Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fava beans

by Steven Williams

A favorite, traditional Roman appetizer available in the Spring is Fava Beans with Prosciutto Romano and slices of Pecorino Romano cheese.
(In Sicily, Fava beans are associated with the La Festa di San Giuseppe or the Feast of Saint Joseph on March nineteenth, the unofficial saint of fava beans which are considered bearers of luck and health at this time.)

Fava bean pods color photographFava beans that are fresh, small, and tender and direct from the field, are a seasonal Spring treat and a particular favorite in Rome. In choosing Spring Fava beans, remember that those larger than three-quarters of an inch or with a shell that has begun to yellow will be too mature to be eaten fresh because they will be starchy and bitter. Fava beans have been increasingly in popularity with twenty-first century cooks and as a consequence the availability of fresh, young, Spring Favas has expanded considerably.

Vicia faba aka Fava bean plant antique color botanical drawingFava beans, whose most common alternate name is the Broad bean, were the primary legume grown in Europe before the introduction of the of the great diversity of New World bean varieties. Because of this history, Fava recipes are primarily based on European cooking traditions. Fava beans have been found in some of the earliest-known Old World human settlements. It is currently believed that they became part of the eastern Mediterranean diet at about 6000 BC and possibly even earlier. Favas are particularly used as a staple in Italian cuisine though they are generally associated with all Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cooking traditions. Favas also have an equally ancient association with Chinese cuisine. The most frequently heard alternate names for Fava beans are Broad beans, Windsor beans, Horse beans, and Pigeon beans.

Fava beans in the pod color photographPreparation of Young Spring Fava Beans in the Roman Tradition
Young Fava beans will be about the size of a pea and at this size they are sometimes called ‘Fevettes’. Fava bean pods should be as bright green as possible, clean, and slightly fuzzy; they should never be limp or blackened on the ends and it should be possible to feel the beans inside the pods. Favas should first be removed from their pods. This is done by snapping the stem end of the pod and then using the broken stem end to pull the tough strings down the seam of the pod. Then crack open the pod and use your thumb to scoop out the beans inside. Each Fava bean also has a outer shell that, usually needs to be removed when it is tough. The youngest beans, about the size of a pea, can usually be eaten whole without peeling of this outer shell but if the bean is about three-quarters of an inch or larger or the shell has begun to yellow, it will need to be shelled because otherwise it will make the Favas starchy and bitter.

Fava beans after shellingThe easiest way to remove the Fava bean shells is to blanche the beans. Blanche the beans by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the beans to the boiling water but let them cook for no more than thirty seconds. Quickly drain them and immediately plunge them into ice water to stop the beans themselves from cooking. This blanching softens the outer shell so that it can be easily slit open on its side and then the bean can be pinched out of the slit shell. Some fans of the Fava feel that even this slight amount of cooking affects the texture and flavor of the fresh Spring Fava beans and so they prefer the more difficult process of peeling the beans without any blanching. Drizzle the shelled Fava beans with a good, buttery, light olive oil and sprinkle to taste with sea salt. Serve them with Prosciutto Romano and slices of Pecorino Romano cheese.

Italian Salumi color photographProsciutto Romano (Roman Prosciutto)
Salumi, the plural of Salume, are Italian meat products that are usually cured and mostly made from pork. This type of meat product also includes Bresaola, which is made from beef, as well as cooked varieties such as Mortadella and Prosciutto Cotto. Salumi are the types of meat products sold in the Italian Salumeria or the French Charcuterie. The word Salume is not directly related to Salami. Salami is a specific type of Salume. Italy has a long history of preserving meats and an incredible number of regional Salumi types with each Italian region having its own traditional techniques for preserving pork.

Prosciutto ham color photographProsciutto is considered the “Prince” of Italian salumeria products (i.e., pork products such as hams, sausages, and pates). Generally, Prosciutto is an aged meat product made from pork haunches or legs taken from pigs that range from three hundred and fifty to four hundred pounds, often referred to as “heavy pigs”. Prosciutto is pear shaped with a uniform rosy internal color and rimmed with a fat layer. Rome and the Roman provinces are known for their own unique type of excellent Prosciutto, Prosciutto Romano (Roman Prosciutto). Roman Prosciutto is not well known outside of Rome because production of this type of Prosciutto is so limited. Only about 55,000 pounds are produced each year and this volume of production has never lent itself to commercialized production processes. The Italian regions that produce Roman Prosciutto are mainly those closest to the Lake of Bracciano (Anguillara Sabazia and Bracciano), as well as the communities of Fiumicino and Cerveteri.

Prosciutto San Daniele at the Central Market in Florence, Italy color photographMaking Prosciutto
Prosciutto is a Italian dry-cured ham. Commercial Prosciutto production currently takes at least nine to eighteen months depending on the size of the ham although traditional, best flavored Prosciutto can take as much as three years or even a little longer. Prosciutto begins with the dressed haunch (i.e., the upper thigh area of the hind legs) of pigs taken from animals that range from three hundred and fifty to four hundred pounds, often referred to as “heavy pigs”. The first step in making Prosciutto from a pork haunch is to chill the haunch to 32 degrees Fahrenheit so that it becomes firm. The chilled haunch is then trimmed, cleaned and sea salt is rubbed onto it. Dry salt is applied to the upper part of the haunch and damp salt is applied to the cut surface of the haunch. The salted haunch is then left pretty much alone for about two months for salt equalization except that it is also pressed during this step. The pressing helps drain as much of the remaining blood from the meat as possible. Pressing also gives Prosciutto hams their traditional 'squashed' shape that slice well plus this 'squashed' shape also provides the ham with a profile that allows even dehydration during the drying process.

Prosciutto hams drying, color photograph by Nicole FalmbiglAfter this initial period of salting and pressing, the ham is washed several times to remove the excess surface salt and the face of the meat is rubbed with a mixture of lard, salt, pepper, and rice flour. This lard mixture prevents the face of the ham from drying out and protects it from pests. At this point, Prosciutto hams are hung to dry in a cool, shaded place with good air circulation. The quality of the air circulating during this step of the process is very important to the final quality of the Prosiutto. If the air is too warm the meat spoils but if the air is too dry this will also ruin the Prosciutto. The best quality or type of circulating air during the drying process is air that is damp but also cool. Because of this then, the ham is left hanging in a damp, cool, well-ventilated environment while it dries. The amount of time required for this drying step varies somewhat depending on the local climate and size of the ham.

Prosciutto color photographWhen the Prosciutto ham has completely dried it is then hung again in another airy controlled environment for eighteen months or more to age and cure. Italian Prosciutto is typically aged at 59 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. The aging/curing time for traditional Prosciutto is two to three years though sometimes it is even a little longer. Although some Prosciutto is cured with nitrites (either sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate) to produce the desired color, traditional Prosciutto production involves only the use of sea salt. Traditional Prosciutto obtains its characteristic color from the action of desirable types of mold and bacteria that are involved in the curing process. It is because these specific desirable bugs are present in such small numbers and because they take so long to transform the ham meat that the Prosciutto curing process to produce the best Prosciutto requires so much time. During the curing process desirable bacteria and molds work in combination with enzymes that naturally occur in the meat to break down complex proteins and fats into smaller, much more flavorful components. This curing process, the careful salting of the ham so that it remains sweet, and the concentration of flavor that occurs during the drying gives Prosciutto hams their wonderful flavor. Roman Prosciutto obtains its unique flavor from the essence of the areas where it is produced and the subtle variation created by the breed of pig used, the pigs' diets, and techniques unique to the dry curing of the Roman Prosciutto hams.

PecorinoPecorino Romano cheese
Pecorino is the modern name for the Cacio family of hard Italian cheeses made from sheep's milk. The name Pecorino apparently comes from the Italian word pecora for sheep. Aged Pecorino cheeses are sharp and Pecorino Romano is typically aged for eight months to a year before it is eaten. Pecorino Romano is the aged Pecorino cheese best known outside Italy. The United States has been an important export market for this type of cheese since the nineteenth century. Most Pecorino Romano is produced on the island of Sardinia, though some is also produced in Lazio and in the Tuscan Province of Grosseto. It has a hard yellow rind with a yellowish white interior and a distinctive strong, very salty flavor that is comparable to Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan). It is usually served thinly sliced or grated and is most often used on pasta dishes.

For additional recipes see also:
Andalusian Gaspacho, a recipe by Van Wyck Brooks
Beer Bread, a bronze age flavor variation with other ideas
Aliter Lenticulam (Lentils Another Way aka Lentils with Coriander)
Christmas holiday food and drink from the works of Charles Dickens
Beef Burgundy, Crackling Bread, Pice Ar Y Maen, Sevillian Yellow Plum Conserve, and Les Ioles (Writers' and Artists' recipes)
Omlette Aurore by Alice B. Toklas, Artists' and Writers' Recipes

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Creative Commons License
Spring Fava Beans, Roman Style by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

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