by Norm Budnitz
Fava beans (aka broad beans) are native to northern Africa and southern Asia. They are one of the oldest plants known to agriculture, having been cultivated for perhaps 8,000 years. They are not grown much in North Carolina, but you can get them fresh from Four Leaf Farm in May and June. That’s because we have been diligent, and planted our favas in November.
Favas are an unusual crop for our area in that they are planted in late Fall. They sprout and then grow slowly all winter long. By December, they may be 3-4 inches tall. By March, they are still 3-4 inches tall, having hunkered down for the coldest weather. But when the temperatures starts to warm, they rouse themselves from their winter torpor and start their climb to perhaps 2-3 feet tall. By mid-April, they are covered with beautiful flowers—richly white with glossy black hearts. A couple of weeks later the pods start to form, and by the end of May, they are long and stout and ready for harvest.
Fava beans can be cooked in many ways, being fried and eaten as a snack or processed and prepared as falafel, a common Middle Eastern street food. But for a truly delicate and delicious dish try this. Split open the large, green pods with your thumb and remove the beans. Note that each bean is encased in a white covering that has to be removed before eating. Bring some water to a boil and toss in the beans. Cook them for a minute or two until the white covering looks loose and puffy. Remove them from the heat and cool them immediately in cold water. When they are easy to handle, release each bean from its white cover to reveal the rich green bean inside.
The fresh green favas can be chilled and tossed into a salad for a special mild sweetness unlike anything else you may have eaten. But if you have been on top of your game, you will have prepared a batch of risotto while you have been working on your favas. Just as the risotto is finishing up, toss in the favas and let them cook for another minute or so. Now you are ready for some delightful eating.
Some people, mostly of Mediterranean ancestry, have a genetic condition known as favism. These people cannot make a specific metabolic enzyme called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase. (I didn’t make up the name; I’m just reporting.) The gene for this deficiency is found on the X chromosome and is therefore known as a sex-linked condition—like color blindness, hemophilia, and sickle cell anemia. As a result, favism is much more common in males, since they only have one X chromosome. If that X carries the bad gene, men don’t have a second X to cover the problem. Women with one normal X and one with the bad gene don’t have to worry. Their metabolism will work just fine, thank you.
How does this relate to fava beans? The genetic deficiency can lead to the breakdown of red blood cells, a condition known as hemolytic anemia. Fava beans contain chemicals that can trigger the anemia—hence the name favism. So people with the deficiency should not indulge in this delicious bean. Too bad. But here’s the good news. There is strong evidence that people with this genetic condition are resistant to malaria. So if you have favism, you may not be able to enjoy falafel, but you may be able to travel in countries with endemic malaria. (Here’s the fine print: always check with your doctor first.)