They're called broad beans, horse beans, English beans and Windsor beans, and in the Middle Ages, before being overshadowed by the common bean from the New World, they were the only beans known in Europe. Although widely grown throughout the world, favas are still considered a specialty vegetable in the United States.
The flavor of fresh fava beans--in the markets now through early summer--is subtle, often with a bitter aftertaste. They have little in common with dried fava beans, which are available year-round.
Young, whole (two- to three-inch) pods may be eaten raw with a sprinkling of oil and salt, but with more mature pods you should remove the beans and shell them.
To obtain the smallest beans it's almost necessary to grow them yourself. Most of those sold in markets range from four to 18 inches in length. Beans in the shorter pods are bright green; those in longer pods begin turning yellow.
Select pods that are evenly green with as little discoloration as possible. A cushioned lining gives the pods a slightly spongy feel.
A medical warning regarding the beans is mentioned by several experts. In her book "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables--A Commonsense Guide" (Harper & Row: 1986), Elizabeth Schneider writes: "Eating raw or cooked fava beans, and even inhaling pollen from a plant, can be toxic to those who suffer from glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency. A very small number of individuals, primarily of Mediterranean origin (but some Africans, Arabs and Asians have also been affected) inherit this imbalance that, when combined with other genetic factors (not yet isolated), causes severe hemolytic anemia in the presence of fava beans."
To prepare fava beans, cut off the tips of the pods (Step 1) with a sharp paring knife. Press along the seam to open the pod (Step 2) and expose the beans.
Lift out the beans (Step 3), then remove any small stems (Step 4) that remain attached. Each bean is covered with a tough skin that must be removed. This is much easier to do when the beans are blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drained and plunged into ice water. (If the beans are boiled more than a minute they become mushy.)
Slit each skin with your fingernail; the bright green bean will pop out (Step 5). Fava beans may be added to soups or stews, buttered and served as a vegetable or tossed with vinaigrette for a salad.