In the first days of April winter is shaken from the earth like a worn out coat revealing bright new life. The country markets from Tuscany to Sicily are filled with endless shades of green. The bounty of garlic shoots and the appearance of the first artichokes — not to mention piles of green peas and endless bunches of tender green turnip tops — make it difficult for a food passionate to decide what to cook. My Italian friends have taught me that the first fave beans of spring are an absolute essential. Their plump pods conceal neat little rows of pale powder green seeds. Once shucked from their fuzzy outer layer the seeds are eaten raw and paired with salty sheep’s cheese pecorino. This is such a lovely example of how simple elements presented on a plate create not only a perfect combination of flavors — no — this kind of purity opens the window to the senses.
Stories around the table make up the tapestries of our lives and are my favorite kind of narrative. Mashed fave beans slathered on thick slices of country bread drenched in olive oil are a famous specialty of Liguria. In Rome they are not only removed from their pods, but popped out of their slated grey skins, only to be added to peas and artichokes and stirred through risotto. Their flavor you may ask? Well they are bitter-sweet just like the best things in life.
The first fave are relatively narrow, much like a fat green bean. The seeds themselves are as precious as gold in the Mediterranean. In most places, eating the pods is never mentioned. Yet in order to obtain even a handful of the shiny Kelly green seeds great patience is required – either that or a big family standing around the marble countertop.
It was at one of those frustrating moments in a quiet kitchen that a Turkish friend showed me something completely new and different about fave beans. He kindly explained to me how his mother prepares his favorite dish, made with the entire ingredient– pod and all. His vivid description of a steaming bowl of braised beans covered in salted dill yoghurt, inspired the following recipe. Just exactly how his mother makes them remains a mystery, but I am hoping this version comes close to the picture-perfect memory.
500 grams fresh fave beans in their pods . from an organic garden
one bunch of spring onions
two cloves of garlic
one organic lemon
one teaspoon of honey
two-three large vine-ripened tomatoes . or one can of crushed tomatoes
100 ml extra virgin olive oil
1/2 bunch fresh dill
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley
A generous amount of Celtic sea salt or fleur de sel
100-150 grams of thick Turkish or Greek yoghurt .
a pinch of crushed dried red peppers
a touch of crushed fennel seeds
If you don’t have your own small garden plot (I don’t yet) where peas and fave have been planted, you will have to seek them out at a local farmers market. Choose fave without any dark blemishes on their smooth skins, and bring them into the kitchen for the following preparation.
Wash the organic lemon. Peel the bright yellow zest from the lemon rind with a citrus peeler and set it aside. Squeeze the juice of the lemon as well. Fill a pan with warm water large enough to contain the fave. Add both the lemon juice and the squeezed lemon halves to the cooking water. Stir in the honey and a teaspoon of salt and put it on the stove to reach boiling point while you prepare the beans.
Peel the garlic cloves and crush them with the flat side of a chef’s knife. Wash the green onions (you can choose a simple white onion or two as well which will give the finished dish a more pronounced flavor). Slice the onions from top to bottom in an even dice. Wash and core the tomatoes and slice them into quarters. Saute the garlic and green onions on low heat in a generous amount of olive oil about five minutes
Wash the fave pods in cold water. Pull off the top and peel the seam of the bean from top to bottom, being careful not to let the pod fall apart. Cut the pods in half and plunge them into the boiling pot of water. Blanch the beans 3-5 minutes until al dente (literally translated from Italian — this refers to something having a bite) The time necessary to blanch the beans to twill depend upon the thickness of the pods. Drain the fave in a colander.Meanwhile, saute the garlic and green onions on low heat in a generous amount of olive oil about five minutes in a large skillet.
Meanwhile, saute the garlic and green onions on low heat in a generous amount of olive oil about five minutes in a large skillet. Add them to the garlic-onion mixture and top the skillet off with the fresh (or crushed). Drizzle 50 ml of olive oil, along with a small glass of water and a good pinch of Celtic sea salt over the vegetables. Put a lid on the skillet and braise the beans 15-20 minutes, or until they are truly soft and tender. Toss the beans occasionally to make sure that they can cook evenly. Add some extra water, or even an extra tomato if needed, keeping the heat low but while the ingredients simmer vividly without boiling.
To make the yoghurt dressing, wash and dry the flat leaf parsley and dill. Chop them with the sharpest chef’s knife you have available as fine as possible. What is important here is to chop even the stalks of the herbs very fine, without using the “rock-chop” method which most definitely bruises the herbs. Add half the herbs to the yoghurt with a pinch of Celtic salt, Stir in the crushed red pepper, and if you like, some finely crushed fennel seeds.
Taste the braised fave for the right balance between salty and savory. Add bit of salt and some freshly ground pepper if needed. Pour the beans and their juices into your favorite bowl and scatter the chopped dill and parsley over them. Serve the braised fave in their pods with the herb-yoghurt. This dish needs nothing more, unless you think a torn piece of freshly baked bread is fitting, of course.
The braised fave beans are a meal in themselves. Add a six-minute boiled egg if you like or serve the beans as a side dish next to a steaming bowl of rice or grains. Some pine nuts or pistachios give the beans and rice just the right touch. Use fresh mint instead of dill for a North African twist on the dish.
This recipe was originally published in Dutch on Jamie Magazine NL on the 8th of April 2016.