May 1st is a holiday in Italy. The festivities in Rome end with an enormous concert not far from where I live. A couple of subway stops are closed to help corral the crowd, and the music goes on late into the night. This was an especially strange year because May 1st also saw the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Days in advance, subway notices about travel in the city began appearing in Polish, and traffic and public transport use increased. A million people showed up in St. Peter’s Square for a ceremony that lasted, and was televised, for hours.
The fava bean season officially kicked off May 1st, too. Known here as le fave, the beans have been in the market for a couple of weeks, and I’ve eaten them. So have lots of other people as witnessed by the hulls littering the sidewalk outside my local market. But on May 1st Romans traditionally eat raw fave with pecorino Romano, a sheep’s milk cheese with the consistency of parmesan. I don’t much like the combination, but it’s a Roman favorite. On the days preceeding May 1, the fave are stacked in crates in all the markets with big chunks of the cheese nearby.
A favorite way of cooking fave is with onion, olive oil, and hog jowl, which sounds ever so much more refined in Italian, guanciale (a word that also means pillow). There isn’t really a recipe for this simple dish. Put all the ingredients in a pot, add water just to cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Fava beans must be peeled twice. First remove the outer shell. Then squeeze the bean from a hull that surrounds each separate bean. This can be done with raw beans, but I think it’s easier to blanch them for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Plunge them into ice water to help loosen the hull.
My favorite recipe comes from Sicily. At this time of year the artichoke season is ending and the fave and pea season is beginning. This is a noble dish to celebrate mid-spring.
Spring Vegetable Stew
1 cup shelled fresh peas
1 cup shelled fava beans, cleaned of their outer hull
4 artichokes, cleaned of all their hard, outer leaves and the choke, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped bacon or boiled ham
1 onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for serving
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Put the onion is a large pan with 1/4 cup water. Cook over low heat until the water evaporates. Add the bacon or ham. Cook until you are satisfied with the consistency—especially of the bacon. I usually want it to be nearing the crispy state. Wipe out excess bacon grease with a paper towel.
Add the peas, fava beans, and the artichokes. Pour over the wine (my Italian recipe says to “bathe” the vegetables with the wine) and cook until partially evaporated. Add the olive oil and parsley. Simmer for about 20 minutes, covered. Stir from time to time. The vegetables should give off enough liquid to keep the stew moist, but add a little water if it seems dry.
At the end of cooking, add salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, add the basil and pour on a little olive oil, what the Italians call a “thread of oil” which means pouring on a fine dribble of oil. This dish is good served as a main course or over pasta.