Broad beans were once the only bean known to Europeans. When Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, he opened up a whole can of beans – returning from the New World with the rest of today’s more commonly known beans.
Broad beans, also called fava or faba beans, are one of the oldest consumed vegetables; fabas dating back to 6500 BC were uncovered in a Stone Age settlement near Nazareth in Israel, writes Jonathan Roberts in The Origins of Fruit and Vegetables (Harper Collins).
Throughout history, beans have been regarded with superstition: Egyptians thought them to be unclean, Greek priests wouldn't look at them, let alone eat them, and Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, forbade his supporters to eat them. There is no recorded reason for this, but in the Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press), Alan Davidson cites Roman writer Diogenes Laterius’ belief that the souls of the dead migrated into beans as a possible reason.
The broad bean is now revered in parts of Italy where there are several festivals to celebrate it. There’s Broad Beans and Salami in Liguria’s Mioglia and Broad Beans and Cheese in Tuscany’s Arezzo. There’s also All Souls Day on 2 November, when broad beans are sown and small broad bean-shaped cakes called fave dei morti (beans of the dead) are made. Legend tells of how Sicily experienced a disastrous season when all crops failed except broad beans – so the beans kept the people from starving. Broad beans have sustained other populations for centuries thanks to their high nutritional value and capacity to be dried and stored for the winter months. High in protein (it’s a quarter of their dried weight), broad beans are referred to in parts of Italy as la carne dei poveri or ‘the meat of the poor’.
Broad beans are unrelated to the more commonly known beans such as green beans. They are only known as a domestic crop as no wild relative has been discovered.
There are two main varieties – Windsor beans, with short pods housing four or so large beans and long-pod beans, having about eight smaller beans. Other cultivars vary in bean size and colours (white, pale green, buff, brown and chestnut).
How to buy, store...
During their very short season from late August to October, look out for beans which are bright green, unblemished and have firm, not too large pods. Also, feel the pod for the presence of several beans.
Broad beans are best eaten very young when the whole pod can be consumed, as with snow peas. To prepare beans which are still young but have tough pods, simply remove beans from pods, and eat raw and unpeeled. Or blanch, then refresh in iced water and serve with a piece of pecorino or toss through a salad.
As they get a little older and larger, broad beans need to be double peeled because the outer skin, green when young, becomes, whiter, tougher and more bitter. To do this, first remove the beans from the pod, then blanch, refresh in iced water and peel the white outer skin, revealing the green edible bean. One kilogram of broad beans yields approximately 225gm of double-peeled beans.
To use: sauté beans with herbs, onion and or bacon and serve as a side dish, stir through a risotto just before serving, or cook until tender and then purée for soups or dips. Dried broad beans need to be soaked overnight and are used in dishes such as the Egyptian national dish, ful medames, which is made with a local variety of brown broad bean. In China and Thailand they are fried until their skin splits, then salted for a snack.
*For a side dish of broad beans and jamón, sauté thinly sliced golden shallots and finely chopped garlic until softened, add lardons of jamón and continue cooking until crisp and golden. Add double-peeled broad beans and cook for 3 minutes or until tender. Add coarsely chopped parsley, season to taste w
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