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Ask Kirstin: Preparing Fava Beans and Corn; Black vs White Pepper


What can I do with the fava beans that have just arrived at our market? And how do I work with them? — Maggy S.

Fava beans mean that spring has finally leapt into your produce stand! The gigantic pods are at least as long as your hand, and inside, pale green little beans are napping softly in a fur-lined pod. Pick medium-sized fava beans that have emerald green, smooth, firm, and blemish free pods. 

Fava beans need both the outer pod, and the inner peel removed (not completely necessary, but a loving thing to do). Traditionally this is done by shelling the beans, quickly blanching them in boiling water for one minute, then throwing them into ice water. 

But today I tried something else. I microwaved the whole pods for one minute, threw them in cold water, then shelled them — and that worked so well I felt a guilty pleasure doing so. To get the inner peel off, make a nick in the top of each bean and slip it out of the pale outer skin revealing the deep green bean. Three pounds of beans in their shells will yield little more than a cup of peeled fava beans. 
After all that work, serve favas as simply as possible. For example, just barely heat them up with a little olive oil, toss with pecorino cheese, chopped mint leaves and a last minute squeeze of lemon. Serve with toasted bread.

My favorite (and easiest) way to serve fava beans is as an appetizer. Keep them in the pod, toss them with olive oil and salt, throw them on a hot BBQ for a few minutes, just until the pods begin to char, put them on a big platter, squeeze plenty of lemon juice on them and let everyone shell and peel their own beans.


I am having a barbecue this weekend, and I just saw the first corn of the season… how do I pick the best ones? — Pam V. S.

First of all, buy local corn, as corn sugars turn to starches immediately after being picked (that also forces you to buy them in season — corn is pretty clever that way). The closer the farmer, the sooner and sweeter you get to eat it. Choose corn husks that are bright green, soft, not dry to touch and with the silk attached. The silk should be golden, not dark brown. Grab a small piece of the husk and pull it from the top so you can see the corn kernels inside. They should be pearly, plump and firm. If the kernels are tiny, discolored, or “deflated”, walk on by or test another piece.

A fast and easy way to cook them on the barbecue is to gently pull back the husk, remove the silks, pull the husk back into place, and soak the corn for 10 minutes in salted water. Throw the corn onto a hot BBQ for about 10 minutes, turn them now and then. When they are toasty, pull the husks back and use as a handle, slather with butter.

To boil corn, just shuck them, toss them in a big pot, cover with salted cold water, set the pot over high heat, as soon as the water starts to boil they are done.


Some recipes call for black pepper, some call for white, what is the difference? — Paul F.

Black, white and green pepper are all the fruit from a flowering vine. Green peppercorns are picked young, and usually sold in a brine. A black peppercorn is picked when still green and dried in the sun until it turns black. The white peppercorn ripens fully on the vine before it is picked. Then the outer black hull is removed.

Traditionally in western cooking, white pepper is used in light colored dishes where you don’t want black pepper freckles, like a white sauce or scrambled eggs. However, there is a difference in flavor as well. Black is a little warmer and more complex, white pepper a little brighter with a prominent muskiness. The best way to figure out what your preference is, is to go to a spice shop and ask to smell the difference. Then decide if you care whether your white foods have dark bits or not (just as a personal note, the smell of white pepper is not my favorite… at all. . .it reminds me of Uncle Emil’s barn).

A few pepper tips:

•Get your pepper from a place that has a high spice turnover so you know it is fresh and flavorful.
•Before grinding pepper, gently toast the peppercorns on a dry skillet to bring out its flavors.
•Keep pepper in your pepper mill so you can grind it fresh whenever you need it.
•Add pepper to your cooked dishes at the end of the cooking time, as high or prolonged heat causes it to lose its flavor



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