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Groundwork: Fava knows best

A stand of fava beans at Green Spring Gardens, maturing when the larkspur blooms in June. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Fava beans were in the stores a few weeks ago -- hailing from California, we venture to guess. The local, home-grown article is a June crop, and gardeners were harvesting the last of them last week as the summer heat sent them crashing for the season. A cool-season legume, their pretty black-and-white pea flowers scent the air in May and develop into plump pods by the time of summer solstice.

The plant blooms and fruits successively, the lower blossoms leading the way. So harvest from the bottom up, over several weeks, taking pods as they become long and plump but still green. This assures beans that are large but sweet. If taken beyond a young stage, the beans should be thrown in a pot of boiling water for a minute so the skins inside can be removed.

Once the uppermost pods are ready for picking, the plant is keen to call it a day. It simply doesn't like the heat and will begin to discolor and wither.

As much as we love garden peas, they are hit-or-miss in Washington -- especially with a late start and a hot spring. That's what we got this year, conditions perfect for ending the pea harvest before it even began. Favas are a much better bet. They mirror peas in their growing season -- directly sown in the cold soil of March and harvested in June -- but they always seem to come through in a way that peas do not. Aligned with Italian gardening and cuisine, they have not been regarded as a common vegetable here. This is a loss to American gardeners, but the situation is changing as favas gain ground with the thrilling globalization of the vegetable garden. Favas are easy, they're delicious, they don't need trellising. So, what's the problem? (He asked, rhetorically).

Give them good soil, plenty of moisture, and let them do their thing.

Favas in mid-spring. The flowers, here still in bud, appear sequentially from the bottom up. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

I have grown them, like garlic or leeks, as a fall started crop cultivated through the winter. This works in a sheltered garden (probably inside the Beltway) and in one of the typically mild winters that now seem the norm. Last winter was not one of those. The snow blanket of February wasn't the problem so much, I'd say, as the prolonged cold spell that preceded it. Below about 22 degrees, the plants need protection, but even then they are not guaranteed survival.

At Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, Cindy Brown sowed favas in the hoop frame last fall, and covered them with a winter cloth that lets in air, water and light but affords decent freeze protection.

By Thanksgiving they were tall and robust, perhaps too much so, because the brutal winter did them in. Being under several feet of snow for a month probably wasn't ideal, though I was surprised and disappointed to see that when the snow melted, at last, the beans had croaked. But winter favas are worth a try. If they make it, you get a crop a good month early when the plants are not as stressed or bothered by black aphids. So, order a big packet of seeds in September, try a winter crop and have the rest ready for a spring planting. Johnnys sells an eight-ounce packet for around $6, as does Territorial Seed Co.

The heat has really settled in, which is fine for the heat-loving cucurbits and corn and okra and the like. But just make sure that the soil is well soaked between waterings. The most effective attachment for a hose is a wand. An old-fashioned zinc-plated watering can is perfect. You can add a splash of fish emulsion or kelp solution before pouring -- perfect for keeping plants fit and fed.

If you can, avoid watering the foliage in favor of the soil, to avoid foliar diseases. If you are working a plot at a community garden (especially one you cannot get to every day), make sure the beds are well mulched and that the soil is saturated before you leave. The younger the plant, the more frequent the watering needs.

Fava beans in November, looking set to make it through the winter. They didn't. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The next two months may be brutal with the heat and humidity, but it's the period of the year when vegetable gardens hit their stride. In fact, they are one of the few consolations for the Washington climate, methinks. I am kept going by the thought that in England, gardeners struggle to bring tomatoes to fruit and ripen. And as for sowing coriander seeds this week? Not here, mate.

-- Adrian Higgins (Follow him on Twitter.)

Fava Bruschetta
Makes about 12 appetizer servings

Favas take time to prepare, so grab a glass of something (perhaps Chianti), sit on the deck and decompress.

The beans first must be removed from their cozy, down-insulated pods. Then the shelled beans must be dropped into boiling water, cooked for 2 minutes and dunked into an ice-cold water bath. Finally, the bitter outer skin must be removed, revealing a glistening, scrumptious, shamrock-green nugget.

That nugget is the endosperm -- the material that would have nourished the embryo as it grew and formed a new plant. In this case, the nugget nourishes the cook and special friends.

From gardener-cook Cynthia A. Brown.

2 pounds fava beans, in their pods (see headnote)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small-to-medium Vidalia onion, cut into small dice (1 scant cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, one minced, one left whole (skinned)
Leaves from 2 large stems mint, chopped (1 tablesloon)
2 tablespoons Greek-style (thick) plain yogurt
1/4 cup finely shredded pecorino Romano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
1 thin French baguette or ficelle (no more than 5 ounces total)

Follow the procedure outlined above for the favas: Peel them out of their pods, blanch in boiling water, shock in an ice bath and then pop them out of their bitter seed coats.

Heat the oil in a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it is translucent. Add the minced garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Add the favas and mint; stir to incorporate. Cook for 1 minute to warm the favas. Season with the black pepper to taste.

Transfer the fava-onion mixture to a mixing bowl; use a potato masher to smash the beans into a rough paste. Add the yogurt and the cheese; stir until well incorporated.

Cut the baguette or ficelle crosswise into thin slices and toast lightly. Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the cut sides on the tops of the slices, then top each slice with a tablespoon or two of the mashed fava mixture.

Position the top oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the top broiling element; preheat the broiler. Have a large baking sheet at hand.

Arrange the toasted slices with the fava mixture on top in a single layer on the baking sheet. Broil for about 3 minutes, or just until the cheese begins to soften.

Transfer to a platter; serve warm.

Per serving: 140 calories, 8 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 130 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  June 28, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, recipes  
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Next: Beer: Batch 19's in town


Thanks so much for this--my favas did not produce much before the heat set in. I should have planted earlier, and I've been wondering if I should try a fall crop.
I would really love to see more season-extending articles like this. Once you've grown a crop of tomatoes, the real challenge of gardening is getting the timing right for spring, summer, and fall crops. Maybe you could do your next chat on the subject? Since we're supposed to start fall seeds by summer's end, and that is just so hard to swallow in this heat!

Posted by: 1shot | June 28, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

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