Saturday, March 26, 2011

Country Crock

I have been stalking Whole Foods, in search of fava beans. Apparently beans have seasons, and favas have been in hibernation.

After months of regularly parking haphazardly and rushing into two different stores, making a beeline for the produce section, I finally found them. Granted, I know so little about produce I am not sure whether beans are vegetables, legumes--maybe legumes are vegetables??--or some other species entirely. And fava beans are identical to other kinds of beans-in-pods at Whole Foods, so I probably could have been feasting on a cousin bean for months already without being any the wiser. In fact, had the Whole Foods staff accidentally put a sign that said "Fava Beans" in front of a pork roast, I would have bought it without thinking twice. But the beans they had in the bin today looked vaguely similar to the fava beans I recalled eating last year, and there was even a sign that said "Fava Beans" to confirm my hunch. So I grabbed handful after handful and jammed them into the plastic produce bag.

Why the obsession with a bitter-tasting bean that is only remotely edible after putting in an inordinate amount of time and effort? Because last year I inadvertently made a really good side dish with fava beans. I do not have the attention span to follow recipes, and we rarely have ingredients on hand that would conform to an actual recipe published in an actual cookbook. So I pretty much "wing" everything I make. Most of the time, my meals are pretty bad, so there is no reason to try to recreate them. But the garlic-stir-fry fava recipe was something special.  And I have been desperately trying to relive that past glory ever since.

Despite living at an Axis of Organic where Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Farmers' Markets all magically converge, we once actually ventured to a "working farm"  to pick our own fruits and vegetables. Many guilt-ridden families apparently make this farm journey so that they will never experience the humiliation of their child announcing in class that vegetables come "from the supermarket." I am not saying that I personally have lived this nightmare, just that I have a friend who had a friend who did.....

So sometime last spring, we sucked it up and drove almost an hour to have ourselves a good, old-fashioned day in the "country." You can tell a farm that is open to city folk mauling its goods by the homemade signs hawking "Pick Ur Own" on the side of the road. Apparently the country folks' perception of city folk is the latter can't read or spell. Thankfully, the farm we chose also had a hotdog stand and a smoothie booth, so we knew we wouldn't starve. By the way, had I known that nature included nitrate-laced faux pork products, I would have gone au naturel years ago!

The farm had a large selection of food growing on trees, vines, and bushes, such as boysenberries, which I had always thought was a joke name for a fruit that was meant to be the punchline of a bawdy joke. Who knew boysenberries really existed in nature? Cool! We decided to skip the Verdolaga and Tatsoi in favor of strawberries and salad items. We had the option of using a provided kiddie wagon and trekking out into the fields, or taking a hayride shuttle. A no-brainer! We can get a kiddie wagon at Toys R'Us any day! But a hayride and not having to walk a quarter of a mile in the heat with kids in tow? Sign us up! By the way, for those of you with delicate constitutions, the minute you climb onto a bale of hay, you will understand why a certain allergic reaction is called "hayfever." Note to self: Get Claritin before the next trip to the farm.

The good news is we didn't have much to carry much back because my daughter ate her weight in strawberries while we were out in the field. But out of guilt and fear of prosecution, we started tearing anything remotely leafy or bumpy from the plants en route to the parking lot. Lettuce? Who doesn't like a fresh salad? Radishes? Sure! Cauliflower? Keep it coming! Beans? Yeah! So by the time we made it to the cashier, we were ready to open our own salad bar. All we needed was a sneezeguard.

The bad news is when you have absolutely no idea what you are doing, you end up with mounds of produce in proportions that are not conducive to making anything anyone would want to eat. One or two eggplants go a long way, it turns out. So if you have picked eight, you are going to have a big, bumpy, purple pile on the kitchen counter for a long time to come. And you quickly realize there is a limit to how much chard a family of four can consume before the vegetable equivalent of fruit flies discover the stash.

The one bright spot to cluelessly grasping at leaves and beans from vines is once in an organic blue moon, you get something good. In this case, the fava beans. These were an afterthought, a last-minute grab en route to the farm check-out. When we got home to the beauty of paved roads and sushi restaurants, I stared at these bumpy pods and had no idea what to do with them. Do you eat them in the pods? Do they have seeds to be removed? Are there living creatures inside those pods? A quick Google search assured me that nothing Alien-like would emerge from the protective coating. I enlisted my son for a fun afternoon of pea-shuckin', similar to what I imagined they did on Little House on the Prairie (both the book and TV version). Even though I billed the activity as an opportunity to "bond," my son lasted about 30 seconds before sneaking out to shoot baskets.

Preparing fava beans requires shucking, de-skinning, and blanching. Three gerunds with which I had not previously been familiar. By the way, save the imbibing (a more familiar gerund) until at least step three. Trust me. Once the beans were ready to be officially made into a recipe, I was done with the Google searches. So I took the ingredients that I refer to as "bachelor staples"--olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper--and combined them in a skillet. Yum!

Unfortunately, when I tried to recreate the dish the next day with the remaining beans, I realized that this cooking-without-recipe thing isn't as foolproof as I had been led to believe by the Food Network. Whatever I did the second time was not nearly as tasty as my maiden attempt. Since I was then out of our hand-picked fava beans, I continued to buy the legumes at Farmers' Markets and Whole Foods--each time vowing to match the initial deliciousness of my fava bean concoction. Sometimes I forgot to use the fava beans before they went bad, and they ended up being discarded in a sad, brown, wilted state. Other times the dish came close... so close that I continued my quest with dried fava beans even when fresh ones were out of season. And now that fava beans are back in season, perhaps another trip to the farm will be in order. Or not. I bet if I look hard enough, I can even find Verdolaga and Tatsoi at Whole Foods.


  1. That "Pick Ur Own" sounds like a good business for the farmer. Why do the work when you can get those slick city folk to do it for you? :)

  2. Hi, Doug--Hmm. You gave me a good idea. I'll post a sign outside my house saying "Do m'y Laundree" and maybe some tourists will do it for me. If outsourcing worked for Huck Finn (or was it Tom Sawyer), why not for me? Take care! Best, Karen