Remarkable things happen when you work on a farm. If I made a list it would be lengthy, but I'll just name one that has impacted my eating habits the most: the discovery of new vegetables. When I started volunteering at One Acre Farm in Morgan Hill, California, last Fall, I found out I really like long beans. It helps that your farm host is a fantastic cook who makes intuitive cooking effortless. I've been going back to help on the farm on a weekly basis, and was recently introduced to fava beans.
My farm host Michelle told me they usually grow fava beans as part of their winter cover crop. "In order to get the benefits of the nitrogen from the cover crop, we till most of them under before they produce beans, but we always leave a section of them for harvesting," she explained. "They are a good early spring crop that we can have ready in April for the usual start date of our CSA."
Her favorite way of eating fava beans? "We don’t have a specific recipe, but we usually use a combination of spices reminiscent of Middle Eastern cuisine, such as cumin, turmeric, paprika, thyme, and cayenne. Of course olive oil and salt. We tend to cook based on what veggies we have available rather than following a recipe. So at the time of year that favas are in season, we would probably sauté them with greens, such as kale or chard. I might throw in a little of my canned tomatoes for flavor and color."
I love the spices often associated with fava beans and was inspired to include them in one of my favorite South Indian snacks: Masala Vada, spiced fritters made with chana dal. You may think of them as Indian falafels. I tried deep-fry, the traditional method of cooking them, and even pan-fry but prefer the less oily result I get from baking my fritters. They make a great tea-time snack or an appetizer served with a refreshing green chutney.
Everything I know about farming I learned from Michelle, who has been running the farm with her husband Gal since 2010, after years of volunteering on various farms. "I also ran an urban gardening program for children in Oakland, CA, called OBUGS. When I started working at OBUGS, my role included managing a group of urban gardens for food production and education. Basically, the more time I spent farming and gardening, the more I liked it. I love doing physical work and producing (and eating) great food," she said.
The couple welcomed a baby boy last Winter, but wasted no time getting the farm back in shape for the Summer CSA season. "Both Gal and I really enjoy that farming is a constant learning experience. It’s far more complex than most people realize and offers opportunities to learn about botany, entomology, ecosystems, soil science, watersheds, mechanics, construction, marketing, and so much more. We could probably do this for the rest of our lives and still be learning something, and hopefully improving, every season. Besides that, we get to be outdoors carefully observing nature outside our back door every day. Also, it’s a great way to build a sense of community."
Getting to Know Fava Beans with Michelle Lieberman of One Acre Farm
Fava beans in a nutshell: They are an early cool-season legume. The plants grow to about 5 feet tall and make lots of large green pods that are slightly fuzzy on the outside. They are a type of broad bean, which is exactly what it sounds like. Favas are often used as a cover crop, as well as a food crop.
Describe the taste: They have a very distinctive taste. I would say it’s more "green" or "earthy" than other beans. Of course the dried ones taste different than the fresh ones. I usually use fresh favas.
How to select and store: I would look for large, firm, unblemished pods unless you are eating them whole, in which case you would want tiny pods. I store them in the refrigerator whole and shell before cooking. I also sometimes shell them and then freeze the beans for use later in the year.
How to use: Favas are commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. They make a dish called "ful", which I believe is usually made with dried favas stewed with spices. Here at the farm, we usually eat them fresh or frozen, sautéed with various seasonal vegetables and herbs. The smallest pods (like slightly larger than a green bean before the seeds develop) can be eaten whole.
How to prepare: Most recipes recommend removing the outer skin from the beans. It makes for a more tender bean, but we usually just remove them from the pods and eat them with the outer skin. We don’t have time for all that extra food prep, and we don’t mind the texture of the fava skins.
This post is part of the Spring Discovery series, where we put the spotlight on Spring vegetables. Also get to know radish, leek, beetroot, turnip, green garlic and swiss chard. If you're in the California Morgan Hill and San Martin areas, or know someone who is, consider signing up for One Acre Farm's CSA for fresh organic produce. Also check their Facebook page for updates.
Baked South Indian Fava Bean Fritters (Masala Vada)
A popular tea-time snack that can also be served as an appetizer, Masala Vada is a deep-fried spiced Indian fritter made with chana dal. I adapted the basic recipe to use the baking method instead and included fava beans. While many fava bean recipes call for the peeling of the outer skin, it is not necessary, in my opinion, for making these fritters. Makes about 2 dozens. Serve with green chutney (recipe below).
1 cup chana dal, soaked in water for about 3 to 4 hours and drained well
1 cup fava beans, removed from pods
3 to 4 dried red chilis, deseeded and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
A pinch of asofaetida (optional)
1 onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
9 to 10 curry leaves, finely chopped
A pinch of salt, or to taste
Pre-heat the oven to 400F. Spray/ brush a baking sheet with oil and set aside.
Place chana dal, fava beans, dried red chilis, ginger, fennel seeds, cumin seeds and asofaetida in a food processor and process until the chana dal and fava beans are coarsely broken down and combined. It's not a problem to have some whole or large chana dal pieces. Add 1 tablespoon of water only if it's absolutely necessary to help with the blending process. Too much water will make the fritters hard to shape.
Transfer to a mixing bowl and add onion, cilantro, curry leaves and salt. Mix well.
With your hands, shape about 1 tablespoon of the mixture into a ball and flatten into a disc with your palm. Thinner fritters will be crispier. Place the shaped fritters on the oiled baking sheet and spray/ brush the top with oil.
Bake for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the underside of the fritters are browned. Then carefully flip them and bake for another 7 to 8 minutes, or until browned. Serve immediately with green chutney (recipe below).
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/2 inch ginger, grated
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup water
A pinch of salt, or to taste
Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Adjust salt according to taste. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready for use.