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Forever Fava Beans

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Most gardeners have someone in their past who was instrumental in helping to foster their love of growing things. While my parents were both avid gardeners, I attribute my passion to my Italian grandmother on my dad’s side. From the annual foraging of wild mustard in late winter to the delight of golden calendulas past winter’s frost, she instilled in me a wonder and joy for all things that sprout from the earth.

With so many memories of growing and gathering by her side, the one that manifests itself more often than any other is that of harvesting fava beans. Our baskets in hand, plucking off those giant pods while Gramma chuckled at her own corny jokes, are everlasting memories. Those same images evince themselves every spring when I grab a basket and head for my own fava patch.

Those memories may explain why I am so tempted to split a downy, bright-green pod and slip a fat, lima-sized bean into my pocket, as I had seen my Gramma often drop them into the pocket of her apron. Was she just saving seed, or did she really believe the old lore, that if one kept a fava bean nearby, she would always have good luck and never be without the essentials of life? Whether she believed it or not, she lived a long, prosperous and content life, seemingly never wanting
for anything.

And whether we believe in the superstition or not, there was at least some truth and substance to her ritual. Legend has it that in Sicily during the Middle Ages, there was a severe drought. The people prayed to their patron, Saint Joseph, to bring them rain, with the promise that if he answered their prayers, they would honor him with a large feast. The rains came and so, a great feast was prepared with fava beans as the main course, since that was the crop that saved them from starvation.

Gramma sowed her beans in the fall, keeping with the tradition of planting on All Soul’s Day, so they would be ready to harvest in March for Saint Joseph’s Day. The family would gather at her house on the Sunday nearest March 19 for a feast of raviolis stuffed with Swiss chard, meat and cheese, and tureens full of fresh favas in olive oil, garlic and red pepper. Everyone would bring presents and my aunts would make a big cake. But the presents and cake were not for Saint Joseph. Like always, my droll grandmother had the last laugh—her birthday was the same day.

My dad kept the tradition of growing fava beans alive, but after my Gramma passed, we no longer got together on that particular day in March. We just got together for an excuse to eat, and since favas were in season, that’s what we ate. As a farmer, my dad would plant acres of beans in the fall and then disc them under in late spring, just before planting his summer crops of corn and milo. The beans are notorious nitrogen fixers and invaluable as a natural, organic fertilizer and cover crop. I can’t drive down the road today and see them growing in neat, fragrant swatches between the rows of grapevines without reminiscing.

The favas that made it to our farm table were prepared the traditional way. My dad loved them simply sautéed in olive oil with garlic and red pepper on bruschetta, minus the tomatoes, since they were not yet in season. When he was not able to garden anymore, I took over the fava bean cultivation, and although the tradition has become somewhat watered down, it has certainly not faded away. Now, to be honest, some people in my family do not care for the creamy, pungent flavor of fava beans, so I have to be more creative in my presentation of this most revered legume. I have found to my delight that favas make an excellent substitute for garbanzos in hummus, are superb in soups and stews, and fry up fabulously in falafel. A personal favorite is to sauté and scramble them up with eggs fresh from my hens. A little salt and pepper to taste and it’s a great and simple meal accompanied by a crusty chunk of sourdough.

High in protein, they stand alone as a meatless dish and provide adequate servings of the B vitamins—thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, B6 and folate. Searching for new ways to meet this creative challenge, I have discovered that fava traditions are not exclusive to the Mediterranean region. This versatile bean has a tasty history in Asia and North Africa as well as the Middle East and India, and it is known as the broad bean in the United Kingdom.

I’m pretty sure my grandmother would approve of my resourcefulness in adding favas to the menu in so many creative ways. Even those who turn up their noses at the thought of such a hearty bean have been known to gobble up my homemade noodles made from leftover fava bean hummus, swimming in olive oil with garlic and red pepper. I prepare it aglio olio-style, just like my Gramma used to make. I can almost hear her slapping her knee and giggling with glee. Those memories will last forever. ■

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