I used to think of fava beans as a cover crop only and not as a food. People said they were good to eat, and I tried, but I found them to taste awful. Somewhere I ran across a short and vague reference to slipping them from their skins which lead me eventually to the fact that the outer skins are fairly inedible. You would think that out of all the mentions I read and heard about fava beans in conversations, books and seed catalogues that someone would have mentioned as much?!?! WTF? Anyway, they are really good after all.
To start from scratch, fava beans are a sizable plant that has been cultivated for geons for both food and soil improvement. It seems to be fairly common knowledge that a small percentage of people are deathly allergic to them, but I haven't met one yet. Maybe most of them are dead. Favas are a relatively robust plant that I've seen outgrow me in height under really fertile conditions. The large pods contain large seeds that are edible. The plant is in the legume family and, like most legumes, it has a relationship with some specialized soil dwelling bacteria that colonize it's roots forming small nodules. The plant provides a home for the bacteria and the bacteria returns the favor by fixing nitrogen out of the atmosphere which the plant then gets to use in it's processes. I'm anthropomorphizing here. Honestly I don't know exactly how the relationship plays out in the long run, but there seems to be a mutual benefit. Like many relationships though, there is probably some compromise along with the good times. Anyway, legumes are high in protein at least partially due to this relationship. That bacteria/plant relationship also makes favas a good cover crop as both the plant and the roots with their nodules are high in nitrogenous matter. They can produce a lot of bulky material for the compost pile as well, which is important if you use a lot of compost, as I do. They can also be turned under the soil if you dig your beds, which I don't. Or, you can just cut or break them off at ground level leaving the nitrogen rich root nodules in the soil to decay gradually, which is the method that I favor.
Favas grow best in cool weather. They can be planted as early as late summer here (Northern California coastal ranges @ 1800 ft) but won't flower and set pods until spring. I plant them anywhere from late August through November. Since I don't normally dig my beds, I'll sometimes plant them in among a crop that is already in the ground, but which will eventually be killed by frost or just pulled up as it starts to decline in cool weather- like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants etc... The fava plants remain small through the winter, biding their time until a hint of spring hits the air, at which time they explode upward and put on a good number of fragrant flowers which are visited by copious numbers of buzzing things. I would say in general that I have not found them to really actually cover the soil that well, so they are maybe not such a great soil protector. Soil protection is very important here in the winter with our torrential rains. An area with "heavier" rainfall might not have this problem because it simply drizzles lightly nonstop, but our version of heavy tends toward intense downpours which literally hammer the soil, followed by sometimes long breaks. Your mileage may vary by climate, but an under story of smaller thicker legumes such as clover or vetch can help provide more soil cover... I find that weeds work pretty well too:) The plants lodge easily which, if you are unfamiliar with the term, means to fall over in the rain, wind, snow... actually, they will sometimes pretty much fall over without provocation, though they will fall over sooner and more definitively in inclement weather. For this reason I really like to stake the plants up. It's not so much that the beans mind falling over, they will continue growing and making pods, it's more that they fall into the paths making it hard to access adjoining beds and to harvest the beans. Here we put one stake on each corner of the bed and then a stake every 4 feet or so along the bed edges. Then a string is wrapped around the outside every foot or so. Wrap the string once around each pole as you go around. This is one of those jobs thats easy to ignore, but which I have decided is well worth the relatively small effort involved when you have to access beds over and over through the spring season. That sentiment is more pronounced this year as our timing was off and all the favas lodged in a snow. Once it happens, you can't really put them back, so we've had to live with the mess.
If the tops are harvested early for compost or mulch when one can maximize the amount of nitrogen left in the soil; but, then you don't get any beans. I'm not saying that early harvest is a bad idea, but I rarely do it as it doesn't work into my scheme of things so well. I've read that you're supposed to cut them while flowering and before starting to set beans in order to leave the greatest amount of nitrogen in the soil. Sometimes I harvest some of the beds early, but I try to let as many of them seed out as possible because a lot of them are consumed in our kitchen both in season and out of season. Also, I don't feel that I have to maximize nitrogen in the soil that way. I see it as just another option that I can choose from when planning and harvesting. And maybe maximizing nitrogen in the soil that way isn't always the best choice. Where does all that nitrogen in the root nodules go? Into the tops and pods and beans of course. I only eat the actual inside of the bean seed and the rest (which is a lot!)makes it's way to the compost. I lose some nitrogen there in the compost to the processes therein, but some of it makes it through. Besides, the nitrogen I do eat mostly gets peed out and that also makes great high nitrogen fertilizer. Besides, the longer the tops grow the more biomass they produce and I need lot's of biomass for composting. In the process of growing things in the garden, and the processes of life in general, there is a net gain. That's how we got this far with our fertile soils and abundance and diversity of life. My personal observation has led me to think that it doesn't seem to be necessary to calculate everything down to a gnats ass in order to achieve good yields; yields that are in acceptable proportions to the time and energy I have to put into the system. So I just let them go to seed and make food for me if they aren't in the way of planting something I consider more important. It is around mid June here right now and the beans are starting to come in in large quantities right now. This is a late year though. Most of the beans will be harvested over the next 2 weeks before we start pulling them to plant some vigorous winter squash starts... also late, but 3 months should be enough for most of them and later maturing winter squash will keep that much longer through the winter.
When pulling the tops to clear the beds the plants are simply cut or snapped off low down near the ground and the roots left in place. If a root mass is in my way during transplanting of the next crop it is pulled and thrown in the compost. By the end of the season they are usually pretty well rotted away. I do feel though that the best use of the roots is to leave them in the ground to rot whenever possible, more especially since I don't dig beds and it is important to get organic material into the soil. Worms pull some down and more gets sifted in during incidental digging like transplanting and root harvest, but roots left in the soil may be the largest contributer.
There are many different strains of Favas out there some of which are alleged to be the more gourmet varieties, but not so many are available through standard sources. I haven't yet met one on my plate that I didn't like. Bell beans look like the same thing, but are much smaller. They aren't so good for eating, so I plant only favas. At this point I plant whatever I can get that's cheap or free and I figure I'll start selecting a sort of land race for size, flavor, hardiness and so on. Hardiness is an issue .I've had them die off in a cold winter, which is not really all that cold here- above 15 degrees fahrenheit. Not all of them died, but some of the fancy and allegedly gourmet, varieties keeled over. You'll have to do you own research on that stuff, I'm going for the survival of the fittest plan. I plant the seeds on about 8 inch centers in a grid pattern so that each row is staggered from the next, like laying bricks. On this planting plan, the beans end up planted 8 inches apart in every direction. I don't measure the spacing, but just eyeball it and push them in quickly... remember, I have other things to do. Pushed in an inch or more deep they usually sprout up and grow pretty well.
When favas grow well, which they usually do, they produce copious quantities of beans. The beans can be harvested at various levels of maturity. Some israeli guys told me to eat them when very young with the skins on. I tried it. No thanks. Firstly, there is very little to them when they are that small so I'd rather let them grow. Also, they taste bad, but there's no accounting for taste so your mileage may vary. Different varieties vary in size, but I'm usually not harvesting till the beans are at least above dime sized. There does seem to be an ideal level of maturity where they are not too starchy, nor too underdeveloped. Again, that is a judgement call, so your taste may indicate otherwise. Besides, sometimes these things are perhaps more a failure of creativity or knowledge on the the cooks behalf and less the fault of the vegetable. I go by the look of the pod as well as the feel of the beans inside. Look for pods that have well developed lumps and squeeze them to check for size. Sometimes the lump is deceptive- hiding more air than bean.... other times the lump looks big, and is full, but the beans are still small and underdeveloped. The lowest beans on the stalk tend to mature earliest, with the rest ripening consecutively up the stalk.
There are specific ways that I remove the beans from the pods and then the inside of the bean from it's skin. I'm certainly open to finding a better way, but this method is pretty fast. I not too long ago found myself joining a table of people who were nearing the bottom of an enormous pile of fava beans. I was ripping through them with my superior shelling technique, but only one person seemed to notice and make any effort to imitate it which, by the way, isn't difficult. I made some paltry effort to clue them in, but was drowned out by small talk and complaints about the quantity that had to be processed cloaked in encouragements that we were almost at the end of the pile. Anymore I find myself less willing to put effort in that sort of direction as I'm all too often actually mocked for even stooping to paying attention to such a thing as efficiency in work. I think that points out something that is fundamentally wrong with the society I live in, but I guess some people think it points out something that is fundamentally wrong with me. I'll admit I'm over the top at times by most people's standards since I like to improve things, but it works for me. People seem often more inclined toward, or I guess place more value on, symbolic acts than they do on actual results, but when work becomes more of a symbolic act than an effort to accomplish a goal, then we have become- lame. I think that's material for another blog. For me in my context, I have a lot of things I want to do, most of which I will never get to because I only have so much time and energy. One of those things is to grow and process a sizable quantity of my food. It's not that I don't enjoy growing and processing food, but I don't want to do it all the time and the truth is that the longer each thing takes the less time I have for other things that I want to do. Then, too, the more I grow and process the less I buy, and I like that. Investing some thought and experimentation in how to process food efficiently (and I think this can be a parable for other work) can yield great savings in time and energy leaving more time for growing more food, engaging in other useful activities, partying, going to thrift stores, writing blogs &c. And it's not that it costs me more effort when I'm doing it, it costs much less effort!.. which is my whole point. It does take some very small investment, but the unwillingness to invest that attention or, maybe more so, the lack of awareness that it behooves people to make that effort at all, is what puzzles me to no end. If you have a better way, please out with it, I'm all eyes.
To remove beans from the pods: Using both hands, grasp the pod on either side of a bean lump. The thumbs go on the back of the bean a little as you simultaneously twist and squeeze the pod to break it open and push outward away from you. The breaking outward with a twist opens the pod and the squeeze pops the bean out into a bowl in front of you. pop, pop, pop, pop, pop and the shell is dropped in the compost bucket. So elegant, so fast, so efficient... sigh....
To remove the skins: grab each bean with the three digits of one hand (thumb, fore and middle). with the other hand, nick the end of the skin with your thumbnail while simultaneously squeezing the bean with the holding hand. The tearing of the skin is important. It should proceed the squeeze, but just barely. With practice, it almost blurs into one smooth motion. It isn't necessary to tear it open, usually a small nick will suffice.
To freeze, the shelled beans should be blanched. Drop them In boiling water for 5 minutes and then cool in cold water. Drain well and freeze in the skins or out. I like to freeze them in the skins as I think it protects the bean. I like to lay them out on a towel for a little while if I have room. Doing so dries them off a bit which means less ice in the bag. I don't think it's necessary to dry them all the way though. Pack into ziplock bags and toss in the freezer. To use them: drop some into boiling water and when fully thawed, pip them before cooking further.
The beans can be cooked all the way in the skins and then pipped. They are a good snack when cooked in salted water and squeezed out into the mouth, much like edamame (sp?). Great for a before dinner appetizer while dinner is being cooked. Cook them until just done or the skins will make them taste bitter and funky.
If I'm going to cook the beans other than for out of hand snacking, I will tend to cook them just a little, pip them and then cook them further. If the beans are cooked too long in the skins, the color goes off, the water turns a dingy shade and a peculiar bitterness infuses the beans. Did I make that sound bad? Good, because it sucks. If the beans are more mature and starchy it takes longer to cook them making this phenomenon more relevant.
Plain favas of a medium maturity, that is a little starchy, but still fine grained and tender, cooked in water with just the right amount of salt and coated in butter with a sprinkling of black pepper are pretty damn good. Sorry to share too much, but I'm salivating. Maybe we could add a little bit of crushed bacon. As with pasta, I would recommend using a lot of salt in the water, how much? a bunch. you might lose more nutrients in salted water, but in terms of flavor it's hard to beat infusing the beans with salt rather than just putting salt on the outside after they are done. The ideal amount of salt would leave the beans adequately salted without any further addition, but I can't tell you how much that is as I'm attempting to cultivate a feel for quantities in such matters by rarely measuring anything. I think it's working.... I think.
Another good way to cook the pipped beans is by wet sauteing. I just put a lid on the saute pan and use a low-ish heat maybe drizzling a bit of moisture in once in a while. Some butter, a little ham, some mushrooms and onions.....
Overcooked, the beans will fall apart, but they are quite good smashed with some butter or fine olive oil and salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of paprika. They also occasionally make it into soups. They are very good in minestrone, though if over cooked they will dissolve and cloud the broth. That tendency could probably be used to advantage in some other soup but, in my considerable opinion, it ruins most soups. Honestly I feel that I've just scratched the tip of the iceberg in terms of ways to use fava beans and am looking forward to exploring further.
I was just recently clued in that the tips and flowers are also good to eat. I was hesitant to try them as I had come to view the whole plant exclusive of the inside of the seeds as being nasty and inedible. I was talked into sampling a tip by a professional cook and wasn't unfavorably impressed. That just goes to show... something. I'm still a little hesitant I guess, but plan to explore that option as it seems like the tips could be a valuable addition to winter and spring table fare.
When shelling, you can save seeds that are more mature to dry for re-seeding the following year. The seeds tend to be expensive and you can use a lot in a big garden. I can get bulk seed from my local farm supply that is pretty cheap, but I try to save some too. The seeds rare usually mature enough to dry for a seed crop if they are big, the small umbilical part is released, they feel on the harder side and are starting to turn more yellow than green I've dried them that way for a while and it seems to work, but I'm not really paying that close attention. Dry thoroughly in an airy, but not too hot environment before storing in a jar or paper bag in a cool dry place till next season. If you are a fava eater, then you are probably going to want to save the largest beans. Good luck, we're all counting on you!