In response to my complaint about the time-warping seasonal drudgery of shelling and peeling and cooking fava beans, my former colleague Jason Horowitz, now the Rome bureau chief of the New York Times, offered a simple fix. “Just eat them raw with chasers of pecorino like we do in the old country!” he tweeted.
Could it be that simple? Horowitz is a trustworthy eater, a person who truly cherishes and appreciates food. Not for nothing is he posted to Italy. But I’d always been instructed to peel off the skins, and I’d followed the instructions. Horowitz told me he ate the skins. “Just pop them out of the pod!” he wrote. “(Unless you live in Sardinia, in which case you are probably allergic.)”
There is, it turns out, a whole dissident argument against the message that fava beans have to be peeled. Peeling them, in this recounting, is held to be a fussy affectation of the Americans and the French, while hearty and natural eaters, like the Italians, happily enjoy the complexity of the whole intact bean.
(Unless, that is, they do come from Sardinia or other malarial parts of Italy, or of the rest of the Mediterranean and Africa, where people tend to carry not an allergy but a genetic variant that prevents their bodies from safely processing alkaloids in fava beans, causing their red blood cells to break down if they eat them. But peeling doesn’t seem to figure into that one way or the other.)
So I got some more fava beans and started shelling them and eating them as-was. There was no pecorino in the fridge, but I did have an aged raw-cow’s-milk cheese that seemed hard and pungent enough to fill in. It went well with the beans, and the beans themselves were…fine?
They weren’t better. The most enthusiastic advocate for skin-on beans I could find, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, wrote “by removing the skin of each bean, you also unquestionably remove much of that very earthy flavor that makes these tender early-summer delights so, well, delightful.” That sounded good—who wouldn’t want the full authentic bean flavor experience?—but in practice, the skin didn’t seem to add to the flavor of the inner bean so much as it competed with it for attention. It was pleasant—a little bland, a little bitter, a little chewy—but whatever part of the mouth was eating the skin was not eating the rich, nutty inner bean, the essential spring-vegetable treat.
On the other hand, the payoff for getting less flavor per bite was that the bites were much, much easier to come by. Not as good as the peeled beans, I told myself, wandering away from the pile of pods to go do some work. And then I found myself circling back to pop out a few more of them, and to whittle off a few more bits of cheese to go with them. I kept coming back to them, over the course of two afternoons, until they were all gone. And I still got the work done, too.