The finished dish of fava beans and kale.
One of my most memorable meals took place in a small town in Puglia, in southern Italy after an afternoon of foraging for asparagus in abandoned olive groves. It was a blissful afternoon of grazing through the 1/2-acre garden of cactus pears, peaches and edible flowers that my Italian relative Antonio cultivated. He walked me through an abyss of summer edibles, exposing me to new flavors I had never experienced and connecting me to a terroir previously unknown. Despite the language barrier between our dialects, we had reached a common understanding: unanimous recognition of deliciousness needs not words, but simply a shared glance and a smiling nod. This guy knew about flavor.
Cousin Antonio with his chicory.
We sped from the farm in a Fiat back to his cool, tile home, a mosaic of crucifixes, voices and aromas. Antonio’s wife, Rosa, awaited our arrival, hard at work in the kitchen preparing the homegrown vegetables gathered earlier that day. So far the focaccia, homemade olive oil and fresh cheeses in Puglia were enough to stun everything I thought I ever knew about fresh. The meal that awaited me would only deepen my stupor.
After uselessly fidgeting at the table for 20 minutes, a bowl of piping hot foliage plopped before me on the cheesy table cloth standard to every real Italian kitchen. (I know every Italian Long Islander is laughing at this image that they, too, adore). Giant, organ-like beans dotted a pool of electrifying green olive oil and wilted greens. The crusty heel of a hunk of dense bread served as my spoon. Rosa watched in silence with a peaceful smile. At that table, during a simple meal, I fell in love with fava beans and the honesty of Italian peasant food.
I’ve tried to replicate that dish ever since, each time reawakening the memory of the dry Pugliese summer. Most Italian-Americans on Long Island can agree that the peasant food of our southern ancestors is as comforting as a bucket of fried chicken and grits, each dish with a story and identity connected to our family lineage. While I have yet to find chicory at the local farmers markets, I have come across my beloved fava beans. The bounty of kale available throughout this season makes a great substitute for chicory with its equally rustic character.
Though far from Italy and the loved ones with whom I shared that magical meal, the memory remains with me through this bean dish’s flavors. Like I said, some things don’t need translating. The emotional experience of reliving a memory transported by flavor is beyond expression. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, one that food triggers in the most enjoyable way.
Favas garlic and crusty bread.
Fava Beans and Kale
1 large bunch of kale,washed and rough stems removed
3 Tablespoons olive oil
4 cups of fava beans, blanched
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 quart chicken/vegetable stock
1 cup dry white wine
fresh herbs (parsley, oregano, thyme, etc.)
salt and pepper to taste
crusty, rustic bread like rye or multigrain
Good extra virgin olive oil to garnish
Fill a large pot with chicken stock, wine, kale and herbs. Bring to a boil and let cook on medium-high heat for about 20 minutes until kale is fully wilted and liquid has reduced. Meanwhile, remove fava beans from pods and blanch for 1 minute. Drain and cool for 5 minutes. Peel back the outer layer of fava bean skin and squeeze the beans out. Set aside. Heat olive oil in a pan and saute garlic on very low heat until just golden. Remove from heat and add beans, mixing to coat them with oil. When kale is wilted, scoop into a bowl with broth and toss with fava beans. Salt and pepper to taste and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Serve with crusty bread and enjoy.