When I was growing up in the 1960s, I could have counted all the vegetables I knew on two hands. Carrots, peas, broccoli, string beans, celery, lettuce…. My mom was probably on the adventurous side because she made fresh artichokes for us even though we lived 3,000 miles from any artichoke fields.
Now of course the American palate has expanded. Kale is so trendy that it is just about passé! Safeway sells baby arugula. People have learned to roast brussel sprouts in olive oil rather than boiling them to odoriferous pulp.
Still, we all get stuck in food ruts, cooking the same familiar things over and over. I was bumped out of my rut last year when we joined a CSA food box program. That stands for Community Supported Agriculture, where people support nearby organic farmers by ordering a box of produce each week, a kind of vegetable version of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
You don’t get to choose what comes in your box. You get whatever is seasonal. So in the past few months, I’ve learned to cook and like watermelon radishes and kohlrabi. Now I even buy watermelon radishes at the store! (Note: They are large beet-sized radishes with very pretty circles of pink, white, and light green. I dice them and roast them with beets, cauliflower, and butternut squash.)
I got another bump this week when our neighbors went on vacation and ordered us to eat whatever was ripe in their garden. This gave a whole new meaning to the phrase farm-to-table, since their garden is about six feet from my kitchen table.
Among other things, they were growing fava beans. Now, fava beans were something I’ve never had interest in buying or growing. I’d eaten them in paella, where they were big and brown and tasteless and mushy. You get three or four beans to a pod, and not too many pods on a plant, and they seemed like a whole lot of work for… just beans.
But God forbid anything should go to waste. So I picked a bunch of our neighbor’s beans and perused various web sites to figure out what to do with them. I decided to blanche them and serve them with olive oil and salt, like tapas.
They were awesome!
Preparing them was half the fun. It takes more time than throwing a head of broccoli in a pot, but it’s much more interesting and sensual.
First you shell the beans. I was amazed to open up a fava pod and find the beans cocooned in a kind of fleece lining, a soft, wispy white fuzz covering the inside of the pod. It was like a sleeping bag for beans. This is a plant that knows how to take care of its babies! (Hint: score the seam of the pod with a knife to shell them more easily.)
The beans themselves were smooth and flawless. I thought of bars of new soap. I thought of round stones that had been smoothed by a million years of running water. Apple could have stolen the clean lines and minimalist chic of its iPhone from a fava bean.
Next comes the hull protecting each bean. Some people peel the hulls and then eat the beans raw; others pop them into their mouth and eat them with the hull. I tried both ways and they were both good — would be a great TV snack. But for tapas, I wanted a large quantity of peeled beans.
I brought a pot of water to a boil, blanched the beans for three minutes, then spooned them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Boiling loosened their hulls and it was easy to slide the skin off. There’s something sensual about the frictionless ease with which the beans slide out of their cases in your fingers.
Voila! Fava beans, ready for olive oil and salt. The taste is starchy but also sweet, with a hint of nut or chestnut. Simple yet fresh.
I would feel bad about eating all of our neighbors’ fava beans, but they’re in Italy.
I suspect they are eating even better over there.