Once rare and fairly difficult to find, it now seems like these little gems pop up at every farmers market come springtime. This Old World legume may seem like a new discovery because of its resurgence, but it's a bean that was central to Mediterranean and Italian cuisine long before it became part of the latest food craze.
When peeled, its appearance resembles that of edamame, the popular Japanese snack-treat that has found its way into many salad bars — just flatter. However, its flavor is quite different — fava beans may be characterized as having a fairly pronounced fresh, grassy flavor and aroma that pretty much screams "Spring!"
The best ones emerge earlier in the season, and are smaller and more tender. Whenever selecting fava beans, look for bright green pods that are firm to the touch and free from blemishes, and when possible, favor pods with smaller beans. They're often sold loose at farmers markets, so the truly meticulous will sort through them one by one before placing them in the bag, but it never hurts just to grab a bunch and then sort through them at home later, too.
The purchase is only half the fun, though; the prep is where the work begins. It's just like every other bean or pea in a pod right? Twist off the stem end and split it open by running both thumbs along the seam side. Done. Not so quick, though — the beans themselves are encased in a skin, and so they need to be blanched before it'll come off. It's best done as a team effort — one person to pop out the beans, one person to remove the skins, and perhaps, even one person to boil water.
After the skins are removed, fava beans are best eaten fairly soon since they will turn yellow if left out too long, which is probably why they're not sold shucked. The most common way of incorporating these beans into dishes is to toss them into salads, but they're also often worked into soups and blended into dips as well.
So, these beans may seem like a lot of work, but with practice, the going gets easier (and faster). Plus, they only come around once a year, so they really are something special. On a warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon with a tall, cool glass of iced tea, once you get a good rhythm going, it can almost seem therapeutic.