Recipe: Fava Bean Salad with Chicory, Pecorino Toscano, and Tarragon
It was while running the garde manger station at Le Madri restaurant many moons ago that I learned how to prep fava beans. I was young and anxious, and all the fast, sweaty self-assuredness going on around me made me terrified. So when the chef dumped a gigantic pile of long, green, overblown-looking bean pods at my station and explained what I was supposed to do with them, I thought it was either a sick joke or I was being punished for some kitchen crime I had unwittingly committed.
“Take all the beans out of the pods, then blanch them, and then remove the skin from each bean. Using your thumbnail helps.” Are you kidding me? I have to pull these thin skins off all these measly beans? There were more than a hundred pods, which meant, oh, 700 or 800 beans. I was especially disturbed because every time Chef gave me a task he expected it done in about five minutes. But I forged ahead in a controlled panic. About an hour and a half later I had a small bowl, probably about three cups, of smooth, skinless, brilliantly green firm little beans, and what I assumed was early onset arthritis in my thumbs and index fingers. I was exhausted. That didn’t bother me so much. My main concern was that it had taken so long. But in that hour and a half chef hadn’t yelled at me. Fabio, the pain-in-the-ass grill guy, hadn’t made fun of me for being saddled with such a fiddly task (like he did when I had to run a gigantic pile of baby artichokes through the prosciutto slicer, a job more terrifying than tedious). A lot of the kitchen crew had just walked past and smiled. I guess everyone felt sorry for me.
Fava bean season at an expensive Italian restaurant is a big deal, and obviously labor intensive. And I wasn’t asked to do this only once. It became a three-times-a-week task for months, and I never got any faster at it (lacking any fingernails to speak of, I devised a clumsy method using a paring knife; to Chef’s credit he gave me a helper after the second go-round). And you can be sure this spring restaurant ritual still goes on. Fledgling cooks all over town are no doubt rethinking their career choice at this moment.
But if you want to experience fava beans, and I do, because I absolutely love them, there’s no way around it, you’ve gotta get those skins off, or the beans will be bitter. Luckily for me, I no longer cook in a restaurant (lucky for the restaurants, too). I can now buy a small bag of favas and leisurely go about my prepping while watching animal shows or listening to old tango records. Now it’s enjoyable.
In Tuscany and other parts of Italy favas are traditionally combined with pecorino. That truly is an excellent marriage of flavors. I’ve tried using other cheeses, such as Asiago or Parmigiano, but I always go back to a gently aged Tuscan pecorino. It really is the best match (try to avoid pecorino Romano; it’s too sharp). In Tuscany that’s the entire dish, pecorino and favas. Beautiful, but I sometimes like to take it a step further and add other spring vegetables, lettuces, or herbs, creating a salad proper and dressing it lightly with good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. At Le Madre they often wound up in a warm morel salad with wild arugula and pecorino.
This spring I’m adding young chicory, chives, and pine nuts. I’ve come to like fresh mint with fava salads, but this time I took a chance with tarragon and I was pleased with the way it blended with the chives.
Please don’t let my restaurant experience dissuade you from buying favas and performing what can actually be a lovely Zen task, especially if you’re only preparing something for two, not two hundred. You’ll be rewarded with a special spring treat.
Fava Bean Salad with Chicory, Pecorino Toscano, and Tarragon
1 pound fava beans in their pods
A small bunch of frisée lettuce or chicory, torn into small pieces (about 1½ cups)
About 6 chives, with purple blossoms if you can find them, chopped into half-inch lengths
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
6 large sprigs tarragon, leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
About a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, the best you’ve got
¼ pound aged pecorino Toscano cheese
Remove the fava beans from their pods. Set up a medium pot of water ,and bring it to a boil. Add the favas, and blanch them for about 2 minutes. Lift them from the water with a large strainer spoon into a bowl of ice water. Drain them when cool. Now peel off the outer skin on each bean to reveal their smooth, bright green surface (I’m not telling you exactly how to accomplish this. It’s best to just do a few and find your way. And it’s not particularly hard).
Place the frisée or chicory in a small salad bowl. Add the favas, the chives, the pine nuts, and the tarragon. Mix the lemon juice with the olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Pour this over the salad, and toss. Now shave about 10 thin slices of the pecorino over the salad, and toss again very gently, trying not to break up the cheese too much.