Fava: Phenomenal Favorite of the Cool Weather Garden
By SCMG Janet Barocco
If I had to choose one crop for the cool weather garden, (besides greens, which are a given), the fava bean would win hands down. I can’t think of another plant with so many attributes and uses. It's easy to grow, improves and protects the soil, doesn’t need fertilizing, attracts early pollinators, produces nutritious food, is versatile in the kitchen – what’s not to like? Oh, and did I mention its reputation for staving off starvation?
Vicia faba really does do all the things I mentioned! And, ask any native New Orleanian, of which I am one, and you’ll hear nothing but praise for the lowly legume, which arrived in the Crescent City via Sicilian immigrants in the late 1800’s. To this day, old-timers tote the “lucky bean” in pockets and purses, and school children paint them green, white and red, as teachers and parents retell the tale of how St. Joseph answered their ancestors’ cry for help in the midst of famine. In New Orleans, Chicago and other cities where Sicilians settled, people create altars to the great Saint for sending rain and the abundant harvest of fava beans.
Fava beans are a snap to grow. Sow in September for a late fall harvest, or in November for early spring picking. Sowing in January will give you beans in summer but is not recommended for Sonoma as the plants do not do well in warm weather and thus are susceptible to pests. Sow 1 – 2 inches deep, spaced 6 – 8 inches apart in regular garden soil. Legume inoculant is recommended for the initial planting. Plants are hardy to around 21°F. I sow in autumn. With rains on the way, I don’t have to worry about irrigation. Developing plants protect the soil from heavy rains, and the blossoms are open for early pollinators. Best of all, the succulent, tender, pods and young beans await delicious spring sautés with green garlic or spring onions, olive oil, and mint.
Cooking with Favas
Throughout the world, the fava bean is boiled, baked, sautéed, mashed, fried, braised, stewed, and pureed. Even the fava leaf is used! Dishes are as simple as boiled beans, served with salt and butter, or as complex as ful medames, an Egyptian breakfast dish of cooked mashed beans, olive oil, garlic, onion, parsley and lemon juice.
Very young fava beans have not yet formed an endocarp, the thin skin or “jacket” that surrounds the shelled bean. More mature beans have this skin, which most cooks prefer to remove for a more desirable texture and taste. While many recipes recommend peeling the beans while raw, I find this tedious and prefer to briefly immerse steamed beans in a bowl of ice water. The skins will easily rub off, revealing a shiny green jewel of a bean, tender in texture with a sweet, smoky flavor.
Mulititude of Garden uses
Fava beans are commonly planted to improve soil. Like all legumes, they have nodules on the roots, containing rhizobium bacteria, which “fix” airborne nitrogen, allowing it to replenish usable nitrogen in the soil. In addition, the sturdy plant deters erosion, and protects topsoil from wind and impaction by rain. After harvesting the beans (or without harvesting if you are using the plant simply as a cover crop), the bushy foliage chops up well as green biomass for the compost pile. The large, fragrant blossoms attract pollinators.
Fava beans are an integral part of my rotation and fertilization plan throughout my kitchen garden beds and half-barrel containers. I dedicate a portion of my crop for kitchen use, another portion for compost biomass, and yet another to grow out as seed for next year’s planting.