Favas and sugar snap peas with potatoes and tarragon. - Photo courtesy of Quentin Bacon/MCT

The fava ritual

Fans of fresh peas — including the ritual of shelling them — should snap up the season's fava beans.

Often grown in the Rogue Valley as a winter cover crop, the bright-green beans in bulbous pods are available in June as food from local farmers who seed them in February or March, approximately on the same time line as peas.

Less adventurous eaters in the Rogue Valley may not be familiar with favas. But they've actually been around long enough in southern Europe, initially as peasant food, to become one of those iconic ingredients of Italian cuisine. Open any canonical Italian cookbook, writes chef Mario Batali in a recent column for McClatchy News Service, and you'll find diverse fava-bean preparations: in the pod and outside it, steamed and sauteed.

In the pod, this lumpy, overgrown vegetable looks like an English pea on steroids, and its flavor could be similarly described: beany to the extreme, not unlike limas but less starchy. Slightly bitter and utterly vegetative, favas add a nice counterpoint to pungent garlic and savory meats and cheeses.

Common uses for favas include pureed as a spread for crostini, barely blanched in tortellini soups or stirred into risotto with seasonal companions like asparagus, artichoke hearts, scallions and green garlic. At Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York, a salad of fava beans with mint gets savoriness from pecorino, a sharp, sheep-milk cheese. The key to creating dishes with favas, says Batali, is not muddying the bean's natural freshness.

Pick them young enough — about 3 inches or smaller — and favas can be eaten pod and all, like sugar-snap peas. They also share peas' distinction of being entirely edible plants early enough in their season. Sample the slender vines, tender leaves and fragile flowers in salads with fresh herbs, citrus and other edible flowers.

Most of the favas found at farmers markets, however, are large and swaddled in thick pods with strangely woolly interiors that, when crushed, turn slimy, somewhat like okra. And shelling favas isn't the only prerequisite for their consumption. Mature beans, although still tender, are encased in membranes sometimes so thick they're actually more like hulls and tough to eat around.

To remove this membrane, cover shelled fava beans with boiling water and let them soak until cool enough to handle. Find on each bean the indentation where it attaches to the pod. Press your thumbnail into that slot to pop the bean out. Plan to spend about twice the time on fresh favas that it takes to shell fresh peas.

"It's a lot of work," says Mary Alionis, co-owner of Whistling Duck Farm in Applegate, which has a stall at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market Tuesdays in Ashland and Thursdays in Medford.

The good news about this extra step is that the soaking parcooks the beans, making them ready to eat. And this nostalgic, meditative exercise only comes along for about one month per year, after all.

Barking Moon Farm, also in Applegate, plans to sell favas for $2 per pound throughout the month of June — maybe earlier, maybe a bit later — at the Tuesday Ashland market and Saturday Grants Pass Growers Market.

"They look really nice," says Barking Moon co-owner Josh Cohen.

Try fava beans in this dish from the celebrity chef's "Molto Batali" with new potatoes, also coming into season.

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