Fava beans are one of the oldest plants under cultivation, and they were eaten in ancient Greece and Rome. Despite the name, fava beans are a member of the pea family, though they are also known as broad beans, pigeon beans, horse beans, and windsor beans. They are popular in Mediterranean cuisine, with many summer dishes celebrating the seasonal bean, although they are also dried for winter use. Fava beans have a distinct flavor and creamy texture that makes them a great addition to a wide variety of dishes.
When intended for consumption, fava beans are planted in February and March to mature through the summer, with their peak coming in July. The beans grow on bushy plants with tapering leaves, yielding anywhere from 25 to 50 pods per plant. The pods resemble pea pods in shape, although they are much larger and lined with a pillowy white material that protects the seeds inside.
Fava beans are also used as a cover crop to protect delicate soil, because they grow quickly and produce a great deal of lush foliage. In addition, like most legumes, fava beans are nitrogen fixers, and they replenish the soil with this vital nutrient. Many farmers plant fava beans and plow them back into the field after the growth has peaked for mulch.
They grow best in warm climates, although they also tolerate cooler weather. They do not tolerate extremely hot temperatures well, however, and should be planted in an area of the garden that will protect them from direct sunlight. If sprouted in the greenhouse, the seedlings should be planted 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm) apart, as they will grow into large bushes later. If planting the seeds directly, they should be buried approximately 3 inches (7 cm) below ground, and thinned after they sprout in seven to 14 days. In four to six months, the beans will have matured for harvest and eating.
Fava beans should be shelled and peeled before eating. The outer peel on the beans, while technically edible, is very woody in texture and detracts from the buttery feel of the inner bean. In addition, fava beans should be cooked before serving because of favism, a rare reaction to fava beans found among people of Mediterranean descent. Little risk has been found from eating cooked beans, but some diners may have an allergic reaction to raw or unpeeled favas.
Fava beans are great steamed and served with olive oil, salt, and lemon. They can also be added to soups and pastas, ground into purees, grilled, or enjoyed in artichoke risotto. The fresh beans can be found in Italian markets beginning in late May, and they will be tasty through August.