Weekend Food: In Season

You're not dreaming, signore: time for fresh fava beans.
by: Jim Clark, The three levels of fava beans (from back to front) - in the pod, in the shell and shelled.

My Italian grandfather used to threaten us with 'pasta pazoola!' We had no idea what it meant, but apparently it was something terrible. It was for very naughty children, like being put on bread and water, only worse. The phrase also could stand alone as an exclamation, sort of like 'darn it!' or 'get out of here!' - which didn't make it sound any more appealing.

It turns out he was referring to a peasant stew of pasta and beans called pasta e fagioli, the same dish about which Dean Martin sings fondly, 'When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool, that's amore!'

It's made from the most basic (i.e., cheapest) of Italian ingredients: cannelini beans, tomatoes and pasta - and I imagine that many Italian immigrants had to eat it every day. My grandfather probably remembered it the way American college students remember ramen or boxed macaroni and cheese.

Somehow, though, I now occasionally crave combinations of pasta and beans. That's especially true when I see that fava beans are in season. I love the way they combine a rich texture with a bright, fresh flavor, and their brilliant green perks up dishes that tend to be monochromatic, especially pasta, and also soup.

Long a staple of the Mediterranean diet, fava beans also are known as horse, broad, Windsor, English dwarf, tick, pigeon, bell, haba, feve and silkworm beans. Favas could use a cheerleader here in the U.S., although it's not the long list of aliases that detracts from their reputation.

Most people complain that they take too long to prepare. They arrive wrapped as carefully as fine china. The big outer pods, which look like giant green beans, are stiff and fibrous outside, with a white lining that resembles styrofoam, and insulates the beans inside. Not only that, each individual bean comes shrink-wrapped in its own pale-green shell. These shells are edible but not very tender, and they become tougher as the season goes on.

Tom Denison grows organic fava beans, along with a spectrum of other organic produce, on his farm near Corvallis. He's been growing fava beans for 25 years, and his rule of thumb is that if they're smaller than a quarter, he'll eat them with the shell on. He sells at several farmers markets around Portland, and says that people from 'the old country' - whether that's Italy, the Middle East or even Brazil - will buy large quantities. He suspects they shell the beans as a family group, sitting around a table and gossiping at the same time.

After extracting the favas from their pods, which you can easily do with your fingers, the best way to remove the skins is to blanch them. Toss the beans in boiling water for about two minutes. Don't salt the water - it may make the beans tougher, and they taste faintly salty by themselves.

Plunge them into ice water or rinse them in cold running water until they are cool. Some will burst right out of their shells. For the rest, cut off the tip of the shell with a small, sharp knife in one hand and pop the bean out with the other.

It is a bit of work, but at this point, the favas are ready to go. You can eat them as is, sauté them briefly, toss them into soup, or mash them with garlic and olive oil and serve on crostini. Denison sometimes eats them raw, standing in the field. He also likes them simmered with olive oil, garlic, sweet onion, tomato and basil, or blended into a pesto.

If you've never had fava beans before, there is another count against them. A few people, mostly men, are extremely allergic to them, especially when they're raw or only partially cooked. The genetic condition, a form of anemia called G6PD deficiency and often referred to as favism, is caused by an abnormality of an enzyme in the blood. You either have this condition or you don't - a blood test can tell - so it's not something that will add to the early-summer woes of most common seasonal-allergy sufferers.

Fava beans are a good source of protein, iron and fiber, and they also ward off malaria. But it's their bright flavor that wins people over. And if you can afford some good olive oil and a little cheese, you can make a dish fit for the wealthiest, most successful of immigrants. Serve it, of course, with a nice Chianti.

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Fava beans with pasta and pancetta

This is a very rich dish, so serve it on the side or with a big salad.

• 1/2 pound dried pasta, either campanelle or anything with a ruffled or curly shape

• 3/4 pound fava beans, in their shells

• 1/4 pound pancetta, diced small

• 3 tablespoons olive oil

• Pinch of crushed red pepper

• 3 cloves garlic, sliced very thin

• 2 tablespoons cream

• 1/2 cup pecorino Romano cheese, grated black pepper

• 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

Shell the fava beans and blanch in boiling water for two minutes. Rinse in cold water and remove the outer skins.

Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, brown the pancetta with a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-low heat, about 10 minutes. Drain off the fat, then add two more tablespoons of olive oil, the red pepper and garlic, and cook, stirring, for one minute.

Add the beans and stir until they are heated through, one or two minutes. Then add the cream, heat and stir in 1/4 cup of the grated cheese and stir until a sauce forms.

Drain the pasta, return to pan, and toss with the bean mixture. Serve topped with additional cheese, parsley and black pepper. Serves two, or four as a side dish.