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Fava-rama!

Happiness is a bowl of blanched broad beans

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"The original bean of Europe, West Asia and North Africa, has been an important staple food for millennia," is how the Penguin Companion to Food introduces broad (or fava) beans. This historical perspective was unknown to me when, as a child, I watched my mother bring home a bag full of green pods with her grocery shopping. The pods' contents had two possible destinations: fava bean soup or fava bean au naturel. I dreaded option one and preferred option two, though I cannot say I was wild about it (overall, I disliked legumes). My father, on the other hand, was and is a fava bean lover and you will soon read his suggestions for their consumption.

Under option two, fava beans were served and eaten at the end of our meal, as a kind of dessert. My mother would pile a certain amount of pods in the middle of the table, then each one of us picked a pod at a time, snapped off the top end, pulled away the string and pressed the pod along its seam to open it and reveal the beans inside. By running the thumb along the velvety inside of the pod, I dislodged the beans and caused them to tumble on my plate. I used my front teeth to make an indentation to remove a piece of skin on the side where the bean is attached to the pod. Finally, my fingers pinched the skin at the other end and the bright, crisp bean popped out and never really saw the light of day, as it was propelled into my open mouth and promptly chewed.

The first of my father's suggestions is to lightly touch the bared tip of the fava bean to salt before the pinching action. He placed a small quantity of fine sea salt on the side of the plate closest to him for this purpose. I preferred to keep the beans saltless. The pile of pods on the table would go down as the pile of empty pods grew on each plate. More than the fava beans themselves, I liked this family ritual that occurred when fresh fava beans were in season. A variation on the theme of raw fava beans is the pairing with morsels of young pecorino (ewe's milk cheese). This is the second of my father's suggestions and, in this case, I add my support to it. At this point, my perspective is that of a legume-lover, and of someone who looks forward to fava bean season.

(Before I move on, allow me to say a few words about a disease you may have heard mentioned: favism. People affected by it -- a subgroup of those with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency -- must stay away from fava beans, because eating them or inhaling their pollen can induce a severe reaction (haemolytic crisis). So be careful.)

Back to my tender feelings for fava beans. I enjoy using them in varied combinations. For the two that I describe below, the fava beans are shelled and then their skin -- or seed coat -- is removed. In small, fingernail-sized and freshly picked fava beans, the skin is tender and can be eaten. In some recipes, like my mother's soup, fava beans are cooked with their skin on. To please my personal taste, I gladly submit myself to the double process of shelling and skin removal, a task that I approach with a meditative bent so that it becomes a relaxing activity and not an odious chore. My strategy is to limit the quantity of fava beans processed so I don't get overwhelmed by the task, and to devote time to it when I need a break from more brain-demanding activities.

I usually prepare a batch of one to two pounds of pods at a time. I shell the beans and blanch them for 30 seconds, then drain them and plunge them into a bowl of ice-cold water to stop the cooking. After a couple of minutes I start phase two: I slit the skin with my thumbnail then pinch it to slip the bright green core out of its coat and into a small bowl. The end result can go, for example, into a colorful fava bean, fennel and strawberry salad. I prepare each element separately, then combine them.

Fava Bean, Strawberry Fennel Salad:

Fava beans: Process one pound of pods as described above and set aside.

Fennel: Trim and clean a fennel bulb, remove any tough outer leaves, quarter, discard the core if necessary, and slice thinly, using a mandoline.

Strawberries: Wash, hull and slice half a pound of strawberries, then season them with a teaspoon of balsamic or berry vinegar. Toss and set aside to marinate for a little while.

Bring the ingredients together in a serving bowl and mix.

Dress with quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Add salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste and toss.

Sprinkle fresh basil chiffonade using 10 or so leaves.

Toss again and serve.

Being a big fan of leeks, I marry them to fava beans in the following side dish. Process one pound of pods as described above. Carefully wash the white and light green portion of a leek and slice into thin half moons. Cook leeks in a frying pan with olive oil and the leaves from two sprigs of thyme. Cover the pan and add water as needed to keep the leek moist. When leek slices are quite soft, add the prepared fava beans and warm them up for a couple of minutes. Season with salt and freshly-ground black pepper and serve immediately. I prepare this recipe for myself only, as my husband has decided that he can live without fava beans. I also like poached eggs, and recently I served myself one over the fava beans and leeks and enjoyed the result.

Fava beans with leeks

1 lb. fresh fava beans

1 medium leek

leaves from two sprigs fresh thyme

olive oil

salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Shell fava beans, blanch for 30 seconds and remove skin.

Carefully wash white and light green portion of leek, slice into thin half moons.

Cook leek in covered pan with olive oil and thyme until soft, adding water, to keep leek moist.

Add shelled fava beans and warm them.

Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

Just a bit more on raw fava beans before I end. In a column I wrote earlier this year (see "Hard Boiled," Jan. 8), I talked about Salvo Montalbano, the food-loving police inspector created by Italian author Andrea Camilleri. In a short story titled The Fourth Secret (from a collection not available in English at this time, so the graceless translation that follows is mine), Montalbano reflects after a dinner featuring fresh fava beans:

"The beauty of eating fresh fava beans is also in the double cracking, during which one anticipates what is about to please the palate. In fact, first one must crack the pod, which, being slightly downy both outside and inside, is pleasant to the touch. Then, there is the cracking of each single fava bean, which, while you remove its skin, gives out a green scent that gladdens the heart."

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