Every spring at Chez Panisse, the restaurant in Berkeley opened by seasonal food guru Alice Waters, teams of chefs and interns shuck, blanch and then peel the skins off of mountains of fava beans. Former Chez Panisse chef and author Tamar Adler says the skill became so ingrained in her that, even years later, she remains a speedy pro at fava prep.
“I will take anybody on when it comes to fava bean peeling,” said Adler with a chuckle.
Favas, which are now in season, are often burdened with the stigma of being a laborious legume to prepare and cook. Several pounds of unshucked favas get whittled down to a mere cup or so of ready-to-eat beans.
But there’s a much easier way to serve favas, according to Adler, whose book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace is now out in paperback.
“What the Italians do is they put a big pile of them in the middle of the table and every single person sitting at the table shucks their own and eats them raw,” she said.
Suddenly, a task involving a nearly heroic amount of solitary prep work becomes an easy, communal event.
“The best lesson that I have ever learned from the Italians when it comes to vegetables — and especially labor-intensive vegetables like fava beans — is that when they’re really hard, you step back and you invert the whole process completely,” Adler explained. “You create a do-it-yourself vegetable preparation technique.”
Raw favas do have more of a crunch than cooked ones, but they are still tender, sweet and palatable. The easiest method of eating favas is to simply dip the raw bean in good olive oil and a bit of coarse salt.
(Photo: Tamar Adler/Dan Kim)
Adler says the most seasonal and traditionally Italian approach is to pair the bean with marzolino, a cheese that is only made in March.
“It’s made from the first spring milk from a sheep,” she said, “but any sheep’s milk cheese is really great and so is mozzarella.”
Also, the bean goes especially well with thinly sliced prosciutto.
When it comes to cooking favas, Adler explained that there are three schools of thought and each method involves a different degree of work.
The easiest way to cook them is to just find the smallest ones at the market and cook them whole.
“I just cut them up and cook them in hot oil and then cover them,” said Adler. “That’s a traditional Egyptian way of doing it. You just need to get the smallest ones you can.”
Adler noted that farmer Zaid Kurdieh, of Norwich Meadows Farm, greatly prefers this method and sells young favas for that reason.
The next way of cooking favas is to just shuck them, leaving the rubbery skin on the individual beans. Then, they can be slow cooked in stews or braised.
“The Sicilians think that that is a good thing to do and so do the Northern Italians,” said Adler.
The final and most labor-intensive version of making favas is the method used by the staff at Chez Panisse. The beans are shucked, blanched and then peeled. The result is a tender, bright green bean — one that can also serve as a quick impromptu snack for the chef.
Try Adler’s recipes for favas below. Fava bean toast requires more involved preparation, but for those running short on time or patience, Adler also included a quick instructional on how to serve favas sans prep.
Fava Bean Toast for Four
by Tamar Adler
Shuck 3 pounds fava beans of any size. The larger, starchier ones are easiest for this.
Put a pot of water on to boil. Drop the favas into the boiling water and leave for 20 seconds or so — just long enough for the favas skins to loosen. With a big slotted spoon, remove the favas to a bowl of ice water.
Grab a handful of beans at a time and peel each of its tough outer skin, using your thumbnail to pierce the skin, then popping the beans out into a bowl. Small favas can be left skin-on.
In a small pot, heat a quarter cup of olive oil. When just warm, add three cloves sliced spring garlic, or one clove sliced regular garlic, and a sprig of summer savory or rosemary and a small pinch of salt. When the garlic has softened, add the favas and cook over low heat, smashing as you cook, keeping well bathed in olive oil, until the beans are very smashed up, about 15 minutes.
Turn off heat.
Make toasts by toasting or grilling 1/4 inch slices of chewy peasant bread, then rubbing with a clove of raw garlic and drizzling with olive oil.
Remove savory or rosemary from fava paste, then spread each garlicky toast unevenly with a good amount of paste. Squeeze a little fresh lemon on each and top with a coarse, sparse grind of pepper.
*Or more easily, buy an ostentatious amount of favas and an only slightly more moderate amount of cold white wine or lightly chilled rose. Buy, also, finely sliced prosciutto and good bread. Dump all of the favas into a big bowl on the table and lay the ham on a plate. Put a small bowl of good olive oil and another of flaky salt nearby. Pour wine copiously and lead the way by shucking raw favas from their pods, dipping each into a little salt or olive oil or both, tearing off some bread, and drinking deep wine and laziness and late spring or early summer or who cares because it's lively and simple and good. —Tamar Adler