Every year I plant fava beans in my garden and I ask myself, “why?!” The plants take a lot of room in the garden (though they shoot up really quickly, which is fun), the yield is small, and the effort of shelling the beans from the pods, then boiling the beans, then shelling the outer husk of each bean, is incredibly labor-intensive. There’s also this: when I post a picture of my modest fava bean bounty on Facebook, all I get are “Silence of the Lamb” jokes.
But the real payoff—the thing that makes all the effort worth it—is the unique texture of these magic beans, and the creamy taste of pure springtime that nothing but fava beans offer. Yes, you can buy frozen favas. Yes, you can buy fresh favas in a specialty store or at the farmers’ market (maybe), but nothing beats growing (and, yes, even shelling in a multi-step, labor-intensive process) your own, going from garden to table in a matter of days. During fava bean season I keep a basket of recently-picked pods in the fridge as I continue harvesting over several days, waiting for enough favas to try a new recipe.
Fava beans are grown and cooked all over the Mediterranean. From artichokes and favas in Greece, to Fattoush in Lebanon and Palestine, to Ful Medames in Egypt, many cultures and cuisines appreciate the unique texture and taste of favas, incorporating them into various dishes. Italy, however, is where these little droplets of springtime are mostly left alone to speak for themselves.
In the soup below, the fava beans stand out in texture, color (a wonderful bright green, when all the husks are off!), and flavor against a supporting cast that includes a perfect complement in fregola—a small, spherical pasta shape that adds another dimension of subtle flavor and delightful texture to the mix.
This recipe is from Marche, the birthplace of my grandfather. I prepared it thinking about our imminent departure for Marche, where we are going to spend a full six weeks—enough time, we hope, to experience the region more as true residents than as mere tourists. The plan is not to fill our days with sightseeing and long drives, but to experience living for an extended time in the small hill town, Scapezzano, where my grandfather grew up and our friendly and generous cousins still live in the same house—the descendants of the brother who stayed behind in Italy when my grandfather emigrated to the New World. They have offered us the use of a small apartment in this building! We look forward to perusing the local markets—like much of Marche, which lies along the Adriatic coast, my grandfather’s home town is near the sea, offering abundant seafood—and to preparing meals with whatever is in season, fresh and local. This soup—so inviting and appealing in texture as well as flavor, is like an invitation to all the adventures that await us!
Serves 6-8 as first course, or 2-4 as a main course soup.
- ¼ pound thick-sliced pancetta
- 1 tablespoon—plus for drizzling—extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion
- 1 stalk of celery
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 small bunch of parsley
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 8 ounces canned peeled Roma tomatoes
- 1½ quarts good quality chicken broth (preferably home-made)
- 8 ounces fregola pasta, or other pearl-shaped pasta
- 8 ounces shelled fava beans (Trader Joe’s now sells frozen and shelled fava beans)
- Grated pecorino to taste
- Toasted and sliced bread, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Dice the pancetta into ¼-inch cubes.
- Finely chop the onion, celery, garlic, parsley and garlic.
- In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, add one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil. Add the pancetta and the chopped vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté until the vegetables are soft and the pancetta is cooked through.
- Squeeze the tomatoes in your hands into the pot. Season again with salt and pepper and sauté for about 5 minutes until the tomatoes and vegetables are well combined.
- Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Again, season with salt as needed. Add the fregola and cook for the length of time indicated on the package (generally 8-10 minutes).
- Lower heat to simmer and add the shelled fava beans. Cook until the beans are tender (as little as 1 minute).
- Serve with grated pecorino cheese and a crostini drizzled with olive oil.