BY LAUREN BACK
I admit it: I may have moved to Seattle, first and foremost, because of the food. Growing up in the Midwest, I’m no stranger to Jell-O salads with dubious add-ins like carrots and whipped cream. I can, with unnerving accuracy, predict the contents of a noodle-heavy casserole (called “hotdish” in Minnesota), even under its customary layer of gloppy cheese. And I’m used to an array of fruit “bars” made with canned everything.
The Pacific Northwest has me engaging in food activities I could never have guessed I’d enjoy. I’ve pitted pounds of Lapin cherries until my kitchen counters resembled a crime scene, and I’ve faced down a daunting pile of stinging nettles, watching them transform into soft benevolence when lightly sauteed.
High on my nettles success, I signed up for a CSA box and waited for the Northwest summer to bring more discoveries to my table. What my box brought, in only its second weekly delivery, was a pound of fuzzy fava bean pods, pointy and green and playing hard to get. I’d only seen fresh fava beans once, in Minneapolis, where they had been shipped from California and drooped limply in my hands. These CSA-box favas were broad and taut, and after shoving away the requisite feelings of Midwestern intimidation and inadequacy, I warmed to the task of attempting to cook them.
I called my friend Kyle, a native Seattleite who has, on several occasions, boasted about his mushroom-foraging expeditions and his blackberry jam. Kyle was surprisingly vague when I asked him about fava beans. “I haven’t done much with them,” he said. “They always look kinda scary to me. Too furry. I don’t like hairy vegetables.”
I turned to vegetable authority Deborah Madison. In “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” she ominously states that some people experience “favism,” an allergic reaction to fava beans. “It’s important that fava beans be thoroughly cooked to prevent a reaction,” she warns.
Though the favas now seemed more inauspicious than the stinging nettles had been, I put on a kettle of water to boil and got to work easing open the spines of the pods. Once pulled open at the tip, the wooly pods revealed a column of round beans with rubbery skin. I slid my finger down the column, and the beans popped obligingly out of the pod. I got into a meditative rhythm, popping beans and thinking about how Seattleites complain when the temperature rises over 75, about the thorny blackberry brambles that reach out to snag my shirt on every Seattle block, about how summer in Seattle is celebrated like a three-month holiday.
And then I thought about nothing except methodically unzipping fava bean pods.
After shelling, the beans had to be blanched for a few minutes, and then peeled. The skins gave way less readily than the pods, but when you’re peeling as many beans as I was, you have ample opportunities to perfect a technique. The easiest way, I finally discovered, was to dig a little slit in one end of the bean with a fingernail, then squeeze the bean out of the slit from the other end.
It was tedious.
I sighed and made impatient faces, until I realized no one was there to witness the sacrifices I was making for a bowl of beans. So I dug and squeezed grudgingly, occasionally popping a bean into my mouth to remind myself I was doing something worthwhile. And it was worthwhile. The beans, teetering perfectly between crunchy and tender, were tart and grassy. Perhaps they seemed so sweet because of the time I spent preparing them. But to me, they tasted like the beginning of a summer I could never have imagined in Minnesota.
Lauren Back is ravenously curious about how food intersects with all aspects of life. Along with fava beans, she’s hoping for many more Pacific Northwest firsts.