Lemony Orechiette with Fresh Fava, Feta and Dill
I love beans in all of their many iterations. Broad beans, string beans, and pea pods are all among my very close culinary friends. I could spend an entire week cooking nothing but beans, from baked beans to fresh bean salads, broad bean braises and chickpea tagines. One of my favorite beans though, and one that I don’t cook with very often, is the fresh fava bean.
Where I live, fava beans are not common supermarket fodder. I’ve used dried fava beans for years in dishes like ful medammes, fava bean dips and spreads, and the occasional bean pot. The closest to “fresh” fava beans that are normally available are cryo-sealed packages of frozen shelled beans that have stalactites of freezer burn growing inwards from the bag. The reason for this is simple; they’re a seasonal buy, and usually only available in the stores around here for a fleeting 5-6 weeks between late spring and mid summer. To me, that means snap them up while you can! I was ecstatic to find a bag of fava beans in my local Italian-centric grocery store, and even more gleeful to buy yet another bag at the tiny local farmer’s market last Saturday.
Fresh fava beans are delicately nutty, creamy textured, and unbelievably fresh tasting and delicious. I like to match them with something equally seasonal, like a corn and fava bean succotash, fresh smashed feta bean bruschetta, or a light salad with fava beans, arugala, pine nuts and fresh buffalo mozzarella. However, if I’m going to squeeze them into a main course entree, the easiest way is through a light, bright, flavorful pasta with plenty of fresh herbs (fava beans love dill, mint, basil and parsley to name a few) and salty cheese.
Preparing the fava beans can take some time, but it is well worth the effort. I find a sort of zen in the act of shelling peas. For me, it’s a peaceful kind of quiet time and an excellent opportunity to give full rein to my day-mares (Mike affectionately refers to them as “Exhausted Hallucinations”, but a rose by any other name and all that jazz) during a mindless, repetitive, silkily relaxing task.
Yes, I just referred to shelling beans as “silkily relaxing”. I acknowledge that. Now let’s move on.
A dish with few ingredients, like this one, relies heavily on the quality of what you have. Fresh fava beans, fresh dill (look, I love dried dill too, but this isn’t the time or the place. No, I mean that. Put the jar away. PUT THE JAR AWAY), fruity and rich olive oil, and creamy feta cheese. Sure, you could buy Krinos feta from a tub, which is perfectly fine for dishes like shrimp saganaki, white bean and olive or roasted red pepper dips, but when feta is a key ingredient where both taste and texture matter, splurge a little bit and buy the best you can.
Lemony Orechiette with Fresh Fava, Feta and Dill
- 1 lb (454 g) orechiette pasta *
- 2.5 lb (1 kg) fresh unshelled fava beans **
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 large cloves garlic
- 1 lemon (2 tsp zest + juice of whole)
- 1/4 tsp red chili pepper flakes
- 3 large green onions
- handful fresh dill (1/4 cup finely chopped)
- 9 oz (250 g) Macedonian feta cheese ***
- salt and pepper to taste
* Orechiette is a small pasta named for the similarity between it’s shape a a pretty little seashell shaped ear. I rather enjoy the idea of eating ear shaped pasta, even if at times my affection gets a bit out of hand (“Doesn’t this pasta look so en-Tyson? Wait! Mike! Don’t VAN GOGH AWAY!”) and I end up eating dinner alone. If you cannot find orechiette, small shells or really any bite sized rounded pasta will do.
** That looks like a lot of beans, right? It’s really not. Trust me. 90% of what you see (and weigh) is shell. That big ol’ pile will only be about 3 cups of beans when they’re shelled, and only about 2 cups, give or take, after the waxy membrane is squeezed off.
*** There are some absolutely fabulous Greek feta cheeses that you can buy, but I find that Macedonian feta is generally reliably creamy, rich, robust and delicious. A dry, hard, crumbly and weakly flavored feta will just deflate this dish, so keep that in mind when you go shopping.
The first stage in preparing fresh fava beans is to ribbon and skin. Basically that means you nick one end of the bean and peel the stringy vein away, then use your thumb to ease the shell open and simultaneously pop each fava bean out of the pod as you slide down. Or, you know, do what you like…just get them out of there.
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Drop in the beans and let them blanch for 1-2 minutes. Scoop the beans out of the boiling water (don’t discard it) and immediately immerse them into an ice water bath. Keep an eye on the clock because 2 minutes goes by really quickly, and if you keep the beans at a boil for more than 3 minutes they’ll get mushy inside and squelch out of their skins instead of slipping gracefully away.
Let the beans cool for 5 minutes to really bring the temperature down. That lovely pale green hue on the outside of the bean is actually a waxy membrane which is not particularly palatable. Skin it off by nipping each bean to make a small slit in the skin (I use my fingernail for this) and squeeze the bean out.
Because the beans can take some time, hold off on taking your next cooking steps until this is nearly done.
Remember the salted water that you cooked the beans in? It’s probably slightly discolored now. Oh well, such is life. It’s also salty and flavorful, so just go with it. If the water level dropped, add more water until it is high enough to boil a pound of pasta (I think you see where we’re going with this one). Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
While the water comes to a boil, finely mince the garlic cloves and add them, along with the olive oil, to a very small pot or miniature sauce pan. Set this over gentle heat (medium low) and let it simmer, swirling the pan occasionally, until the garlic is fragrant and starting to get golden. Note: brown is bad, golden is totally in.
Use a microplane or zester on the lemon and add 2 tsp of zest to the hot oil along with the hot pepper flakes (optional). Stir this together and immediately take it off the heat.
Cut your half-naked lemon in half in anticipation, finely chop the green onions (white and green parts), and mince the fresh dill.
Boil the pasta for 8-9 minutes until it is al dente, or to your desired state of doneness. Drain the pasta but reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking water.
Put the hot pasta in a large bowl and toss it with the warm, garlicky, aromatic oil. Squeeze in the juice on an entire lemon and give it another stir.
Add in the shelled fava beans, green onion and dill. Crumble in that creamy Macedonian feta. If you like you can season with a very conservative amount of salt and maybe some freshly ground pepper, but frankly I don’t think that’s necessary.
Simple, light, and utterly delicious, the simplicity of the ingredients in this dish hardly do justice to the full bodied flavor.
The beans and feta vie to see who can be creamier in texture and taste while the dill and scallion just shake hands and decide to be best buds. I hear they’re going out for a beer tonight if you feel like joining.
Cloaked by the warm glow of a slightly piquant lemony oil, this is a dish best eaten warm, cold, or however it ends up in front of you. The massive amounts of feta, of course, do plenty to court my affections in that regard.
So hey! What are you waiting for? Fresh fava beans are only around for a few more weeks, so make…uh…make pasta while the sun still shines?