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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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Several years ago I met a young woman who had an amazing love for food. And it admittedly rubbed off on me. I would read all about her weekly trips to local and independent grocery stores all over the city. She would pick up some amazing ingredients and write about them, how the owners treated her, how much she spent, and whether or not she would return to the store.

Her writings inspired me, especially since I'd recently moved to a new neighborhood where there were several independent grocery stores that were much, much closer to me than a large chain store was. And I began to explore them and fell in love with what I found there. And it was after having a conversation with Jes Davis that I decided I had an idea for a new column for Gapers Block. I wrote to Andrew, Naz and Jes about it and they encouraged me. And this is how One Good Meal was born.

And I was reminded of Jes, as I often am when I'm exploring a new grocery store, this past week. I had just finished attending a funeral on Central near Belmont when I decided to drive just a little bit further to go to Caputo's Fresh Market. I wish this store were closer to my home because I love it that much. Thankfully for people slightly closer to Elmwood Park than I am, you can shop online for either pickup or delivery now.

The moment that particularly reminded me of Jes happened right after I started wandering their aisles of fresh produce. I had a bag of baby artichokes and some mushrooms and was looking for something else interesting to pick up. I noticed five gray-haired men huddled around one display talking to each other in Italian and moving quickly. I curiously wheeled my cart closer to see them picking through fresh fava bean pods, sometimes labeled as broad beans. I used to know more Italian than I do now but I didn't have to speak the language to know they were excited.

I was watching them (OK, staring) in amusement and with great interest to see which pods they threw back and which they kept in their bag when the gentleman closest to me noticed me. He said something to his friends who all bunched together to make room for me. The first gentleman waved me over. I stood beside him and asked if he could tell me how to pick the best beans. Ten arthritic hands covered in age spots stopped moving and they all began to talk at once and then began laughing. The first gentleman, named Larry, then told me how to look for the good pods.

Larry told me to pick pods that are firm, not wrinkly like his wife (everyone laughed at that). The greener the better. And if you find ones that have black spots, you throw those to the back of the display so the employees can pull them out before they put in a fresh batch of beans. And one of Larry's friend told me to occasionally shake a pod and if you heard anything it meant it was dried up (like Larry) so it should be left behind.

I'm sure that having a younger, attractive woman ask their opinion about how to pick fava beans and the best ways to cook them made the day for these five men (four widowers, one with a wife in a retirement home), but it made mine too. And it seemed like an interaction that I could imagine Jes writing about as she described her shopping trip.

After returning home with my bag of memory-laden fava beans, I decided to head to the Internet for more ideas on recipes. My fava-picking friends had told me to shuck the pods, make a very salty water and cook the beans for one minute (naw! two or tree! don't listen to him, he's old!) before draining them and dunking them in cold water to get the skin off. Then I was told to sauté them with a coupla pieces of garlic and some olive oil and salt and pepper. One guy told me to sauté everything, smoosh it all together in one of them new-fangled whirring and chopping machines (kids these days! my wife used to grind 'em by hand) and then spread it on pieces of bread with some ricotta cheese and a slice of prosciutto. (Your doctor won't let you eat that no more! Who are you kidding?)

Thankfully the Internet backed up their advice on how to choose, prepare and eat the beans. However, I did learn that if you're going to cook the beans you should eat them the same day, since they have a tendency to get mucilaginous and funky tasting if they're refrigerated after being cooked. But a few sites suggested that it was easy enough to peel the beans without par-boiling them first. And it does seem easier to remove the skins after they're cooked, but it isn't impossible to peel them while raw.

Before you can peel the beans, you have to get them out of their pods. They resemble green beans that spend too much time at the gym. You can pinch the tips of the pod to get them to open so you can run your finger or thumb down the seam and pop the beans out of the shell and into a bowl. The inside of the pod is fuzzy but useless, so discard the pods. If you have a hard time breaking the pod open, you might find it easier to take a paring knife to either cut the tip of the pod or even to cut the pod gently along the seam to cause it to open. Once you've opened one, feel free to pop a bean in your mouth and chew. If it seems mildly sweet and tender you can eat them as they are. But if you find them to be a bit tough and bitter you'll know that you want to remove the skin.

To make the peeling job easier, bring water to a boil (about 1 quart for every two pounds of pods you purchase) and add 4-5 tablespoons of salt per quart. You want it to taste like seawater. Place the shucked beans in the water and let them cook for 2-3 minutes (you should be able to see the skin start to split) before pouring the water out into a strainer. Take the strainer and set it inside a large bowl of ice water. Let them sit for a minute to cool, then take the strainer out of the water so the beans don't continue to soak up water and get bland and mooshy.

There is a darker vein that runs along the side of the beans. Pinch it at the bottom so you get a split. Now pinch on the opposite end and the bean should pop right out of the skin and into a waiting bowl. The skins can be discarded.

Another reason you may want to remove the skin is because there are some people of African, Mediterranean or southeast Asian descent who suffer from >favism, which is an allergy to the pollen of the fava bean as well as to the skin of the bean. It is rare to react to cooked and peeled beans. There is a slew of medicines and chemicals that have a similar structure to what is found in fava beans and should be avoided by those with favism.

This bean was associated with death by the Greeks and especially Pythagoros. The ancient Egyptians, who gave the beans to the Greeks, believed that these beans were a receptacle for souls to be able to move from the underworld to our world.

Thankfully, my focus is on how to get the beans to taste great and not what they contain. Although I'm happy to report that they contain a great deal of protein and iron and loads of fiber. And overcooking beans makes them harder to digest so be careful unless you wish to experience the musicality they can cause our tummies to produce.

Once you've got a bowl of beans shucked and peeled, you're ready to cook them. The easiest way is to create a salad with artichoke hearts and olives. You can also puree them with a multitude of flavorings to create hummus-like spreads. Or you can even combine them with in pasta dishes and risotto.

Fava Bean, Artichoke Heart and Olive Salad
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon of kosher or sea salt (more to taste)
1 small clove of garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups of shucked and peeled fava beans
1/4 cup of pitted kalamata olives
8 ounces of canned artichoke hearts, sliced in quarters
2 teaspoons of finely chopped parsley or cilantro
black pepper to taste

Combine the olive oil, vinegar, salt and garlic in a medium-sized bowl. Add the beans, olives, artichoke hearts and parsley. Stir to combine. Taste and add pepper as needed. Chill for up to a day or serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings as a side

Fava Bean Spread on Crostini with Ricotta and Prosciutto
For the crostini:
1 baguette, sliced into about 40 rounds
olive oil
Preheat your oven to 400° F. Brush a cookie sheet lightly with olive oil. Brush each slice of crostini with olive oil. Place the slices on the sheet and bake in the middle of the oven until they're golden brown, about 6-10 minutes.

For the spread:
1 cup of cooked and peeled fava beans (about 2 pounds)
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic
juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup of fresh ricotta
5 paper-thin slices of prosciutto

Place the beans, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and cheese in the food processor blender and puree until everything is smooth. Taste before seasoning with salt and pepper. Cut the prosciutto slices into eight even strips. Spread a spoonful of the puree on a crostini, put a dollop of ricotta on top, and lay a strip of prosciutto across the slice. Serve immediately.

Spaghetti with Fava Beans
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 small yellow onion
2 tablespoons of sun-dried tomatoes in oil
1 clove of garlic, minced
8 ounces of whole wheat pasta
2 cups of fava beans that have been shucked, cooked and peeled
1/4 cup of water from the pasta pot
1 tablespoon of toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Place a large pot of covered water over high heat. While you wait for that to boil, chop the onion and mince the garlic. Place the onion and oil in a skillet over medium heat. Let it cook for 2-3 minutes, until the onions just start to become translucent. Add the tomatoes and garlic and let them cook for 2-3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover and let it simmer and stir occasionally. Once you add the pasta to the water, place the beans in the skillet and stir to combine. Cover again. Cook the past according to the directions on the package. Just before draining, skim off 1/4 cup of the pasta water and add it to the skillet. Bring the heat to medium and drain the pasta well. Combine the pasta, the contents from the skillet, and the pine nuts in a large bowl and stir to combine. Sprinkle with cheese, salt and freshly cracked pepper and serve immediately.
Serves 4.

Based on the mythology surrounding the fava bean, it seemed perfect that I would discover them after attending a funeral. And since they're a seasonal vegetable, it seems like a great way to kick off hopefully a series of columns about ingredients you may find at a local farmer's market, through your organic co-op, or just in a large bin at a local grocery store. Can't promise that you'll meet a friendly group of elderly Italian widows, but you never know.

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n / May 9, 2007 11:43 AM

I stumbled on before and never found it again, so thanks for confirming that it exist(ed) - I would love to do more gorcery shopping in non-chain stores but don't know where to start. Any ideas (or do you know if it's just a temporary thing that her site is down right now?)

Cinnamon / May 10, 2007 11:55 PM

Jes quit writing quite a while back. She moved away from Chicago but is probably buying her groceries from independent stores still.

I'd suggest reading through her archives. And take a look around whatever neighborhood you live in and visit the shops you find. Unless you live in the Loop or the Gold Coast, you're likely to hae something nearby you.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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