“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” – Hannibal Lecter
Thanks to Anthony Hopkin’s famous line in the movie Silence of the Lambs (1991), fava beans have gotten about as much respect in recent years as Rodney Dangerfield. That’s a shame because this exquisite heirloom bean has a nutty, buttery flavor and is a true gourmet delight.
It has been known by many names, including Faba beans, Broad beans, Pigeon beans, Horse beans, English beans, and Windsor beans.
Popular in the Mediterranean and Asia for centuries, favas may also have been grown by ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. The fava bean was the only bean that Europeans ate until other varieties were discovered in the Americas. In cooler areas of Europe, it was a food staple until potatoes became more popular. Early American colonists grew plenty of favas, but the lima bean became preferred over it in warmer areas of the country as time went on.
There are many ways to harvest and eat fava beans:
` You can pick the young pods when they are 2”-3” long and eat them whole or sliced and uncooked like a snap bean, or you can boil the pods (which will give them an “okra-like” texture).
` The most flavorful way of eating them is to shell them when the beans are still light green inside the pod (Beans are at the peak of flavor just before the hilums (the saddle shaped scar at the end of the seeds turns brown.). Cook the shelled beans immediately (or after storing the refrigerator for a few days) by boiling them quickly, just until the beans no longer float. Then, peel off the outer whitish bean shell and eat the YUMMY green beans inside. (A little labor intensive, but worth it!) If you like eating boiled edamame beans, you will love trying favas this way.
` You can leave some pods on the plant until the seeds are dry inside then store the dried beans for later use. Dried beans can be boiled like any other type of bean or used in soups and stews.
` The leaves of the fava plant are also edible. You can pinch off the young tips for salads or cook the foliage like spinach.
There are some important cautions regarding fava beans. They contain a lot of tyramine and should not be eaten by anyone taking monamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors. There are also some people with a hereditary condition causing G6PD enzyme deficiency (sometimes called, “favism”) that can cause a potentially fatal reaction if they ingest fava beans.
Unlike other bean varieties that require a very warm growing period, Favas are a legume and prefer conditions similar to peas. They won’t set pods well in temperatures over 65 degrees, but they are very cold tolerant and will withstand temperatures as low as 20 to 25 degrees. They can be planted in very early spring when soil temperatures are as low as 35-40 degrees. (A simple gauge for planting is to sow “when the crocus emerge”.) In areas with mild winters, you can sow them in fall for a winter harvest, and the plants may be covered with straw or mulch, allowing the roots to over winter and produce again the following season.
Fava beans do not grow like bush or pole type bean varieties. The 2’-3’ (may get as tall as 6’ in an ideal growing environment) tall plants grow upright and usually do not require staking unless you are in a very windy area. The black and white tipped flowers are quite beautiful and fragrant, attracting beneficial insects. Each 6”-8” long pod contains 5 to 7 beans.
Favas are also a great cover crop. They fix nitrogen in the soil and thus enrich it. Their extensive root system can help break up heavy soils and bring nutrients up from deeper areas.
Be sure to soak the seeds in water for 12-24 hours before sowing to encourage germination. As with peas, you can treat the seed with a Rhizobium inoculant before sowing, but it is not necessary.