This is a reworking of a pasta dish I had for lunch in Trapani, on Sicily’s western coast. It used dried favas that had been cooked down to a rough purée, and the taste was good, but the color was a sort of mossy gray green. By using fresh favas I get a brilliant green shade that cheers my American heart (Southern Italian cooks almost always go for flavor above presentation). Mint is one of the first herbs available at my greenmarket in spring, so I make this dish to celebrate the beginning of warm weather.Freshly dug spring bulb onions start showing up at my greenmarket in May. They are relatively small, shiny-skinned, and juicy (because they haven’t been stored). They also are often sold with their green stem still intact, which is sweet and edible once you pull off the outer layer; I always try to use a little of it. If you can’t find these onions, use five or six scallions instead.
To prepare fava beans, first remove the beans from their fuzzy pods. You’ll notice that each bean is covered with a thin skin. This skin cooks up a little tough and can be slightly bitter, so you should remove it. To do so, blanch the beans in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds, drain them, and refresh under cold water. Drain again. The skin will now slip off easily to reveal the brilliantly green bean underneath.
If you can’t find, or don’t want to bother with, the fava beans (they are a little work), fresh peas, about a cup of them, make a wonderful springtime substitute.
(Serves 6 as a first course or 4 as a main course)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 medium spring bulb onions (see above), thinly sliced, using some of the tender green stem
1 pound orzo pasta (or another small shape, such as tubettini)
2 pounds fava beans, removed from their pods and skinned (see above)
Freshly ground black pepper
A few scrapings of fresh nutmeg
A splash of dry white wine
1/2 cup homemade or low-salt canned chicken broth
4 thin slices prosciutto di Parma, trimmed of excess fat and cut into strips
A squeeze of lemon juice
A chunk of aged Pecorino cheese
A small handful of mint leaves, lightly chopped
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil.
In a skillet large enough to eventually hold the sauce and all the pasta, heat about 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft, fragrant, and just starting to turn golden.
When boiling, add a generous amount of salt to the pasta water (the water should actually taste slightly salty) and drop in the orzo.
Add the skinned fava beans to the skillet, season everything with salt, black pepper, and a few scrapings of nutmeg, and sauté over medium-low heat for about 3 or 4 minutes, just to coat the beans with flavor and to soften them slightly. Add a splash of white wine and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth and simmer for about a minute, just to finish cooking the beans and to blend the flavors (the sauce will also thicken a bit).
When the orzo is al dente, drain it and add it to the skillet. Toss briefly over low heat for about 30 seconds. Add the prosciutto and toss to distribute it throughout the dish. Pour the pasta into a large, warmed serving bowl. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, a generous amount of freshly grated Pecorino, the chopped mint, a few gratings of black pepper, and a healthy drizzle of fresh olive oil (because of the saltiness of the prosciutto, you will not need more salt). Give the whole thing a final toss and bring it to the table, along with the remaining chunk of Pecorino for those who would like a little extra cheese.