One of my favorite indicators that spring is on its way (other than the frogs chirping at night and the random warm days that allow you to throw open the windows and dawn a pair of capris on your "haven't seen the sun in ages" legs)- is fava beans. When I catch a glimpse of them at the supermarket, I always do a little happy dance. I love the fresh flavor, the memories of spring in Tuscany during the few weeks that fresh favas are available when you have meal, in which they are the star of every course and pair so well with a glass of chianti...
Yes, fava beans are a big pain in the neck to shell, but trust me they are so worth it (especially when you can rope your kids into helping you!)
Fava beans are part of the the broad bean family, which is generally hearty, but fava bean plants are notoriously finicky. They grow best in fertile, well drained soil with direct sunlight, however they don't like to get to hot, nor do they like the cold... For that reason they grow best in higher elevations (but not totally mountainous) of the Medittareanean (most notably Italy, Greece, Croatia, and Crete) as well as some parts of Mexico and Columbia. Quite honestly the foothills of Vermont's Green Mountains should be great too since the salinity and the nitrogen levels of the soil is right, however I rarely see a Vermont fava bean at farmer's market. Hopefully someone who is or knows a farmer reads this and gets inspired :)
Fava beans are generally planted direct from seed as soon as the soil is workable, and there is not risk of frost- say 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They are generally eaten while they are young and tender, which is why they are often available in early spring (April-May).
When purchasing fava beans, you will be surprised at how many you need to buy for a small portion- 1 pound of beans in the supermarket equals about 1 cup of shelled beans. Fava beans are large in size- both the pod as well as the beans themselves. To shell them, tear off one of the ends and pull the string-like seam along the length of the bean. Then, slide your thumb along the seam to open the pod. The inside of the shell is fuzzy, this is always what makes the kids giggle (and motivates them to help). The beans then each have a skin that needs to be removed. Yes I know, a pain, but truly worth it. Sometimes you can simply squeeze the bean and it pops right out of the skin, sometimes they more challenging. If this is the case, and you are planning to serve them raw or plan on cooking them in a dish, simply blanche them in water for about 1 minute and place them in an ice bath immediately following. This usually does the trick and makes removing the skin easier. You don't want to eat the skin, it has a waxy texture, however no flavor.
If you want to too use your beans in a different way, such as in a salad or mashed on a crostini, rather than blanching for 1 minute as above, blanche them for 3-4 minutes. Make sure that the water is unsalted to maintain their beautiful, vibrant green color. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and a pinch of salt is all you need to serve them. They have a wonderful, delicate flavor that is more nutty than grassy.
Fava beans can be served raw (however I like them slightly blanched better), in salads, mashed, as a hummus alternative, in soups, or one of my favorites- in risotto. You can even make ice-cream with them- they pair super well with pistachios!
Don't let the giant 5-inch pods of fava beans at the supermarket or farm stand scare you; give them a try, they are amazing and very nutritionally dense. They contain no saturated fat or cholesterol, are a great source of protein, and have a high concentration of thiamin, vitamin K, vitamin B-6, potassium, copper, selenium, zinc and magnesium. They're also a great source of vitamin C and iron, and are thought to be helpful in preventing Parkinson's Disease.
I love it when food that tastes so good is good for the body! Enjoy fava bean season.