The taste of spring: Seasonal fava beans and pasta

by Terry B on April 23, 2008

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
Parmesan cheese

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.

Kitchen Notes

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?

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Ginny April 23, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Delicious! I love fava beans although they tend to be hard to get a hold of around here. The pasta looks fabulous!

Mary Coleman April 23, 2008 at 12:07 pm

This looks wonderful. I love Marion’s story about her parents and the fava beans. That’s hilarious!

grace April 23, 2008 at 12:50 pm

i can’t help but always associate fava beans with hannibal lecter. never fear, that doesn’t stop me from loving them dearly! nice recipe! :)

Patricia Scarpin April 23, 2008 at 1:43 pm

At one of the “Jaime at Home” episodes I saw, he used fava beans directly from the shells – he just combined them with salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil and grated cheese (I think it was Grana Padano, mas I’m not sure now) and mixed it all up using a mortar and a pestle. Then he spread the paste over grilled bread and made crostini. They looked so delicious!

This pasta dish looks delicious, too, Terry. Love the ingredients you added to the beans.

Seattle Tall Poppy April 23, 2008 at 2:27 pm

Wow. This dish looks amazing!

Terry, so nice to “meet” you. Yes, you definitely need to pop out to Seattle and feel free to look me up. I used to live in Chicago and it’s one of my favorite cities. I miss the people….and the pizza! (okay my friend, bonus points if you come with a Giordano’s pie in hand…LOL! There are plenty of things worth bragging about in Seattle…pizza is NOT one of them.)

I look forward to reading more….

Cheers!
Traca

Terry B April 23, 2008 at 3:19 pm

Thanks, Ginny! I don’t generally see them in the supermarket, but if you have access to little produce markets in your area, you might find them there.

Everyone—In light of rising food prices, Ginny is hosting a timely event at her blog, Just Get Floury. It’s the Dollar Dish Duel. Cook a dish that will feed two for $5 or less. The deadline is May 5, so get cracking.

Mary—Marion’s story reminded me of a very different approach we took when our daughters were small. Whenever we ate in a Mexican restaurant, they would turn their noses up at the guacamole appetizer we often ordered. Finally, we insisted that they try it one time. Big mistake. From that point on, we always had to share with our two little enthusiastic guacamole fans. I belatedly see the wisdom of Marion’s parents.

Grace—I am quite possibly the only person on the planet to have missed that film. But amusingly, as I researched fava beans, the Hannibal Lecter reference kept popping up.

Patricia—I think crostini may be something I have to try with them.

Traca—Yeah, you have to work pretty hard to get bad pizza in this town. Your blog makes Seattle sound pretty wonderful too, pizza notwithstanding.

pea April 23, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Great looking dish! I think I will try it. I am also glad I found this blog. Will be back.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) April 24, 2008 at 12:09 am

I love fava beans but have never cooked them, although I have used them dry, ground up, in falafel. Now that you’re saying favas are worth the effort, I’ll have to reconsider!

diva@theSugarBar April 24, 2008 at 1:25 am

oooh, such an interesting post. and a pretty spring dish too. like the mix of colours and the addition of the beans!
also, that big kitchen knife of your blog design reminds me so much (somehow) of Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares..lol. x

Terry B April 24, 2008 at 2:19 am

pea—Thanks for visiting! Do come back.

Lydia—Be sure to sample some on their own when you do. If you like them dry, you’ll love fresh fava beans.

diva—Thanks! To me, the knife just represents the whole process of cooking—and the most important tool for a cook.

carolyn April 24, 2008 at 8:29 pm

Loved Marion’s story and yours about your daughters tasting guacamole. “In the olden days,” butter used to sit out on the restaurant table. Only sometimes it wasn’t butter. Our preschooler was our taster. She’d sit down, unfold her napkin, and then taste something from the butter dish to declare it edible or not. What a hoot remembering this.

I’ve never had fava beans, but you mentioned butter beans and my heart stood still.

Terry B April 24, 2008 at 8:36 pm

Carolyn—Yet another great kids and food story! It reminds me of going to a cafeteria with college friends and one of them putting a big helping of what he thought was thousand islands dressing on his salad. His first big bite told him it was tartar sauce.

Hélène April 25, 2008 at 12:52 am

It’s supper time now and this is a meal I would enjoy.

Toni April 25, 2008 at 5:39 am

Haven’t eaten fava beans in a long time, and when I did, someone else cooked them. Now I’m thinking it might be my turn. Love the lightness of this recipe – the mixing and pairing of flavors.

Also love the story about Marion’s parents – they sound familiar!

chefjp April 25, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Very nice combination of clean flavors!

Susan from Food Blogga April 25, 2008 at 11:33 pm

Nuts. My comment didn’t post b/c logging in/out. It went something like: Woo-hoo! You tackled fava beans! I like the tip about tearing the waxy shell, but mine really did pop right out. Scouts honor.

I can’t wait to make this recipe. Pasta with bacon and favas? What’s not to love? Great post, Terry.

Mike of Mike's Table April 26, 2008 at 3:13 pm

Well now between you and Susan, I’m intrigued by the thought of fava beans as well. This looks like a great springy/summery dish. Thanks for the tips on popping them out–hopefully I can find some at the store this weekend

Terry B April 26, 2008 at 3:49 pm

Helene—Reading food blogs around mealtimes can be treacherous, can’t it?

chefjp—Thanks! And thanks for the shout out in your round-up.

Susan—Thanks for inspiring me to try fava beans. And sure, I believe you. Whatever you say.

Mike—Can’t wait to see what you do with them!

ann April 26, 2008 at 10:06 pm

Funny! Isaac and I were just talking about fava beans today. We love them, and we even love shelling them. We buy pounds and pounds of them, then take bowls out onto our stoop and shell away while basking in the sunshine and saying hi to the neighbors. It’s such a lovely way to pass an afternoon, we can’t wait until they start showing up in the markets! Then I’ll get to try your lovely pasta Terry!

Christina April 27, 2008 at 5:57 am

Beautiful dish. Don’t you just love how green the fava beans are once you get to the meaty insides?

When I blanch my beans, most of the time, the membranes split so they are easy to shoot out of their skins. I haven’t had to tear them open before.

Thanks for reminding us of your wonderful Aunt Veta. Such a great lady.

Lena April 27, 2008 at 11:49 pm

I am Marion’s sister. Our dad was quite the gardener but he never grew fava beans until Marion and I had both moved away. Once on a visit, my mom said to me with some excitement, “Daddy is growing fava beans.” “What are those?” I asked but she changed the subject. Our parents were generous people but they never gave us even one fava bean.

Terry B April 28, 2008 at 3:28 am

ann—That’s exactly the kind of social event my Aunt Veta had turned shelling butter beans into. Well, except maybe with less of a southern twang emanating from your porch.

Christina—My brother was down in Mississippi recently visiting with Aunt Veta. She sounds like she’s still going strong.

Lena—Your parents were always generous to a fault with food. That they wouldn’t share their fava beans speaks to the allure of the beans’ meaty insides, as Christina so perfectly described it.

katie April 28, 2008 at 7:58 pm

I do the first step sitting in a comfy chair in front of the telly. The second – I have no problem just popping them out – maybe I blanched them a bit longer…
Either way, it is a pain in the ….
One should really have child labor….
(I can remember, as a child, sitting outside shelling peas)

michelle April 29, 2008 at 2:55 am

fava beans are a giant pain in my giant ass. i just did a dish with favas the other day, and i shot the damn things all over the kitchen. but i shell ‘em anyway, because they’re damn good. i’m loving all the fava bean recipes popping up lately – too bad the beans themselves aren’t around for very long.

Terry B April 29, 2008 at 4:45 am

Katie—When the girls were small, Marion would occasionally make a dish that required lots and lots and lots of freshly ground black pepper. She would enlist the daughters and have them take turns grinding pepper. When they refused to do any more, she knew she had enough.

Michelle—Don’t hold back. How do you really feel? I just took a quick look at your wildly entertaining blog. I will be back.

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