June 12, 2005

THE WAY WE EAT; Buried Treasure

By AMANDA HESSER

For two months every spring, Marco Canora, the chef at Hearth in the East Village, serves a remarkably good fava-bean and Pecorino salad. Tiny cubes of the soft cheese and barely cooked favas swim in a pool of olive oil flecked with parsley, oregano and dried chilies. The sweet-bitter beans snap under your teeth, the sheep's milk cheese slips a little tang into the mix and then you soak up the fragrant oil with a piece of sesame-crusted bread from Sullivan Street Bakery -- a delicious aggregate of flavors.

Canora's dish is specifically designed to celebrate the fava, the small, well-protected bean that's compact, round and greener than a blade of grass. But it's a hard-won prize. Unlike your standard peas, fava beans, once plucked from their pods, must also be extracted from their tough inner casings.

When I visited Canora recently in Hearth's kitchen, he pointed to the raw materials of his salad: a plastic container filled with two quarts of tediously peeled favas. ''My prep lady hates this time of year,'' he said. She's not alone. John Villa, the chef at Dominic in TriBeCa, told me that it's the job he gives to new employees to see if they're as good as their résumés. Or, he added, ''to the guy you don't like much.''

The kitchen has always offered varying degrees of suffering and drudgery. Shucking oysters, cracking black walnuts, mincing hot peppers -- these all involve some kind of physical pain. Fava beans, by contrast, are from the pain-in-the-neck school of cooking.

The beans grow in a fat, spongy pod about six to eight inches long. When buying favas, look for pods that are as clean, lightly fuzzy and bright green as possible; they should not be limp or blackened on the ends, and you should be able to feel the beans inside. (It is not uncommon to come across a pod that looks nice and plump and contains one lonely bean.) The first order of business is to shuck the beans from the pod, which is done by snapping the stem end and using it to pull the tough strings down the seam of the pod. This makes it easier to crack open the pod, and then you can use your thumb to sweep out the beans inside. It's a mindless task, and this is why multitasking was invented. At Chez Panisse, everyone from the dishwasher to the executive chef must shuck favas during staff meetings. At home, my husband and I recently snapped through 20 pounds of beans while watching two episodes of ''Deadwood.'' Fortunately, most recipes call for less than five pounds.

If they are harvested young and the shells are very small -- the size of a pea, a stage called ''fevettes'' in Provençal cooking -- you can get off easy and may eat them whole, without peeling them. (These smaller ones may always be braised whole.) Generally, though, you want to get to the bean inside the shell. And you still want them small. Once the bean exceeds three-quarters of an inch or the shell begins to yellow, it is too mature and will be starchy and bitter.

Methods for removing the shell vary. The most common way is to bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the beans, cook for 30 seconds, then drain and plunge them in ice water to halt the cooking. This softens the outer shell and allows you to slit open its side and force out the bean. In her cookbooks, Paula Wolfert favors steaming them in their pods for five minutes to concentrate the flavor while wilting the shells. But some restaurant chefs, like Michael Vernon at Geisha in Manhattan, insist on peeling the shell while the beans are raw. He says that blanching them first causes the bean to overcook because even if shocked in ice water, the shell prevents the cold from penetrating the bean. Peeling the beans while raw, however, is like catching flies with chopsticks. Choose your battle.

Here, at last, is where the labor ends. You can douse the beans with good olive oil and sea salt and call it a day. With each tiny bean that passes your lips, you will forget, as a mother forgets the pain of childbirth, the efforts that led to this pleasure. Later you can try a recipe, though most don't require more cooking, since the whole point of eating spring favas is to capture that freshness, that dash of sweetness.

Fava beans, which are sometimes referred to as broad beans, were the primary bean in Europe before the discovery of the New World. Unsurprisingly, then, most fava recipes originate in Europe. Marco Canora's fava-bean salad is derivative of the classic fava-and-Pecorino salads found all over Tuscany in the spring. In Spain, favas are used in gazpacho and stews, while in France they are often blended with other spring vegetables, like artichokes, morels and peas.

Right now, while the fresh fava season is winding down in Southern California, it is just beginning on the East Coast, which means that cooks in the former should be making favas into purées and on the latter should be hunting down that first crop -- the one with crisp, dewy beans no larger than a dime -- an ideal snack for the next episode of ''Deadwood.''

Full of Beans
''Cucina Romana,'' by Sara Manuelli, which came out earlier this spring, is both a guidebook and a cookbook. Manuelli writes of Rome's most well-known markets, bakeries, restaurants and wine bars. Throughout are classic and modern recipes, from fried artichokes to ricotta-cheese cappuccino. There are also four fava-bean recipes: risotto with favas; pea, artichoke and fava-bean stew; fava bean, potato, oyster-mushroom and Pecorino soup; and favas with guanciale.

Hearth's Fava-Bean Salad
Salt
4 pounds fava beans
2 spring onions or 2 scallions, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil (Canora uses Laudemio)
2 cups 1/4-inch-diced Pecorino
Toscano (a sheep's milk cheese that's firm enough to dice but not so firm that it crumbles)
3 teaspoons crushed imported oregano
Small pinch crushed chili pepper
1/3 cup finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon white wine
1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar.

1. To prepare the fava beans, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Shell the beans and parboil for 30 to 40 seconds. Plunge the favas into ice water to stop the cooking. Pop each bean out of its outer skin by pinching with thumb and forefinger; you may have to slit the outer skin with a knife if the beans are mature. (You should have about 4 cups.)

2. In a bowl, combine the favas with the onions. Season lightly with salt and generously with pepper. Douse with olive oil. If serving this later, add the remaining ingredients just before serving. If serving immediately, fold in the cheese, oregano, pepper, parsley, white wine and vinegar. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with crusty bread. Be sure to spoon on extra oil for soaking up with the bread. Serves 6. Adapted from Marco Canora, the chef at Hearth in New York.

Garganelli Pasta With Fava Beans
Salt
3 pounds fava beans
1 pound garganelli pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle over pasta
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced spring onions
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon chopped savory
Freshly ground black pepper
Few drops lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
4 ounces ricotta salata cheese, chilled.

1. To prepare the fava beans, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Shell the beans and parboil for 30 to 40 seconds. Plunge the favas into ice water to stop the cooking. Pop each bean out of its outer skin by pinching with thumb and forefinger; you may have to slit the outer skin with a knife if the beans are mature. (You should have about 3 cups.)

2. Bring another pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta in the salted water until it is al dente.

3. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the fava-bean ragout. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add the fava beans, onion, garlic, rosemary and savory and season generously with salt and pepper. Gently cook the mixture until the onions are soft and the fava beans are tender, about 5 minutes. Do not let the vegetables brown much; add a splash of water as needed. The ragout should be a bit moist by the end of cooking.

4. Drain the pasta, reserving a cup of the cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot and add the fava-bean ragout. Stir over low heat until the pasta is thoroughly coated, adding a bit of the reserved water if the mixture seems dry. Add lemon juice and taste for seasoning.

5. Transfer the pasta to a warmed bowl. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Use a sharp vegetable peeler to cut shavings of the ricotta salata over the top. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Serves 4. Adapted from ''Chez Panisse Café Cookbook.''

Fava-Bean Gazpacho With Sherried Raisins
1 tablespoon black raisins
1 1/2 tablespoons dry oloroso sherry
1/4 cup soft bread crumbs
1 1/2 teaspoons aged sherry vinegar
2 1/2 pounds fava beans
1/2 garlic clove
Pinch of coarse salt
Pinch of ground cumin
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup seedless green grapes
(peeling is optional).

1. Soak the raisins in 1/2 tablespoon of the sherry mixed with 2 tablespoons water. Moisten the bread crumbs with 1 teaspoon of the sherry vinegar mixed with 1 tablespoon water.

2. Briefly steam the favas in their pods until just wilted, about 5 minutes. Refresh in cold water. Peel from the pods, shell and set aside. The favas should be almost raw.

3. Crush the garlic with the salt. Add the garlic paste to a food processor along with the fava beans, bread paste, cumin, salt to taste and the remaining sherry and vinegar. Blend well. Add the olive oil in a thin stream. Gradually work in 2 cups of ice water. Chill for at least 3 hours. Garnish with grapes and the drained raisins. Serves 4 . Adapted from ''The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen,'' by Paula Wolfert.