Fava beans are a chic ingredient these days, but they’re more versatile than people realize. I learned this when I came across the leaves being sold at the beautiful farmer’s market in San Francisco as a salad green. I bought some and loved them, so this year I set out to grow my own.
In February I planted eight seeds of Broad Windsor fava beans in one of my large containers, about six inches apart. All of them sprouted, and I let them grow unchecked until they were nearly a foot high. At that point, I cut two of the plants and used all their leaves for an early salad, along with some romaine lettuce. The leaves are very mild in flavor and have an appealing tender texture. They marry well with a wide variety of other salad ingredients, including the delicate ones like butter lettuce, mache, and pansy leaves. Vinaigrettes that aren’t too strong and contain a little nut oil or a light, flowery Provencal olive oil work well.
I let the remaining plants grow until they had bloomed and set small pods. At that point, I cut off 6-8 inches of the tops of those plants, above the pods, and used the leaves in salads, which did no discernible harm to the maturing pods. As soon as the pods were filled out and I could feel beans inside about half to three quarters of an inch across, I picked the pods. A traditional Italian way to eat them is by themselves, raw on the plate, with thin slivers of young pecorino. It’s very good, but I thought they were great in this mushroom pasta. It’s vegetarian but has a substantial, meaty quality, and the slight delicious bitterness of the raw young fava beans is just what’s needed to give dimension to the flavor.
During the winter I grew my own oyster mushrooms but while the farmers markets are open I get them from Exotic Edibles of Edgewood, which is a good deal easier. You can find Scott and Gail, our local mushroom mavens, at the Downtown growers’ market on Saturday mornings.
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For two generous servings with leftovers, you will need:
1 pound of fresh oyster mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed of all woody parts
1/2 cup of garlic confit OR five garlic cloves chopped finely and half a cup of good olive oil
1/2 pound of good pasta (penne or chiocciole are good shapes for this dish)
about a cup of very young shelled fava beans
a cup of good Parmesan, grated
a small handful of toasted pine nuts for sprinkling (optional but delicious)
Tatse the fava beans to make sure that they are young enough. The skin should offer a little resistance but not be tough. If it’s tough, blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water, drain and cool under cold running water, and slip the skin off each bean. This is tedious, so it will save a lot of trouble to pick them at the right stage in the first place. But if you’re buying fava beans at the farmers market, they’re often picked a little later and will probably need skinning. I picked the ones shown above a little late to see how much work was involved in skinning them, and it does take a little extra time but the brilliant grass-green of the naked beans is striking to look at and accents the plate nicely. The flavor is good either way.
Start a pot of salted water heating for the pasta. Meanwhile, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Crush the garlic confit in a small bowl, or stir the fresh chopped garlic into the olive oil if not using confit. Put into the medium-hot skillet, and if using the confit, immediately add the oyster mushrooms. If using fresh garlic, stir it around in the hot oil for a minute, but don’t let it color at all, and then add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with sea salt to taste and continue to fry, being careful not to stir constantly. You want to leave the contents of the pan alone until the mushrooms on the underside have developed some brown caramelized areas, but don’t let anything blacken. Then stir and turn, so that another section can brown. If the mushrooms are done before the pasta, turn the heat to the lowest setting until you need them. Cook the pasta to the al dente stage and drain, reserving a little of the cooking water in case you need it to “loosen” the finished dish. Drain and stir in half the mushroom mixture and about 2/3 of the grated cheese. Grate in fresh black pepper, about 20 turns of the mill. Taste for salt, and correct if needed. If you see that the pasta is forming too thick a mass, stir in a few tablespoons of the cooking water to lighten it.
Plate the pasta immediately on warmed plates, top with the remaining mushrooms, and sprinkle the fava beans and the remaining grated cheese on top. Serve promptly. Some toasted pine nuts are good on this, if you like a bit of crunch, but don’t get carried away with additions. You want the pure and delicate flavors of the beans and mushrooms to shine.
There is a genetic condition called “favism,” which is a hemolytic anemia that develops in some people with G6PD deficiency when exposed to fava beans. If this runs in your family, don’t eat favas. But they are eaten and loved all over the world, and most people are able to eat them with no difficulty. Recently I’ve seen web postings making absurd health claims for them, and that’s going too far the other way. They’re just another delicious healthy vegetable. Enjoy them as such.