May 11, 2011
One of the amusing things about our modern “foodie” culture is all the posturing about how much more worldly and smart today’s cooks are than those of the past.
Anyone who has ever attempted classical French cooking (or any other kind, for that matter) on an open hearth knows better. An open fire requires a level of wisdom and skill that today’s motor-driven cooks, dependent as they are on thermostatically controlled ranges, electric food processors, and high-speed hand blenders, simply don’t have.
What’s more, all the dishes and foodstuffs that so many of these so-called “foodies” think they’ve only recently discovered have been around for a long time, and I don’t mean the obvious, in their countries of origin: I mean right here in River City.
Just take a casual dip into the cookbook that is widely believed to be the first penned by a Southerner, The Virginia House-wife. Within the pages of this lovely book, published almost two hundred years ago by Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph, you’ll find such wonders as raspberry and herb vinegars, gazpacho, polenta, Spanish Olla and Ropa Veija, seviche (she spelled it “caveach”), classic French cooking, authentic homemade egg pasta, and fava beans.
That last masqueraded under an archaic name, “Mazagan” beans, but they’re fava all right—
This is the smallest and most delicate species of the Windsor bean. Gather them in the morning, when they are full-grown, but quite young, and do not shell them till you are going to dress them. Put them into boiling water, have a small bit of middling, (flitch,) of bacon, well boiled, take the skin off, cover it with bread crumbs, and toast it; lay this in the middle of the dish, drain all the water from the beans, put a little butter on them, and pour them round the bacon.”
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824
Windsor bean is (or was) the common English name for fava. Lest you think she didn’t really know about these staples of Mediterranean gardens, she continues—
“When the large Windsor beans are used, it is best to put them into boiling water until the skins will slip off, and then make them into a puree as directed for turnips—they are very coarse when plainly dressed.”
There you are, a fava puree just like the one that was recently published in one of our trendy food magazines.
Mrs. Randolph’s recipe with “middling, (flitch,) of bacon,” (salt-cured side meat), has a lot in common with the Roman way with these beans, known outside the city as “alla romana” but within it as “alla guanciale,” salt-cured pork jowl.
All this comes to mind because there were lovely fresh fava in the produce bins at my neighborhood natural food store. They were so young and beautiful that the first handful were shelled, dipped in sea salt, and eaten raw, as Romans do when these wonders first come into season. For the rest, we were alas fresh out of salt-cured pork jowl, the country ham stash in the freezer was way past usefulness for anything but shoe sole repair, and there wasn’t a scrap of middling to be had without going out again.
Ah, but a perusal of the spice cabinet turned up a precious little tin of Virginia Willis’s pecan-wood smoked sea salt. The results were—
Fava (not quite) alla Romana
Or Middling-less Mazagan Beans
3 pounds of fresh unshelled Windsor (fava) beans
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, trimmed, peeled, and minced
1 medium clove garlic, lightly crushed and peeled, but left whole
Pecan or hickory smoked sea salt, or kosher salt
Whole black pepper in a mill
1. Shell the beans and rinse under cold running water. Put the butter and shallot in a wide, lidded sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is translucent and beginning to color, about 4 to 5 minutes.
2. Add the garlic and continue sautéing until it is beginning to color on the edges. Add the beans and season well with smoked salt (or plain salt) and pepper, both to taste. Add enough water to barely cover the beans, bring it to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently until tender, between 6 and 15 minutes depending on the age and size of the beans.
3. If the liquid remaining in the pan is still thin, uncover, raise the heat, and quickly evaporate it to a thick sauce. Turn off the heat, shake the pan to evenly coat the beans with the sauce, and serve immediately.