Fava beans (Vicia faba), or broad beans, are an ancient Mediterranean crop and a member of the pea family. Planted by seed in the fall here in the south, fava beans grow all winter long and are one of the first crops ready for harvest—a harbinger of spring. Northerners can plant them in early spring. Fava beans grow into large, bushy plants with silvery green leaves and an abundance of blossoms. My friend, Christopher, says the flowers look like the peas snuck into the orchid house. The blossoms produce big, fat pods filled with beautiful beans that are nutty and buttery in flavor.
In addition to their beauty and deliciousness, fava beans are very good for building soil. Like all legumes, they help to fix nitrogen in the soil. Favas are good for you, too. They are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. They are also high in L-Dopa, which is a precursor of the feel-good chemicals in your brain–dopamine, epinephrine and nor-epinephrine. Maybe that’s why they have a sort of cult following!
Fava beans are prized by chefs, but despised by the kitchen staff, because they first have to be removed from their pods and then blanched to remove the outer skin around each bean. Once shelled, fava beans are easy to cook and are delicious on their own, stir-fried in a little olive oil with lemon and salt with a grating or two of fresh pecorino. They are wonderful in pasta dishes, risottos, soups and salads. For our first taste of them this spring, I made Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Fava Beans. The garden-fresh beans are a perfect complement to the creamy sauce, sweet onions and salty bacon.
- 1 pound dry spaghetti
- 4-6 ounces pancetta or bacon, cubed or sliced into small strips
- One sweet onion, thinly sliced
- 2 cups fresh fava beans, shelled and peeled if necessary (fresh peas are a good substitute)
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 farm fresh eggs
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Prepare the sauce while the pasta is cooking to ensure that the spaghetti will be hot and ready when the sauce is finished; it is very important that the pasta is hot when adding the egg mixture, so that the heat of the pasta cooks the raw eggs in the sauce.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender yet firm (as they say in Italian “al dente.”) Drain the pasta well, reserving ½ cup of the starchy cooking water (don’t skip this step—save some pasta water!). Put the hot pasta back in the pot.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium flame. Add the bacon and sauté for about 3 minutes, until the bacon is crisp. Add the sliced onions and garlic and cook until the onions are soft and caramelized. Add the fava beans to the mixture and sauté just a minute or two, until the beans are tender. Set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and Parmgiano-Reggiano together until smooth and creamy.
- Pour the egg/cheese mixture into the pasta, and stir thoroughly to coat the pasta. If the sauce is a little too thick, thin it out with a little of the hot pasta water. Place the pasta into individual serving bowls, and top with the bacon, onion and fava bean mixture. Season with several turns of freshly ground black pepper and taste for salt and another grating or two of Parmigiano-Reggiano.