April may be the cruelest month for poet T.S. Eliot, but not for me. April is the peak season for fava beans, and I love ‘em.
So do many wine grape farmers, who plant favas in the fall so that they make a cover crop between the vine rows to prevent erosion during winter’s rains and are disked down in the spring to enrich the soil. If grape farmers also get a pot of favas for dinner, that’s just a bonus.
Favas have a long and storied history in Europe. Before Columbus returned from the western hemisphere with seeds of Phaseolus vulgaris — the New World beans we know as snap beans, haricots, pole beans, lima beans, black beans, pinto beans, and many other varieties — Europe’s only bean was the fava. The ancient Latin word for bean was “faba,” and the botanical name for fava beans is even today Vicia faba.
New World beans have their heritage in Central and South America. There’s archeological evidence that they were cultivated in Peru 5,000 years ago, and lima beans were indeed first encountered by westerners when the Conquistadors entered Lima, Peru, in the 16th century. The Aztecs called green beans “ayecotl,” which name has been carried into French as “haricots.”
It’s important to know the difference between New World beans and favas due to health issues. Don’t nibble raw New World beans while you’re shelling them out of their pods or otherwise preparing them for cooking. They contain glycosides that can produce hydrocyanic acid in the human digestive system, and there are cases of children dying from eating raw beans. Just five minutes of cooking detoxifies them. Soybeans and favas don’t contain the glycosides but taste better cooked anyway.
To be on the safe side, boil New World shell beans for five minutes, then pour out the water and add fresh water. Return to a boil to finish cooking. And while sprouting makes beans’ starch and protein more digestible, raw sprouted New World beans — except for mung beans — contain a substance that inhibits trypsin, a digestive enzyme. So sprouted seeds of green beans should be cooked, such as in a stir fry.
A good general rule is to cook beans and avoid them raw. One more word of warning: it’s rare, but some people, mostly of Mediterranean descent, lack an enzyme to break down fava beans, and can have a serious reaction to them. If that’s your heritage, nibble a little fava before you launch into a plateful or have your doctor give you the test for favism, as the disease is known.
Fava beans are found in our local markets still in their long pods. The beans inside have a tough, bitter seed coat that’s an unappealing beige color. So, favas take some work to prepare. But it’s work that’s worth it.
After boiling the favas in their pods for eight to 10 minutes, run cold water over them or plunge them into a bowl of ice water.
When they’re cool, open the pods to reveal from three to five beans. Slip them out of the pods with your thumb into the palm of the other hand. Each bean will have a small green area at one end. With your thumbnail, nick open the seed coat at the end opposite the green part. Holding the bean by the green part, squeeze it gently and the nice, bright green bean inside will slip out. I do this no matter what their size, even though small beans won’t yield much.