting. – RG

  3. sonia alban says:

    The VERY BEST FAVA BEAN SALAD! at Publix Supermarket at Plaza del Paraiso, Miami, FL. It is on the “olives/ artichoke hearts, mushrooms, etc” display. It has slivers of red & green peppers, thick virgin olive oil and some kind of herb/s, maybe oregano?
    You can just savor them one by one, pick them with an olive pick or a toothpick. It is luscious and creamy. We should ask them for the recipe, try them YOU WILL LOOOVE THEM!

    Hi Sonia, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so excited by fava bean salad. Theirs must be great. See if you can find their recipe. – RG

  4. Eva Beaton says:

    Hi, I love broad beans as they are called in my family, and we have grown and eaten them for probably well over 70 years and at least 3 generations.
    We eat them dried and cooked with skins and all, like any other dried bean (you need fibre) I’ve eaten them plain with butter, made into soup, and lately in salads, and other kinds of dishes. I’ve never pureed them yet, but that is on my list. Personally I hate savoury and won’t use it, but go ahead, it does make the beans of any type less gassy! One of my favourite ways to eat beans is to cook the dried beans, very well and thick broth stage (don’t add anything, just let the broth thicken with the falling apart beans) cooled overnight, spread onto thin sliced home made bread (with real butter) and finely chopped fresh onion and light salted beans spread on top. Open face sandwich! YUM!!!

    Hi Eva, sounds delicious. Thank you for sharing. – RG

  5. Nik says:

    If pre-soaking dried favas, should they be given more time to soak because of the inner jacket around each individual bean? is standard 8 hours good enough?

    Hi Nik, the standard overnight soak should be fine for dried fava beans, also called broad bean. Remember, the beans will double in size after soaking so be sure to have a big enough pot. – RG

  6. Archgal says:

    Hi, I am soaking my dried fava beans right now, but I don’t have 8 hours. I am making Ful the recipe calls for 45 min. of simmering after the 8 hour soak. Can I soak for 6 hours and then just cook of 1 hour? Will they get too mushy?

    Hi Archgal, I’m not sure. I say give it a try and see how it turns out. What other choice do you have if you already started soaking the beans. You may want to taste the beans after 45 minutes and see if they are done. If not, continue cooking. Sometimes in the kitchen you just have to experiment and see what works. – RG

  7. Rachel says:

    I soaked my Italian fava beans the other night, boiled them and took the skins off, a little time consuming to say the least! Am making a salad with peas, fennel and med. soft boiled eggs. To top it off will add crispy prosciutto and some Italian parsley. Bean/fennel and peas are mixed prior in a mustardy vinaigrette and dill, but I am using the fennel fronds as well. I have done a puree/dip with the canned ones, very nice! I use it as a sandwich spread P.S, I always drain and rinse any kind of canned beans.

    Hi Rachel, thank you for sharing your tips with my readers. Happy Holiday – RG

  8. Barbie says:

    Looking to grow these for next year. Do you have a favorite variety to recommend? Thanks

    Hi Barbie, I do not have a favorite variety but maybe someone who reads this and does more farming than I can answer your question. – RG

  9. Karen says:

    My family name is one of the many southern Italian names beginning with Fava. The legend is that all Sicilians whose name begins with fava descended from one common ancestor.

    • Jaclyn says:

      My last name also begins with fava and my grandfather emigrated from Sicily, so I’ve been trying to figure out it’d there’s any relations between fava beginnings of names and fava beans when I read about them in a book. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Dr. Mack says:

    Fava beans are known to increase oxidative states in the body. In other words, it is the complete opposite to an antioxidant food

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