Discover the legume that’s been a Mediterranean mainstay for centuries.
Credit: Photo: Anthony-Masterson / Getty

It wasn’t until I made a trip to Malta, a string of tiny islands in the Mediterranean from which my family hails, that I became acquainted with fresh fava beans. With an elderly cousin on a windswept March morning, I visited tiny farms on the smaller island Gozo, where the swollen fava pods on large-stalked bushes were ready to be harvested.

Fava beans have been a staple of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines for centuries, and more American cooks are becoming familiar with them. In fact, you may already know them, as favas go by many names: broad beans, horse beans, English beans, faba beans, and Windsor beans. They can star in appetizers, omelets, salads, soups, dips, pasta dishes, and casseroles. Many home cooks like to add favas to minestrone soup, and favas can sometimes substitute for garbanzos in falafel patties.

Back home in New York City, I had only been familiar with dried favas, which are greenish-brown, large compared to most beans, and flat with a distinctive slim black eye. My Maltese grandmothers used to prepare bigilla, a spicy paste made with the cooked dried beans for spreading over crusty bread. But fresh fava beans were new to me.

They are a sublime delicacy: emerald green with a firm texture and subtle nutty flavor. They’re in season from late March to early May and can be found in specialty and ethnic markets and, increasingly, in supermarkets. Pick up a few pounds. They’re worth a little extra effort to enjoy them in these recipes.

Shelling Fresh Favas

When shopping for favas, select small pods; those that bulge with beans are past their prime. Two pounds unshelled beans yield about 1 cup shelled. Preparing and cooking fava beans involves three simple steps:

1. Remove beans from their pods.

2. Cook shelled beans in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and plunge beans into ice water; drain.

3. Remove the tough outer skins from beans by pinching the outer skin between your thumb and forefinger; discard skins. After this, the beans are ready to use in any recipe.

When You Can’t Find Fresh Fava Beans

Fresh fava beans have a fleeting season, but they’re available in other forms to enjoy all year long.

Peeled frozen beans can be used in place of fresh, with slightly increased cooking times (follow the directions on the label).

Many people are familiar with dried favas, often found at supermarkets. Check out ethnic markets for shelled and sliced dried favas imported from Italy.

Canned or bottled favas are available in most supermarkets, but these tend to be the least favorable way to enjoy these beans. Often, the tough outer skin has not been removed, and the beans can be high in sodium. If you use canned or bottled beans, be sure to rinse and drain (and peel, if necessary) them first.