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Groundwork: Favas' Day

Fava beans are now ready at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

I've just written a column about the wet spring; this will ensure a drought. When I write about droughts, it rains.

This is public humiliation from on high. One thing the gods cannot alter, however, is that the next eight weeks or so will contain some of the most beastly hot and humid weather on Planet Earth, this being Washington in the summer. One of the few but real rewards for this unpleasant climate is the summer garden.

At last, after a wet and cool spring, the warmth-loving vegetables such as pumpkins, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes are beginning to catch up. They will bask in the heat. The gardener's jobs are to make sure they are adequately watered and to keep the weeds at bay. A light mulch will conserve soil moisture and reduce weeds. I like to water in the morning, so the plant is "charged" before the sun beats upon it. I use either a watering can or a wand on the end of a hose. (This may figure in the 36th "Harry Potter" sequel, when Harry is in a nursing home and tending his garden. "Harry Potter and the Wand of Water"? Harry, soak the root zone and try to avoid getting the leaves wet. Don't rely on an overhead irrigation system, though drip systems are an effective way of delivering water.)

Fava beans have been in harvest for three weeks, and their decline now signals the last of the spring crops. As with figs and golden raspberries, there is something entirely seasonal about fava beans. Once the heat sets in, the flowers abort and the aphids attack stressed plants.

Favas or broad beans are a cool-season bean, so one might have thought this would have been a banner season. Not so. The rows at Green Spring Gardens produced plenty of pods, but I noticed a couple of weeks ago that, because of the rain, some of the flowers were actually rotting before they had even opened. Each plant blooms over several weeks, so enough flowers were spared, pollinated and went on to set pods. The pods are taken once the beans within can be seen to swell.

The beans are sown directly into the garden in early- to mid-March, at the same time you sow peas. Sow them six inches apart. They will grow to three to four feet; they will probably flop, but that doesn't seem to affect the yield. Don't bother staking them.

A fava bean pod, ready for harvest. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

If you live in a sheltered garden, as I do in Alexandria, there is another way to grow favas. I sow them in early October, and they go into the winter as sprouts. Amazingly, they will take temperatures into the upper teens. I cover them with row cloth when we get a sustained period of nights below about 22 degrees. Fall-sown favas grow incredibly robust in the spring, and the result is an increased yield and an early one. You will start getting beans about a month earlier than with spring-sown favas. Using both methods, thus, will prolong the fava bean season.

You can freeze favas, but their eating quality is reduced; they lose that special floral flavor. If you want to try, drop the beans (out of the pods) in boiling water for a minute, and then chill them in an ice-water bath for a minute or two. Freeze the cooled, blanched beans with skins on, then shell the beans when you prepare the favas for cooking.

I can't hand things over to Green Spring's Cindy Brown without first mentioning the fact that fava beans are beautiful. The foliage is attractive and has a blue cast to it. The flowers are unbelievably showy and worth studying. They are black and white and, when the rain doesn't get them, absurdly fragrant. Grow them this fall, and do yourself a fava.

-- Adrian Higgins

Favas and Fusilli
6 servings

Editor's note: Cindy's got plenty of fava beans in the garden, but the rest of us may have a hard time finding them right now, as they are not widely available in farmers markets. When we test her recipe we'll update it in Recipe Finder (

Fava beans are ready to pick in home gardens and just coming into the markets. Pick pods that are plump; the interior beans’ shape should bulge in the pod. Favas take time to prepare: 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 then 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.

Favas (Vicia faba) are the true beans of the Old World. Though the American colonists brought these traditional beans along with them, New World string beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) usurped them in popularity. String beans tolerated the East Coast's heat far better than their cool-temperature-loving cousins, the favas.

Lima beans, another New World bean, are very similar in texture and flavor to favas. They can be substituted in recipes calling for favas. But nothing can replace the favas' nutty flavor and tender texture. They are well worth the extra effort.

From Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Springs Farm in Alexandria.

About 3 pounds fava beans in their pods (1/2 peck)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small Vidalia onion, cut into small dice (scant 1 cup)
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 ounces chopped cooked pork, such as leftover pork tenderloin (may use a single boneless center-cut pork chop)
3 to 5 basil leaves, rolled and cut into thin strips (chiffonade; 1 tablespoon)
8 ounces fusilli pasta, cooked and drained, with 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water reserved
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, shredded, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper

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. This amount of favas will give you 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the fava “nuggets.”

Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, until the onion begins to turn golden. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the favas and stir to combine; cook for 1 minute.

Add the chopped pork; mix well, then add the basil and stir to incorporate.
Add the reserved pasta cooking water, using it and a wooden spoon to dislodge any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the drained pasta, cheese and pepper to taste; toss to combine.

Divide among individual plates; serve immediately.

Per serving: 405 calories, 24 g protein, 53 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 194 mg sodium, 13 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  June 29, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens, fava beans  
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