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The 21st century pulse: fava beans

Categories: Expert guidance

A series of posts to celebrate 2016 International Year of Pulses by Jenny Chandler, the recently installed UN pulse ambassador. Jenny explores the incredible variety and versatility of these nutritional powerhouses and sharing her tips on how best to prepare them. This month: fava beans

Fava beans, one of the oldest cultivated crops on the planet, were already a staple food back in the days of the Egyptian pharoahs. Today, Vicia faba is a widely grown member of the legume family, with many different cultivars around the world. In Britain we tend to think of broad beans as the fresh green beans and fava as the dried seeds.

Until fairly recently I have to admit that I’d rather overlooked dried fava beans. I’d happily tucked into bowls of ful medames, often considered the Egyptian national dish, on a holiday up the Nile but forgotten about that satisfying bowl of cumin and garlic scented bean stew as soon as I got home. The tiny, lurid-green fresh beans are another matter, I rediscovered them after years of leathery broad bean torture as a child and have for decades been happily throwing them into salads and pasta dishes or frying them up with jamón. As far as I was concerned, we grew and ate broad beans, (plenty of which are frozen) in the UK, while the dried favas were cultivated elsewhere; I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In Britain we produce around 500,000 tonnes of broad beans each year; some are picked green but most are left to mature and dry on the plants. Vast quantities of these fava beans are exported to the Middle East and the remainder used as animal feed. So why has the tradition of growing the beans continued, with so little interest in the domestic market for them? Here lies one of the key reasons that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation is wanting us to grow and eat more pulses—these legumes actually enrich the soil.

Pulses have been used in crop rotation for thousands of years. Whereas many crops require nitrogen fertilisers, manufactured using natural gas, these magical plants draw their own nitrogen from the air. Better still, pulses (with the help of natural bacteria) actually fix nitrogen in the soil so that the following cereal or vegetable crop benefits as well. The plant residues are often left in the fields after the bean harvest as green manure, since they dramatically improve the soil composition. Eat more beans, I say!

Nowadays, it’s getting easier to track down our homegrown favas; you can buy them whole or ready split. The whole beans are ideal for traditional dishes such as ful medames, after being soaked overnight and cooked for about an hour with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda to help soften the skins. As an impatient cook I’m more excited about the split fava beans that require no soaking and cook in just over half an hour.

Try making a creamy fava hummus, or serving up a wonderfully homely thick purée such as maccu (the ancient southern Italian answer to polenta), along with plenty of sautéed green veg, lashings of fabulous olive oil and a sprinkling of pecorino. The split beans will eventually cook down to a creamy consistency, perfect for thickening sauces and stews (especially useful for those on gluten-free diets). But my desert island fava bean dish would have to be falafel—so often thought of as a chickpea dish, Egyptian falafel are traditionally made with fava, and the texture is heavenly.

Read Jenny’s recipe for fava bean falafel