Thursday, May 2, 2013

Child Labor

I have shelled my share of beans but none have ever made me wish I were a bean, like the fava bean. The moment I pull the zipper and see three, sometimes four or five fat beans nestled in their padded shell, I want to snuggle up next to them. A springtime delight, often overshadowed by the arrival of peas, asparagus, and artichokes, these friendly pods were made for small hands to shuck. If you have access to a few children, and you’re always nagging them about time spent on the computer, here’s a task that will keep their hands busy and hopefully trigger a sense of wonder. I would start with five pounds—the yield is so small that anything less is silly. If they don’t stop to fondle the fleshy pod and resist the temptation to try one raw, they are made of stone and you may consider trading them for more sensitive creatures.

When I was a child, my mother steamed them whole, dusted them with angelica and a drizzle of vinegar, and piled them on a big platter to serve as a snack. My sisters and I sat in a circle and peeled one after another, slipping off their rubbery skin with our fingernails and popping them in our mouths like missiles. I never had a chance to see, nor fondle, or I would’ve missed my share.

It wasn’t until I was an apprentice and given a few cases to shell that I saw them raw and held the bright green emeralds in my palm. Perhaps it’s just as well because as a child I would’ve wanted to line a box with Kleenex and tuck them in for the night. As it was, the chef was very annoyed that after an hour, I had made little progress. Later, I saw him layer those favas with braised butter lettuce and sweetbreads in a startlingly simple composition of spring. Enchanted and terrified (would I be capable of bringing these elements together with such grace?), I understood why I was there, in that kitchen, at that moment. Over the next few hours, we assembled that dish dozens of times and I imagined diners looking longingly at their neighbor’s plate, unable to resist ordering the same. Side by side, we repeated the pattern—soft greens against milky white, a tangle of herbs aloft, a drizzle of jus. It was new each time. Our chef inspected every single plate before letting it get whisked away. Like a father sending his child to the first day of kindergarten, he all but kissed the rim adieu.

It’s been years since I’ve eaten them steamed like my mother used to make. Tonight I may have to forgo the delight of seeing them snug in their cushy beds, unless I find some kids to help me shell.