HANNIBAL LECHTER ONLY hinted at the value and flavor of fava beans when he described eating a census taker’s liver with “some fava beans and a nice Chianti” in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. The fava (also known as broad bean or habas) is one of the world’s oldest cultivated foods, and new insights about its usefulness are helping to bolster its reputation as a versatile, two-season vegetable that is as much at home in the Hudson Valley as it is in Egypt.
Cultivated by agri-based societies of the Bronze age (3300-1200 BC), fava beans were a staple for several millennia in ancient Egypt, China, India, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Given its longevity, it’s not surprising that the bean has developed a lofty position in the myth and lore of many cultures. Sicilians credit the bean and Saint Joseph for saving them from famine when their crops failed. A meal of fava beans is served on Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19) with a dish of uncooked beans to pocket for good luck. The bean is used in the practice of hoodoo rootwork, a folk-magic tradition in New Orleans, where seven “Mojo beans” or “African wishing beans,” as they are known, are carried around for seven days and then tossed into running water over the left shoulder while making a wish.
That it has existed for so long in so many diverse locations and cultures is a credit to how easy this bean is to grow, especially in cooler climates. The plant does double duty as both a spring and fall vegetable: In the spring, virtually the whole plant leaves, stalks, flowers and young beans can be eaten; left in the pod to mature and dry, the beans can be harvested in the fall and are used whole or ground in soups, sauces and other, primarily ethnic, dishes.
At Windfall Farms in Montgomery, an organic vegetable farm, fava beans are thickly planted in three 800-foot-long beds, each seven feet wide. “We do a good trade with the young greens of the fava plant at the farmers’ markets in New York City,” says Hubert McCabe, a farmer who has a production partnership with Windfall Farms owner Morse Pitts. “People love the greens as well as the plant’s edible flowers.” Rather than waiting for the beans to dry on the vine, as is common practice, McCabe harvests the young beans. “We can’t wait for the bean to mature—we rob the fava of its young beans,” he says.
Near Goshen, Jeff and Adina Bialas started their small organic farm last April and included fava beans among their hundred crops. The young beans proved popular with customers. “We grew just a couple of rows and didn’t have any extra for drying,” Jeff says. “The fresh ones were what excited customers. We’re planning to grow about the same amount this fall—we are going to grow more for the 2011 season.”
Jack Algiere, farm manager at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, says he plants fava seeds just before spring. “We shovel the snow away around the first week in March and chisel the seeds right into the ground. It’s a big bean and has a lot of energy to push forward—it’s a good, easy crop for us.” The bean is harvested as early as the first week in June, Algiere says, though for the first time, this year he intends to plant fava seeds in the fall. “We could very likely get a good crop by the end of October,” he notes. “I’ve never had a bad crop of fava beans. We do like having them.”
For home gardeners, the seeds are cheap, abundant and easy to find in the better seed catalogues. Like most legumes, they help conserve soil nitrogen and break disease and weed cycles. (“They don’t suck out the essential energy of the soil, like tomatoes,” Algiere notes.) As soon as the soil is workable, they can be planted about two inches apart in rows. Watch for aphids, Algiere warns.
On the health scale, the nutritious and inexpensive bean tops the scoreboard: It is especially high in minerals and nutrients, including fiber and iron; it is low in sodium, low in fat, contains no cholesterol and is rich in vitamin C. Less than a cup of favas supplies almost 300 calories and about 50 grams of carbohydrates. The entire fava plant—leaves, stems, pods and the very young, green beans—have been found to contain levo-dopa, a chemical used to treat Parkinson’s Disease, and some evidence suggests it might be used to help control the disease’s symptoms. (Three ounces of fresh green or canned fava beans can have about 50 to 100 milligrams of levo-dopa.) Still other studies suggest the bean is an alternative to Viagra. On the down side, some people with Middle Eastern heritage can develop serious anemia from eating fava beans—a genetic disorder known as Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD), or “favism.”
Fresh fava beans are not rare on gourmet menus or in home kitchens. Many spring menus feature the fresh, newly grown, tender and nutty flavored fava beans either raw in salads or braised in pasta dishes. The leaves of the early plant can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach and can be found at farmers’ markets and health food stores. It takes a bit of doing to get at the “double-hulled” bean—it must be shucked from the pod and then removed from its own white, waxy coating. Mature beans can be found in supermarkets and health food stores—they can be found fresh, dried, skinless, frozen and canned. “We’ve carried fresh and dried fava beans for at least 25 years,” says Bill Lessner, of Adams Fairacre Farms markets (a prepared mixed-bean salad with fava beans occasionally shows up in the deli sections). Joe’s Italian Marketplace in Fishkill stocks roasted fava beans and a roasted fava-and-dried chickpea snack. “It was a snack I ate as a kid,” says Marketplace co-owner Santa Byrnes. “We also grew up on a dish of dried fava beans, Swiss chard and prosciutto.”
Selecting dried fava beans is easy, says Meghan Fells, chef and co-owner of Artist’s Palate restaurant in Poughkeepsie. “You want them to be brown, smooth and shiny—that means they were kept and dried well.” Fells uses fava beans for a hummus-type dish, and in maccu, a dried fava-and-fennel soup with polenta.
Fava beans are a staple in Egyptian cuisine, and Chef Nabil Ayoube, of The Chef’s Table at the Red Hook Country Inn, prepares fava beans for ful medames, the traditional Egyptian breakfast. The dish of mashed beans with oil, garlic, lemon, salt and cumin is eaten with onions and bread. Rather than soaking and draining the beans before cooking, as is common, Ayoube cooks favas over a very low flame at night; by the next morning the beans are ready to use. Niels Nielsen, chef at Fez, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Saugerties that opened last fall, prepares a soup using fava beans, cayenne and harissa, a Middle Eastern condiment.
That the “good luck” bean hails from the ancients says it is a “tried-and-true” food—it wouldn’t be on our plates today if it wasn’t highly nutritious and easy to grow. Favas have been around for four or five millennia; chances are they’re here to stay.