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Giant favas

Fresh fava beans are the province of spring. Dried ones–the ultra-large size favas–are pale gigantic beans with a flavor like roast chestnuts, only without the sweet. These are the ones for Greek-style winter stews (gigantes plaki) or, as a friend in Jerusalem makes on cold and rainy December weekends, a very slow-braised stew of giant favas with chicken and vegetables.

Here in Pasadena it’s still hovering in the 90s midday, long after Yom Kippur has come and gone. So there’s no incentive to cook anything for more than 15 minutes at a time if you can possibly help it. And gigantes or giant favas (I’m not absolutely sure they’re the same bean, so for reference–what I’m using are the peeled giant favas, about an inch across) take a very long time to cook through to tenderness, even after soaking overnight.  The challenge, actually, is to cook them enough without having them fall apart like overcooked potatoes. Oven-baking or crockpotting would probably work, but it’s hours of time.

So most of the dried-fava recipes I can find are for favas that have crumbled and been puréed for soup or hummus or paté. But the stewed favas–that’s what I wanted. Only I wanted them on their own, meatless, tomato-less, pure, as it were, because I had an idea of marinating them a little for a side dish and serving them room-temperature. Something like marinated artichoke hearts, but subtler.

There are few “slow food fast” shortcuts for this, unless a pressure cooker would work well enough without blasting them to bits. I might have to get one and try it–when everyone’s out of the house, just in case my purple thumb tendencies kick in.

You still need to soak them very thoroughly overnight, a minimum of 12 hours and maybe better, 24 hours (in the fridge) before starting to cook them, because at least two batches of Sadaf peeled giant favas have shown a distinct reluctance to take up water the way most reasonably fresh dried beans do, even though a lot of the beans were split in half. Were these two bags of favas just incredibly old and dried out? Are giant favas just naturally tough? I don’t know.  I don’t know. Maybe I have to go with the bags of unpeeled favas instead?–maybe those dry out a little less inside and cook up more tender once you get the peels off (after cold-soaking and before boiling). One can only hope.

And substituting giant lima beans that a lot of Greek cookbooks recommend as a substitute in plaki would obviously give more tender results, plus they don’t require laborious peeling, but the flavor would be pretty different. The giant favas are what I want, and no other.

Nevertheless–once the favas were soaked as best possible and rinsed again, I cooked them partially by microwaving 10 minutes in water to cover by an inch and letting them sit. I didn’t want to do it a second round, as I would for chickpeas, because they had the kind of tough obstinacy that reminded me that microwaving can actually make some cooked beans tougher–black beans in particular. At least the raw bean taste was gone, but they still required 2 hours of simmering gently and partially covered on the stovetop, to become something approaching tender. Frustrating.

Some of them broke up. I think it’s practically inevitable. But some of them were huge and very impressive. Once they were as done as they were going to be, I drained them most of the way.

The marinade I use for microwaved artichoke hearts is just lemon juice, garlic, salt and olive oil–the artichoke hearts donate enough juice as they cook to mellow out everything else a little. Favas–no. Plus I wanted something richer and less strident for the flavoring.

So I pulled a bottle of cheap but dry rosé (for want of chardonnay or the like, and rejecting the ever-present reds so as not to stain the beans) out of the fridge and poured some of it into a frying pan to boil off a little of the alcohol and pick up some of the other marinade flavors: a fat clove of garlic, the juice of a lemon, olive oil and a couple of sprigs of rosemary off the bush I’ve managed not to kill this year. I let this simmer together a few minutes to take the edge off the raw garlic and wine flavors and steep the rosemary a little, and then poured in the boiled-up fava beans and just a little of their broth to simmer a few more minutes before pouring the whole thing out to cool.

A little more olive oil would have been good if I’d had it (the bottle ran out after about a tablespoon)–I was actually hoping it would help soften the beans further but I didn’t really have enough for oil-stewing (the Greek cookbooks I have all recommend about half a cup in a batch of about a pound of dried beans) and I’d have had to stew the thing a lot longer to get anything resembling a silky texture, I suspect. But the flavors permeated the beans very nicely–rosemary has an irreplaceable perfume that even wild thyme doesn’t reach even though that would be pretty good too. Together, the rosemary and wine balance the surface brashness of garlic and lemon and bring out the unusual flavor of the giant favas without the need for salt. It’s good hot, but it’s even better the second day, hot or cooled.

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