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Fava Beans

Fava flowers

Have you ever eaten Italian, Greek or Middle Eastern food and found some enormous beans in it?  Most likely those were fava beans.  Commonly called broad beans or horse beans, these ancient beans are native to Africa and Asia, but can be found in cuisines worldwide.

There are a lot of reasons to grow them, even if you don’t eat the beans.  First of all, they are nitrogen fixers, being a legume.  However they don’t tendril like green beans do.  The plant is a tall stalk (different varieties grow different heights) that sets beautiful flowers down the trunk.  From these flowers grow some very weird-looking veggies.  The pods look like clusters of swollen green fingers, I kid you not.  The stalk can grow unsupported, but may topple over once the heavy pods are set.

Another reason to grow them is that they are hardy and can tolerate cold, and soils that are heavy in clay and salts (which pretty much describes my yard).   Often broad beans are grown as a cover crop, then cut and allowed to decompose on the soil surface while the roots release the nitrogen under the soil.

Then there is the reason that these very industrious plants produce an interesting protein-rich bean that enjoys notoriety worldwide (hence, easy to find different recipes for them!).  The young leaves and flowers are edible as well.

To harvest favas, pull the swollen (but not too lumpy or they’ll be tough) pods from the stalks.  Here comes the drawback: you have to shell the beans and it is a chore.  Turn on a movie, pull up a bag of fava beans and an empty compost bucket, and go to.  You may want to use a sharp knife to run down the seam, but I just used my fingernails.  I watched the 1980’s TV show Cheers, which I never saw because I haven’t had television in about 17 years.  Three episodes and I finished a big bag of favas!

When you’ve shelled the beans, you must blanch them for 3 minutes, then drop them in an ice bath.  Rub the beans to remove a waxy coating.  Then you can sautee them, mash them with potatoes, use them in fritters and soups, try an exotic Middle Eastern recipe with them. Fry them until they are crisp and serve salted as a snack.  If you want to freeze them, then give the beans the blanch and ice water treatment, dry them and freeze them on a cookie sheet.  Put them into a freezer bag.  When you want to use them, then thaw, remove waxy shells and use.  Some people don’t remove the coating, but its better if you do.

Fava beans have a nutty, slightly bitter and earthy flavor that becomes quite addictive.  Two warnings, though.  Some people, particularly those of Mediterranean decent, may be allergic.  Also if you are taking anti-depressants, the beans are rich in tyramine and should be avoided by those taking monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors – a type of medication used to treat severe depression.

Add fava beans to your garden and landscape.  Just tuck the seed into the ground and stand back.  Mine weren’t nibbled by rabbits or bothered by anything; however last year I grew six plants in a raised bed, and something opened all the pods and ate the beans.  This year I have them planted all over the property to help build the soil, and the harvest appears to be all mine.  I’m glad that Cheers ran so many seasons!

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