By Lois Weinblatt
Lois a Michigan native living in Murcia, a region of Spain known for the produce it supplies to the rest of the country and most of Europe. Before landing on the peninsula she interned with Cook´s Illustrated, worked with Zingerman´s and moved to Sicily to learn the ropes in the world of specialty foods exporting. What started as a strict budget in Italy has turned into a way of life, and she has been cooking on less than €5 a day ever since. Follow her adventures at her blog, Live to Eat, Eat to Learn.
After trying out a regional Spanish recipe for fava beans during my first week living in Murcia, I was reminded that a) just because a dish is traditional doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to taste good and b) when it comes to fresh favas, pretty much anything beyond fat and salt is gilding the lilly.
I peeled my way through lots of favas after developing an addiction to them in Sicily and I’m still amazed each time I whittle a mountain of them down into a tiny dish of delicate, slippery little beans that look straight out of a whimsical Fantasia number. After needing both hands to transport the tough pods to the trash and then a spoonful or two to sprinkle them into the pan, those things are vegetal gold. But as soon as the mess of tomatoes and onions hit the skillet for those first favas in Murcia, it was no longer evident that the dish had anything to do with them. That all got turned into a soup the following day (by way of a little broth, a hard boiled egg yolk to thicken the mix and an immersion blender to whip it even further beyond recognition), so I had no plans to doctor them up the next time around.
I’ve seen fruit vendors in the U.S. selling their seconds for half price but Southeastern Spain is the first place I’ve noticed the vegetables offered in distinct grades too. I circled the local farmers market a few times scoping out the fava scene and when I came upon a stand selling them for half the going rate I had a feeling it was too good to be true. The scraggly cardboard sign read 1€ and was placed just off center between two huge piles of beans. When I got closer I realized that one heap looked like the favas I got (literally off the back of a truck) in Sicily and the other seemed sort of like an air-brushed version of the same with smooth, unblemished skin and not an age spot in sight.
When I asked the vendor if there was a difference in price he looked over the top of his glasses in a friendly librarian sort of way and gesturing between the two piles I imagined him saying “is a high speed computer database worth more than a dusty card catalog system? Of course it is”. Having already shelled out two euro for green onions that morning I wasn’t about to part ways with two more. I knew half a kilo wouldn’t yield much, but it wasn’t bulk I was going for.
That night I saddled up to the counter at home and got into bean peeling position. I opened the first one and besides the flawless favas, even the bright green pod itself was tender. The underside of the shell was so downy it could have easily landed a spot in the tactile awareness book I “read” with the 2 year old Spanish triplets I look after on Fridays.
I pulled myself together after realizing my Spanish living companions weren’t quite as excited about just how soft a young bean pod could be and kept shelling. From there it was a pretty straight shot from the pan to the plate with a little jamón fat, green onion and egg fried sunny side up along the way. As I was finishing my dinner one roommate asked why I hadn’t cut off a good hunk of bread to soak up the yolk, but I decided against a lengthy explanation. Yes, perhaps that was because I was too tired to try saying it all in Spanish, but remembering her low enthusiasm level for the pillowy shell I reasoned with myself, “ah, she just wouldn’t understand”.
Fava Beans with Crispy Jamón
Yield: Side dish for 1
1 pound fava beans in their pods
The strips of fat torn from 3-5 thin slices of jamón serrano, with a bit of meat left on each one
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of finely chopped green onion
-Remove the fava beans from their pods and skin each bean
-Heat the serrano fat in a pan until it has rendered and the little bits of meat have crisped up
-Add just a bit of extra virgin olive oil
-Add in the favas and cook, stirring occasionally for a few minutes, until just tender
-Taste and season with a touch of salt if needed
-Serve with a sunny side up egg that’s also been cooked in rendered serrano fat and a little olive oil
If you want to skip cooking altogether, do like the Murcianos do. During fava season they frequently show up to meals with friends toting a few ropes of dried sausage, a loaf of bread and a big bag of fresh beans to be shelled at the table and eaten raw.