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Produce Profile by Mark "Guido The Gardner" ® Ferro
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In recent weeks, I've paid lots of attention to vegetables with a certain degree of style and social standing, like asparagus and artichokes.

his week, let's shine the produce spotlight on an item that doesn't get anywhere near the attention it deserves. (Just in case you are wondering... no eggplant ramblings this week!)

Do fava beans occupy any space in some long-term memory bank? They sure do for me. Both my green-thumbed Italian grandfathers grew this traditional spring legume in their back yard gardens. During our visits, my sister Tina and I spent a good portion of time trashing the previously well- ended fava bean plots during spirited games of "chase", "tag" and "I automatically win any game because I'm your older sister!" But on the plus side, we would usually strip the plants of the longest, plumpest fava beans our stubby little fingers could snatch. At least they were nutritious visits.

Now the Italians are not the only folks who enjoy this ancient staple vegetable. It can be found in many European kitchens and is especially popular in China, where it has been grown for about 5,000 years.

Under the "fava bean" sign in the produce department, here's what you will see: A mound of 8-10 inch green, slightly fuzzy pods that resemble green beans with an active thyroid. Is the whole pod edible? Sure, but keep in mind that another name for this vegetable is the horse bean, so don't get over anxious. Very immature pods are edible, but only the home gardener will enjoy that experience, as they are rarely found in the markets that young.

Remember those boxes within a box, that you open until you finally get to the prize? Fava are engineered just like that. Inside each furry, padded pod is a large, light green bean, usually found in a set of four or five.

Now each bean is covered again with a thin skin that is usually removed before cooking. When I munch them raw I rarely perform this simple task.

When fresh, the flavor is pretty bold, even earthy. But luckily, they never get starchy like their cousin, the pea. Try them raw with a little salt and pepper and a sprinkling of cheese.They are very tasty when teamed up in a saute with mushrooms like the brown crimini. Or include them in a sauce that will accompany a pasta or rice dish. And NO authentic minestrone is edible without a generous handful tossed in the pot.

They are also found in their dried form, but require more cooking, like at least 30 minutes. Fresh fava should be tossed in last, as they self-destruct after prolonged cooking.

The current crop is winding down out of Mexico with Fresno and Half Moon Bay just starting up. When eying them at the market, look for a bright finish to the pod and well formed beans inside. But don't be afraid if the pods look less than perfect. The prize, which is the bean, has a much longer life than the pod. Fava are high in protein, iron and fiber and have a decent dose of potassium as well.