Spring is in the air – finally! This has been an extremely long, wet, winter and I for one am thrilled to finally see the sun shining and warmer temperatures. One of my favorite spring foods is fava beans. I am excited to see them starting to show up in grocery stores and Farmer’s Markets. When they are young, they are tender, creamy, and earthy. The pods are lumpy and gangling, like a young colt, and contain the beans encased in another pale green covering. They are the perfect way to say goodbye to the cold, wet weather and celebrate the arrival of sunny, warm days!
Other than the string kind, I never particularly liked beans. Then one night a few years ago, my husband and I had dinner at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. We are very lucky to live nearby and we go occasionally as a treat. That night the amuse-bouche (amooz-boosh) was a crostini topped with a fava bean spread. One of the best things about eating at Chez Panisse is trying foods you normally would never eat. So, with a little trepidation I tried it. I was transformed! It was bright with a touch of lemon, both smooth and crunchy at the same time. I couldn’t believe how delicious it was. I went home determined to recreate that bite.
After some trials and errors, I found a recipe by Paula Wolfert, an expert on Mediterranean foods and author of such books as Mediterranean Grains and Greens, The Cooking of Southwest France, and The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook. The recipe was simple to make with easy to find ingredients. It takes a huge pile of pods to yield enough beans for use, so buy twice as much as you think you need. Having a food processor makes pureeing the beans a breeze.
For this recipe a nice, fruity extra virgin olive oil would be ideal as a complement to the flavor of the favas. While you could use red or green onions, I prefer the subtlety of shallots. Tasting like a cross between onions and garlic, they add a piquancy when left raw and sweetness when cooked. Oregano and coriander are very Mediterranean, and the cumin adds a touch of Mexican cuisine. I like the citrus overtones of mace which is the exterior coating of nutmeg.
The only cumbersome aspect is prepping the fava beans themselves. Intimidating the first time, after doing it once it is easy. Snap the stem end off and pull the string down the side, it is nature’s zipper! Then run your thumb down the pod and pop the beans out. These beans must be double peeled — removed from their pods and then slipped out of their skins. The bright green beans pop right out. Discard any brown beans.
While the flavor of the bean puree is outstanding on its own, when you add the bite of a freshly shaved block of Parmesan it becomes truly spectacular. Don’t skimp on the quality of the cheese and please, don’t make me come after you if you try to use the fake stuff in the green can!! Buy a block of cheese and use a vegetable peeler to shave fairly large pieces. Drape a piece of cheese over the top of each crostini and these will disappear as soon as you make them. As a matter of fact, I have learned the hard way, to set a few aside for myself before offering them to my guests. Friends who are hanging out in the kitchen will inhale them – more than once I have wound up with only one or two for myself.
While I like to serve these on little crostini cut from a slender baguette, you can use any base you like. Tortilla chips, pita chips, and Lavosh would all be delicious with the spread. The bread slices can be served fresh, you can bake until crispy, or for an extra special indulgence, toast them on the grill. They will take on a slightly smoky taste that adds a lot to each bite.
The flavors of the bean spread meld and improve after resting, so make this a day ahead for an easy hors d’oeuvre at your next party. You can also use frozen and thawed fava beans when fresh aren’t available, making this a year-round treat.
In addition to serving these at parties, consider enjoying them yourself as part of a meal. They are a wonderful way to get your kids to eat vegetables and not even complain. They would make a terrific first course or can be served alongside a hot bowl of soup. No matter when and how you partake of these, I hope you with enjoy the bright flavors of spring!
- French baguette, sliced into 3/8-inch rounds
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Coarse grain sea salt
- 2 lbs un-shelled fresh young fava beans (young ones are tender and sweet)
- 1 shallot, peeled and sliced
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup water
- Fresh lime or lemon juice to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp dried basil, or about 4 fresh, large leaves, sliced
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/4 tsp ground coriander
- Dash ground mace, optional
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- Dash of paprika or to taste
- Wedge of Parmesan cheese
- Lime and lemon wedges for garnish
- For the Crostini: Place the bread rounds on a baking sheet. Brush top surface lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake in a preheated 400ºF. oven until lightly golden and crispy, about 4 minutes. Flip pieces over and bake for another 3 to 4 minutes until lightly toasted. Remove from oven and flip back over so the oiled side is up. Sprinkle with a little salt if desired. Set aside. These can be made a day ahead; store in an airtight plastic bag or container.
- For the Fava Beans: Set a steamer basket in the bottom of a large saucepan and fill with about 2 inches of water. Bring water to a light boil over medium-high heat, add favas, and cover. Steam fava pods for about 5 minutes. Immediately transfer to a strainer and cool under running water. Remove white-covered beans from pods and then peel off skin and drop bright green favas into a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add shallot, 2 tbsp oil and the water. Cook, stirring, until favas are soft and tender, about 2 minutes.
- Pour beans, shallots, and cooking liquid into a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add remaining 2 tbsp olive oil and a few drops of lemon juice. Add salt, pepper, basil, oregano, coriander, mace, cumin, and paprika. Process until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside to cool.
- Spread some on each crispy crostini. With a vegetable peeler shave a little Pecorino or Parmesan on top and arrange on a serving platter. Garnish tray with lemon wedges and serve.
- If not serving immediately, pack spread into a small container, cover with a layer of olive oil, and seal with a lid. Refrigerate. The spread improves with an overnight rest and will keep up to four days in the refrigerator. Return to room temperature before serving.
- Yield: 1 cup, about 6 to 8 servings