Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Two-timing fava beans

It's officially spring: The fava beans showed up Saturday morning at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market.

OK, OK, you can't think of fava beans without imitating Hannibal Lecter. Go ahead, I'll wait right here. ("F-f-f-f-f-ahvah beans. And a nice chi-ANT-ti.")

Feel better, Clarice? Good, let's continue.

Favas aren't a big crop around here. A few farmers grow them, but usually not in large amounts and never for very long. When I spot a small pile at a stand, I know I had better grab them.

The good thing about favas, besides their jade-like color, is their size. Yes, you have to shell them, but the beans inside are usually as big as the end of your thumb, so you get a nice-size pile for a little less work than shelling smaller peas.

There is a trick to favas, though: You have to shell them twice. First, you pull open each big pod and release the beans. Put the beans in a small amount of salted water and cook them briefly, maybe 5 minutes.

You'll notice they take on a strange, white hue. Welcome to the second shelling. Nature really protected favas, putting them in big, padded pods and then surrounding the actual bean with a thick, translucent skin. You usually can't see it until after you cook them, when it suddenly appears. It's easy to remove, though. Let the beans cool, then just squeeze. The bright green bean will pop out.

You can eat them cool, dressed as a salad, toss them in a salad or serve them warm as a side dish. Since I usually don't find many favas at a time, I use them as an accent. On Sunday night, I made a batch of quinoa and then sauted my peeled favas and a couple of stalks of chopped asparagus in a little olive oil. Then I tossed it with the quinoa as a side dish. The leftovers made a dandy lunch salad, too.

One more thing about favas, though: There is a rare fava allergy called favism. It only occurs in people who have inherited a genetic enzyme deficiency, called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase. It's most common among people from the Mediterranean and African-Americans. It causes hemolytic anemia, along with symptoms like dizziness, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. If you serve favas to anyone who has never eaten them, it's worth being aware of it, but it is very rare.