Celebrate spring with colorful, lively Fettuccine with Fava Beans, Red Bell Pepper and Bacon. Lemon juice and zest help brighten things up. Recipe below.
Fava beans have always sounded like too much work to me. I mean, you have to shell them twice—once to get them out of their pods and then again to remove the tough, waxy skin on each bean. It didn’t sound like there was an actual degree of difficulty involved, as they say in certain sports competitions, just more like a degree of pain-in-the-buttedness. But then Susan over at Food Blogga did a post that made shelling them look fairly easy, maybe even semi-fun. Okay, I was semi-interested.
Then the current issue of Bon Appétit featured a beautiful pasta dish using fava beans, Italian sausage and plum tomatoes. I was a little more interested. So I started poking around on epicurious.com, where more than one recipe compared them to edamame, the delicious protein-rich, slightly crunchy, slightly nutty Japanese soybean snack. Sign me up.
Taking my usual approach, I read a number of recipes and then came up with one of my own, a pasta dish that celebrates the seasonality of fava beans—they’re only readily available a couple/few months in spring/summer. I added red bell pepper as much for color contrast with the bright green beans as for flavor, along with some onion and garlic. Then I brightened the flavor with lemon juice and zest. And I balanced all this lively produce goodness with nature’s perfect food, bacon.
Shelling the beans. This is the elephant in the room. May as well get it out of the way right now. I’d always been put off by what sounded like a labor intensive, time-consuming task. Susan made it look easy—just blanch the beans and squirt them right out of their skins. The truth fell somewhere in the middle for me.
One food blogger called shelling fava beans almost zenlike, and I could kind of see what he meant. Simple, humble processes like this are why we cook. Why I cook, anyway, or part of the reason. The very act of making something with my hands, something I will eat and share with others, is one of the most direct things I do in the everyday living of my life. By way of contrast, my equivalent of hunting and gathering, of helping put food on the table and a roof over our heads, is writing advertising copy.
Zen, schmen. How do you actually shell them? Put a pot of water on to boil so you can blanch the individual beans for part two of the shelling process. While you’re at it, put something on the boombox or radio or TV or whatever for company. Then have at it.
Grasp a fava bean pod in one hand and twist/snap/tear off the end that attaches to the plant. Then tear open the pod and remove the beans. Sometimes the pod will split open along the seam, sometimes not.
When the water is boiling, dump the shelled beans in and blanch them for 2 to 3 minutes. Then drain them and plunge them into a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking. When they’ve cooled, remove the tough outer skin. According to Susan, you can just squeeze them at one end and the beans will pop out. That didn’t happen for me, so I was delighted to later read that even Clotilde over at Chocolate & Zucchini had not been able to do this. We both came upon a similar simple solution, though. Just pinch a little tear in the skin with your thumbnail; then when you squeeze it, the bean will indeed shoot right out.
A pound of unshelled fava beans in their pods will produce about a cup of shelled beans. While producing my cup for this recipe, I remembered wandering through my Aunt Veta’s Mississippi kitchen one summer as a boy. Three or four women were in there shelling just-picked butter beans, bushel basketsful of them, probably still warm from the summer sun. It didn’t look like my idea of fun, but they were having a high old time, gossiping, laughing and “carryin’ on,” as Aunt Veta would put it.
Fettuccine with Fava Beans, Red Bell Pepper and Bacon
Makes 2 generous servings
4 strips of bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large red bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped into big chunks
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup shelled fava beans [from 1 pound of unshelled beans—see Kitchen Notes]
2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus zest of 1 lemon
8 ounces uncooked fettuccine; cook according to package directions
Cook bacon over medium heat in a large skillet, starting it in a cold pan, until nearly crisp. Transfer with slotted spoon to plate with paper towel to drain. Pour bacon fat from skillet and wipe with paper towel—you don’t want the bacon to overpower the dish. Add olive oil to pan and heat over medium flame. Sauté onion and red pepper for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid browning or burning.
Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Stir in fava beans and reserved bacon and cook until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and zest.
Meanwhile cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water. Add pasta to skillet and toss with fava bean mixture, stirring in a little of the pasta water if pasta looks too dry. Divide pasta on serving plates, top with remaining sauce in pan and grate Parmesan cheese over individual plates. Serve.
Fava beans: A warning, a review and an anecdote. When I did some reading on fava beans, I was alarmed to learn that they can cause a rare but potentially deadly reaction in some people. According to an NPR story, “Some people should stay away from fava beans. There is a rare disease, called favism, which affects some people of African, Mediterranean or Southeast Asian descent. They have severe allergic reactions to eating the fava bean or inhaling its pollen.” Wow. Some things I read suggested that cooking them takes care of the problem, but I can’t say for certain. Just be aware.
So were they worth the effort? In a word, yeah. As I was shelling the blanched beans, I ate a couple and really enjoyed the edamamelike taste and texture. In this dish, they play a supporting role; I might like to try them in a salad to let them take center stage. As further testament to how good they are, when I told Marion I was going to do something with fava beans, she told me a great story. She was visiting her parents. Her father grew fava beans in his garden because both her parents loved them. Marion came in to find them sitting at the table gobbling down bowls of freshly peeled fava beans. Never having eaten them, Marion asked what they tasted like. Her father said simply, “You wouldn’t like them.” And then they ate even faster.
Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 4/23/2008
New, new, new: Dance, art and a restaurant. Find a triple helping of cool new stuff, at WTF? Random food for thought.
Well-mannered avant garde jazz. The Dave Holland Quintet makes you sit up and take notice without going off on you, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?