Fava beans

By Hanna Raskin

hraskin@postandcourier.com

Can fava beans make even human flesh palatable? Despite Hannibal Lecter's predilection for serving the two items together (along with "a nice Chianti"), that's not the recommended preparation for the springtime plant.

But the ancient bean is so delicious that it's otherwise pretty hard to go wrong with a fava recipe: They're good grilled, braised, stewed, blanched, steamed and pureed. Here's what else you need to know about the terrifically versatile Vicia faba:

1. Fava beans answer to a wide range of names: They're also called broad beans, field beans, horse beans, tic beans, Madagascar beans, Windsor beans, English beans, pigeon beans and bell beans.

2. Controversy rages over whether fava beans require double-peeling. Most everyone agrees that the fibrous outer shell has to go (although the pods are edible, which is why certain cooking traditions treat favas like green beans: Just trim the ends, then fry or simmer.) Once the beans are freed from their pod, though, their thin whitish skins pose a conundrum. Plenty of cooks believe the skins interfere with the buttery flavor of the beans, but the skin-on camp claims the laborious peeling process is a waste of time.

3. People have been eating favas for at least 5,000 years. The easy-to-grow crop first caught on in the eastern Mediterranean, where it remains popular: Favas are dried and cooked with rice in Iran, served as a bar snack in Crete and mixed with chickpeas in Lebanon.

4. While favas figure into cuisines from India to Colombia, no country is as devoted to the bean as Egypt, where Ramses II once offered up 11,998 jarfuls of favas to the Nile. Ful medames, mashed favas seasoned with salt and cumin (parsley, garlic and lemon juice are optional), is Egypt's national dish.

5. Favism is a genetic disorder characterized by the development of a blood disorder in response to eating fava beans, or walking through a field of fava bean plants. The rare disease is sex-linked, so men are far more likely to experience its symptoms, and it's much more prevalent in Mediterranean, African and Asian countries. The Pythagoreans refused to eat or touch favas.

6. When shopping for favas, seek out bright green, firm pods that look smooth and feel soft. No bulges!

7. After Sicilians survived a famine on the strength of the island's fava bean harvest, the fava emerged as an Italian symbol of good luck.