Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

The Fleeting Good Times of Favas and Such


"How thin do you want this pasta?" My friends stood next to the flour-dusted pasta crank, holding up fresh sheets of precariously long pasta. It looked as if they were going to hang up a "Happy Birthday" or "Welcome Home" banner.

"Not too thin," I dictated quickly. The pasta was in capable hands and by now, there were sheets and sheets of stretched out dough, generously dusted with flour and ready to be cut. All the messy effort was for what I was attending to in the pan -- deeply fragrant gems of crisping guanciale -- cured pig jowl -- favas, peas, shallots and ... who knows what else we decided to throw into the pot.

Emboldened by a few glasses of wine and the coaxing of good friends, anything is possible. Take recipes. Most people are slaves to them. They plan. They organize. They worry and fret. But inebriation and hunger are prime motivators to toss the whole regimented lot in favor of some past knowledge, intuition and most importantly, bacon.

My friend Christi cultivates an amazing garden that's the home things that make you love summers for more than campfire S'mores and vacations. Most notably of these things are her fava beans. We get particularly giddy when the pods (the beans are inside the pod, like a pea) stick straight up like naughty bits when they're ready for the picking. The fuzzy pods, for us, are the proverbial sand through an hourglass. Between the bewilderment of the speed of life are a few pit stops, like favas, that make it all worthwhile.

Favas are like pomegranates and melons. They come when they are meant to come according to weather patterns, lunar cycles and forces that are beyond me. It's something to look forward to like Christmas. Favas should never be accompanied by the whiny phrase: "Favas? Again?"

Timing had it so that we were fortunate for two fava fests. The first time around, Christi's favas were so tender, we didn't have to peel the seeds from its outer casings. It reminded me of the old men around the Roman countryside that feasted on them bare and fresh, with only a nibble of Pecorino cheese and a glass of table white. The second time around, after prodding the seeds from the huge, cushioned pods, we did the extra step by slipping them out of the pale jackets and supplemented what we had left with peas. Tick tock, tick tock. The sound of the peas bouncing out of the pods and into the bowl.

When the fava's time is over, it's the beginning of other giddy moments. Perhaps for apricots and other stone fruit or the time-honored arrival of your tomatoes. Maybe pasta wouldn't make such a bad "Welcome Back" banner, after all. What's most significant this time of year are the temporal flavors. They begin and they end and remind us that even, for all our pageantry and self-importance, we too go the way of the fava.

So let's just say, we were inspired to roll with it. Wing it. And let the favas tell us where they wanted to be. On a nest of fresh egg pasta surrounded by pork and allium. A bit of this. A bit of that. Fresh oregano and thyme from the garden? In it goes. More white wine? Why not?!

I know it's after the fact of fava season, but for posterity's sake, I consider dishes like this a testament to the mysterious forces behind food. These are the moral compasses, the gravitational pulls, the "good times" that punctuate the blurriness of daily life. Other people have religion as the glue between reality and ecstasy. I (and most of my friends) have  the communion of these fleeting flavors, savoring every bit, stretching the time out like taffy.

For those who abide by the recipe's word as gospel, I offer the advice of many summer cocktails, a shot or two of whiskey and some supportive friends to go along for the intuitive ride. In the meantime, for next year, for someday, I offer the following recipe. It's heavy on the memory. But it's a delicious one.

Fava & Guanciale Pasta for Spring

1/3 guanciale (pancetta works, too), diced * olive oil * 1 tabelspoon butter * 2 cloves garlic OR 3 shallots, minced * 2 cups fresh favas beans OR equivalent fava-pea mixture or all peas *1/2 cup white wine * zest and juice of 1 lemon * 1/2 cup heavy cream * fresh tarragon or thyme * salt and pepper to taste * 1 to 1/2 pounds fresh pasta (see below) * grated parmesan to serve

In a large sautepan, heat the oil, butter and guanciale over medium heat. You want to coax the fat out slowly, versus incinerating the fatty pork. Saute for about 10 minutes until the guanciale bits have reduced in size and turned a deep golden color. Add the garlic or shallots and stir to coat. Cook until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the favas or peas and stir. Cook briefly, maybe two or three minutes. Deglaze with the wine and stir to bring together all the flavors. Add the zest and lemon juice, fresh herbs to taste. Stir in heavy cream, salt and pepper. Add a handful of grated parmesan cheese and incorporate it into the sauce. This is your sauce.

Add the just-cooked pasta to the pan and using tongs stir to incorporate the favas, guanciale, etc. between the pasta strands.

NOTE: Sipping of wine between each step of the recipe is recommended.

Fresh Pasta

I live in a very dry climate and find that sometimes I need an extra egg or some source of moisture to make the dough work. In this case, you don't have to fearful of overworking the dough. You want a bit of resistance developed from a bit of handling.

1 cup all purpose flour * 2 to 3 eggs * extra-virgin olive oil * kosher salt

Start a very large pot of water over high heat to bring to a boil. Next, make a mound out of the flour on a clean work surface. Cutting boards, clean counters, etc. are fine. Make a well -- the mound of flour should look like a dormant volcano crater. You want to be able to see the work surface at the bottom of said well.

Crack in the eggs, a drizzle of olive oil and the kosher salt. With a fork, beat together the liquid ingredients with the salt until combined. Then with the tines of your fork, work in bits of flour by catching the edges of the well until the flour is completely incorporated. With your hands, dust the dough with flour and start kneading it together. Push with the heels of your hands and then fold the dough over and push with the heel of the hand again. Think of it as a pasta massage. Let it rest, covered with plastic wrap on the counter.

I use a pasta roller for ease. Theoretically, a rolling pin could work, but I find your success rate depends on very much if your last name ends with a vowel. Cut the dough into fourths and roll into little balls. Working one ball at a time (yeah, I laughed when I read this, too), flatten it out into a disc and feed into the pasta machine. It should be set at the thickest setting (sometimes it's 8, on other machines it's a 1). Turn the crank and slide it through. Fold it into thirds and work it through again. Then start thinning it out, by rolling the pasta through incrementally smaller settings. You don't want it too thin. The second to the last setting works best for me.

If the pasta sheet gets too long and cumbersome, just cut it with a knife. Dust generously with flour and fold into 4-inch swatches, as if it were some huge fruit roll-up. Cut with a knife into desired width. Separate the newly born strands lightly with your fingers. Dust with more flour to ensure the strands won't stick together and bunch them into little nests. Repeat with each dough ball.

When water is boiling, add a dash of kosher salt to the water. It'll bubble up like a witch's cauldron momentarily. It's a crucial step. Add the fresh pasta and within a minute strain out with tongs or pouring the pot out into a colander.

Now, you can add it to your sauce...

RecipesVanessa Chang