On a recent trip to the farmers' market, I was talked into buying five pounds of fava beans. It was a true communal effort. The farmer selling favas saw me eyeing the giant, green pods and offered them to me for one dollar per pound -- but only if I purchased five pounds. Upon hearing of this deal, a fellow market goer began stuffing beans into her bag, but quickly had to ask for a larger container. "You should do it!" she said. "Favas tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and Pecorino cheese make the best spring salad." She seemed to know what she was doing so I started filling up my own bag.
One of the reasons we hesitate to buy fava beans is the fussy preparation that they demand. Favas grow in pods, like other legumes, but the individual beans are also wrapped in a second, inner coat of tough, bitter skin. Unless favas are extraordinarily young, we must peel them not once but twice.
Enlisting kids (and any assortment of friends or family members) to help shuck the beans cuts down on the time it takes to prepare them. Inside those pods there are three to eight beans resting on a velvety surface. Pop them out and then toss them all into salted boiling water for a quick blanch, which will loosen that pesky second skin. Once the skin wrinkles and the beans float to the surface, drain them and let them cool. Try using a fingernail to pinch open their final coat, and then squeeze out the brilliantly green fava beans.
You can eat the shucked and peeled beans just as they are, savoring their slippery, grassy glory, or enjoy them with a splash of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Many simple fava bean recipes come from the Mediterranean region, where the legume has been cultivated since at least 3000 BC. Romans sauté favas with onions and pancetta. In Morocco and throughout southern Italy, favas get smashed into a vibrantly green take on hummus. This is a brilliant use of late-season favas, which tend to be starchier and chalkier than the young ones. At least for now, while the beans are still small and tender, they're irresistible in a salad with curls of Pecorino Romano cheese. Thank goodness I bought five pounds.
Fava Bean, Prosciutto, and Pecorino Romano Salad
This spring salad may look dainty, adorned with curls of cheese and jewel-like beans, but it is packed with intense flavors: salty cheese, chewy cured meat, and bitter watercress greens. I like to compose the salad in layers so that those flavors don't get muddled and each bite is unique and surprising.
2 pounds fresh fava beans in their pods
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch watercress
4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 ounces Pecorino Romano, or other salty, firm cheese such as Cotija or Parmigiano
4 to 6 thin slices prosciutto
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Shuck, blanch, and peel the fava beans according to the method outlined in the article above.
Prepare the salad dressing by combining the shallot, lemon juice, vinegar, and ¼ teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Set aside for about 10 minutes or until the shallot softens slightly, and then whisk in the lemon zest and extra-virgin olive oil.
Place the watercress and parsley leaves in a large bowl. Pour about ¾ of the dressing over the greens and use your fingers to evenly coat each leaf. Pour the remaining dressing on the fava beans and sprinkle them with ¼ teaspoon salt.
Using a vegetable peeler, make long, thin shavings of Pecorino cheese.
To serve the salad, place a handful of dressed greens on each of four plates. Add a spoonful of fava beans, a few curls of cheese, and a piece of prosciutto. Place another handful of greens atop this layer. Add more fava beans and curls of cheese, letting them fall down the sides. Season the salad with several grinds of fresh black pepper.