A Tiberian recipe.
I was watching and taking notes while chef Avigail Aharon prepared this dish of beef with green fava beans, and realized again how simple ingredients, simply prepared, deliver the pure flavors of simpler times.
But unless we climb into a time machine and zap back a hundred years to Great-Grandma’s kitchen, we can’t ever be sure that the foods we cook taste exactly like hers – even if we faithfully follow the recipes she hand-wrote on paper now crumbling and brown, that she tucked between the pages of her one cookbook.
Animals, grains, fruit and vegetables grow on an Earth whose very soil and water are different from that of old times. And not especially in a good way. I wonder if my great-grandmother would enjoy, let’s say, an apple from today’s harvests, or if she’d make a face and say, “Phoo, tasteless!”
Visitors from the States have told me how much more flavorful Israeli tomatoes are than those they buy at home. Well, just about all fresh produce from Israel is local – consider what a small country we live in. If the produce at the supermarket feels cold, it’s because it was held overnight in their refrigerators. When it was trucked in, it was fresh off the moshav or kibbutz.
So I was pretty smug about the flavor of Israeli produce. Until last summer, when I grew yellow cherry tomatoes on my balcony. The burst of tomato essence in my mouth when I ate the first one shocked me, delightfully. I made everyone in the house eat some tomatoes, saying, “This is the primeval tomato flavor!” At which they all laughed. Laughed kindly; they’re used to my mishegas. (Madness.)
I just couldn’t get over the sweet, lingering flavor of my tomatoes. They were grown on my little balcony, in a planter with a support cage improvised from a laundry rack.
So I’ve been thinking about original pure flavors, and how seldom we taste them, and how delicious this plain dish of beef with green fava beans is.
I’m glad I tasted chef Avigail’s dish before attempting it myself. If I were cooking this out of a recipe, without having watched her cooking it first, I’d drop in some of my favorite seasonings. A little soy sauce, a sprig of thyme, probably some olive oil. And while it would be tasty, it wouldn’t be an improvement. It would be an interference.
Fresh green favas show up in the shuk in the spring, and Sephardic Jews know many tasty ways of cooking them at Passover time. But fresh green favas are kind of a pain to deal with. You must take them out of their pods, remove the tough outer membrane that envelopes each bean, and only then cook them.
Doubtless, they have more true flavor than frozen favas that come all ready to cook… but I’ll admit it, I buy the frozen. They have the advantage of being available year ’round.
The dish is hearty, but not rich, and surprisingly easy on the stomach. Some of that’s due to the long pre-cooking of the beef. Avigail slow-cooks it with bay leaves and an onion, before doing anything else to it. She chooses a cut of stewing beef, one that will stand up to long cooking, and cubes it before setting it on the heat for its long simmer. Only after the beef is tender does she season it, adding plenty of chopped celery leaves,
then the favas.
Serve this dish with rice.