All around the northern rim of the Mediterranean early spring marks the tail end of artichoke season and the glorious appearance of fava beans. That is reason enough, in any cook’s estimation, for a celebration that combines the two in a dish that truly proves some sums are greater than their parts. The combination of artichokes and fava beans, or fave, exists in one form or another from Barcelona to Beirut and back again, sometimes flavored with wild fennel greens, mint or dill, or with sweet young peas or new potatoes added to the mix. Sometimes the fava beans, or fave, are pushed aside entirely for peas themselves. And why not? With such engaging stars on the scene at the same time, it’s a natural — and simple — way to honor good things.
Alas, it’s difficult for American cooks to replicate this dish since most of us simply don’t have access to the quality of artichokes or fave that are taken for granted in Mediterranean markets. But we can try.
In earlier times, fava beans, under their English name broad beans, were standard fare in American home gardens, but no longer. Sometime in the late 19th century, broad beans fell out of fashion, only to come back very recently as fava beans, the delight of Mediterranean-inspired young chefs who religiously follow the dictum that each individual bean must be peeled separately.
OK, do it if you must and if you have a full kitchen staff at your disposal. But no home cook is going to fiddle with peeling bean after bean after bean. No way. And we should not; I know of no one anywhere in the Mediterranean, whether home cook or restaurant chef (well, maybe just a few ultra-fancy French maitres cuisiniers), who would ever bother to peel a fava bean, believing, quite correctly, that if the beans are so big they need peeling, then they’re too big to be eaten fresh. With rare exceptions, the fave in U.S. markets, even in farmers markets, are exactly that — too big and fat, too mature, stringy, tough and starchy to mess with. They should be dried on the stalk instead and kept for winter storage, as is done in southern Italy or Greece.
(I once persuaded the kitchen staff at Chez Panisse to follow a recipe and leave fave unpeeled; they complied, but I don’t believe I had any lasting effect on that venerable institution, which to this day continues an haute French tradition, piously peeling every bean.)
There is another way to get good tender fava beans, however: Grow your own. It will take more time but they are a dead easy garden vegetable and should be more widely adopted by kitchen gardeners across the country. In some regions where the ground doesn’t freeze hard, the seeds can be thrust 4 to 6 inches deep into early winter soil and fresh fava beans will be one of the first spring vegetables to grace the gardener’s table. Young and tender, they can be eaten raw with a wedge of sheep’s milk cheese — cacio e bacelli, this is called in Tuscany.
But then there’s the artichoke problem, which may be even more confounding. In any Mediterranean market, you’ll find two, three, sometimes even four varieties of artichokes for sale, most of them without any trace of the troublesome choke, that thatch at the heart of the plant that reminds us the artichoke is, in essence, an only slightly domesticated thistle.
I ask you, if we Americans are smart enough to put a man on the moon,why can’t we can’t figure out how to make a chokeless artichoke? The Italians, the Spanish, the Greeks have been doing it for centuries, though the French, as usual, are a little far behind. I’m no botanist but I believe the answer lies in methods of cultivation. Artichokes are by nature perennials, and in California, where most American artichokes are grown, the plants are cultivated as such, the same plants harvested year after year. In much of the Mediterranean, on the other hand, artichokes are replanted each season, using suckers thrown up during the previous year’s growth — daughter plants, in other words, that initially lack the annoying thatch. Could a Castroville entrepreneur repeat that practice? I would be first in line for chokeless artichokes.
The recipe that follows is one I had on a recent trip to the island of Crete. The Greek name is simple and straightforward, anginares me koukia, artichokes with fava beans. Greeks often use wild fennel greens in this, another springtime treat; if you have access, by all means substitute fennel greens for the chopped dill. Just be sure your beans are young and tender — and don’t bother peeling them!
Anginares me Koukia
(Artichokes and Fava Beans)
4 or 5 medium artichokes (about 1½ pounds)
1 whole lemon
1½ pounds fresh fava beans, the smaller the better
2 cloves garlic
½ cup finely chopped fresh dill
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 or 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Prepare the artichokes:
- Squeeze the juice of half the lemon in a bowl of cool water. Use the other lemon half to rub over the cut surfaces of the artichokes as you prepare them.
- If the artichokes have stems, cut the stems off and peel away the tough, ribbed outer surface. Cut the stems in pieces about an inch long and toss in the bowl of acidulated water.
- Pull off and discard the tough outer leaves of the artichokes, then slice the top down to where the leaves become tender and edible. Cut each artichoke into four or six pieces, depending on its size. Remove the prickly choke if necessary. As each artichoke is prepared, toss it into the bowl of acidulated water.
Prepare the fava beans:
Shell the fava beans, which should be young and tender and not require peeling. Very slender ones (the thickness of your index finger) can be sliced without shelling, just like regular green beans.
- Set aside 2 tablespoons of the dill to use later. Chop the remaining dill with the garlic and add to a saucepan large enough to hold all the ingredients. Add the oil and set over medium low heat.
- In another pot bring a few cups of water to a boil.
- Gently sauté the greens for about 5 minutes, or until their fragrance starts to rise, then stir in the fava beans.
- Add a cup of boiling water, or a little more, to barely cover the beans. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for about 10 minutes.
- Drain the artichoke quarters and add to the pan along with salt and pepper. Add more boiling water to barely cover the artichokes. Let simmer, uncovered, until the artichokes are tender — about another 10 minutes.
- While the artichokes are cooking, mix the flour in a small bowl with a tablespoon of water to make a smooth paste.
- As the artichokes finish cooking, stir 2 or 3 tablespoons of their cooking water into the flour mixture. Stir in 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. You should have a thick batter.
- Pour the batter into the vegetables, along with the reserved minced dill, shaking the pan gently to mix everything together. Continue simmering another 3 minutes until you have a velvety sauce that naps the vegetables.
- Taste, adding salt, pepper, or lemon juice as you wish.
Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, including “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean.”
Photos from top:
Fava Beans at an Italian market.
Credits: Nancy Harmon Jenkins