Welcome to the Blue Zone – Fava Bean and Almond Soup

This week’s recipe for Fava Bean and Almond Soup takes its inspiration from an article in the New York Times Magazine last October, The Island Where People Forgot to Die.  The article describes life on the Greek island of Ikaria, where a startling number of people live to be 100 or older.  For over a decade the article’s author, Dan Buettner, with the support of the National Geographic Society, has been investigating communities where people seem to lead unusually long lives, places he and his partners, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer, have dubbed “Blue Zones.”*

Buettner has identified a number of lifestyle qualities which the five Blue Zones hold (mostly) in common, including a priority on family life, daily social engagement, a diet based largely on plants, especially legumes, low levels of smoking, and daily moderate physical activity.  Although all of the zones don’t share all of these qualities, all share most of them.  The zones are located in Sardinia, Okinawa, Ikaria, Costa Rica, and a Seventh Day Adventist community in California.  For a detailed explanation of the Blue Zone attributes, their expression in a different zones, and how the zones differ, you might want to read the article, or visit Buetner’s site, where he’s trying to capitalize on his work.

We’re not nutritionists, demographers or sociologists, so we can’t offer a critical opinion about the work of Buetner and his partners.**  Buettner himself admits that it’s early days in the task of unravelling the riddle of exceptional longevity, with more questions than answers.  While it appears that eating a plant-centered diet may be beneficial, he observes that social engagement may be at least as important as diet; and what people don’t eat (e.g. a lot of processed food) might be as critical to longevity as the healthy things they do consume.  Buetner even speculates that it’s possible that Blue Zone benefits might only accrue in a supportive context (i.e. a Blue Zone-like community) that places a greater value on social connection than individual ambition or financial gain.

Still…

If one accepts at face value Buettner’s descriptions of 70-, 80-, 90-, and 100-year-olds drinking, dancing and chortling over dominoes every night, it’s hard 1) not to think of the movie Cocoon; and 2) to resist the possibility that they’re on to something, if only in their degree of contentment.  The burden of old age would be considerably lightened if one remained physically and cognitively spry into the last decades of life.  If it also happens that a daily glass or three of wine with your pals extends your life by a decade while postponing the arrival of cancer or heart disease, well, that’s icing on the cake.

In that spirit–and because Jody and I hate New Year’s resolutions–over the next five weeks we’re going to offer up simple recipes in keeping with the culinary cultures of each of Buetner’s Blue Zones.  Since two of the zones are in the Mediterranean, some of the food may already be familiar; others (taro?) may not.  By any measure the food fits into what most people would consider “healthy eating.”  And who among us couldn’t use a few more greens or legumes in his or her diet?   This week’s recipe is a riff on the Sardinian love of fava beans.  The soup is simple to make and deeply satisfying to eat.  Who knows, you may even live longer.  Enjoy.  Ken

*A term he has copyrighted.

**We have no connection to Dan Buettner, to the BlueZones@ website, to the National Geographic Society or the Greek Island of Ikaria.  We have not been compensated in any way for the opinions expressed in this post, although if someone were to step forward and provide us with a two-week opportunity to judge Buetner’s observations firsthand we’d be willing to entertain the offer.

Fava Bean and Almond Soup TGF-2

Fava beans, before and after soaking.

Fava Bean and Almond Soup

Makes six cups.

Ingredients:

  • ½ pound dried shelled fava beans, about 2 cups
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 2 white onions, cut into ¼-inch dice
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
  • ½ cup toasted almonds (it’s ok if the skin is on), finely chopped
  • 2 sun dried tomato halves
  • ½ cup sheep or goat’s milk yogurt, seasoned with salt and pepper
  • ¼ cup torn herb leaves–mint, cilantro, parsley

Directions:

  1. Pick through the beans and remove any dirt, stones or substandard beans.  Rinse.  Put into a container and cover with water by 4 inches.  Let soak in a cool spot overnight.  You can put them in the fridge, but they will soften more quickly if they’re left out. 
  2. Drain and rinse the beans.
  3. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large sauce pot over medium heat.  Add the onions, cover and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic, fennel seed, half the almonds and both tomato halves.  Cook 1 minute.  Add the beans and 3 cups water.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover partially and simmer until the beans are falling apart, about 3o minutes.  Season with salt and pepper halfway through the cooking.  Remove one of the tomato halves, cool and then cut into thin strips.
  4. Using a handheld blender, puree the bean mixture until until smooth.  If the soup seems too thin, return to the stove to reduce.  If it is too thick, add a little water.
  5. Serve warm  garnished with a spoonful of yogurt, the remaining chopped almonds, tomato strips, herbs, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Fava Bean and Almond Soup TGF-3

Fava Bean and Almond Soup TGF-4

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Fava Bean and Almond Soup TGF-7

Fava Bean and Almond Soup TGF-8

Jody Notes:  

Dried favas are often already peeled, but if still in their skins, go ahead and buy them anyway, throwing in an extra handful to make up for the lost weight of the peels.  And yes, I do recommend peeling them.  After the beans have soaked overnight the skins usually slip right off.   If not, cook the beans in water for 10 minutes or so.  Cool and then remove the skins.  From there, proceed with the recipe, understanding that the beans will cook a bit faster than 30 minutes.  

Fava Bean and Almond Soup TGF-9

Go ahead; click on something to see it with a little more detail.  Left and right arrow keys will move you through the photos.

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41 thoughts

  1. I look forward to serving this soup to my 91-year-old father-in-law. Savory insurance that he makes it to 100. Might have to go find a Sardinian red to go with it.

  2. This looks delicious, and just what I’m in the mood for after all that holiday indulgence. Also, I have a bag full of dried fave from puglia sitting right next to my jar of almonds from our own tree in Umbria. So it sounds like fate.

    • Hi, Elizabeth–I think that you should skip the soup in order to give the rest of us a chance to improve the quality of our lifestyles to catch up with you! Dried favas from Puglia and almonds from Puglia. We’re making our reservations now. Ken

  3. I just joined the Rancho Gordo bean club so I too am going to be trying to eat more legumes. I’ve had trouble in the past finding dried favas–is there a brand you suggest? I like how this soup (which I imagine is pretty mild tasting) is livened up–visually and culinarily–by the garnish of tomato, herbs, and yogurt. Happy New Year!

    • Hi, Sara–We buy Rancho Gordo beans too. They’re pretty tasty. As for the favas, the particular batch we used in the recipe came from Rialto, but in the past I’ve bought them from Christina’s in Inman Square (a few doors away from the East Coast Grill), from Formaggio on Huron Ave.in Cambridge, and–I’m pretty sure–from the River Street WFM. Johnny’s Foodmaster in Somerville used to sell them raw, frozen, already peeled, which was great, but haven’t been there in awhile. And of course there are a ton of places online–including Bob’s Red Mill, which sells their own brand, which you find at Amazon.com or at BRM’s own site. Call WFM before you go. A lot of beans can be pretty bland, but not favas, at least in my opinion. I’ve been eating leftovers w/out the fancy garnishes and the soup still tastes great. Happy New Year! Ken

      • Hey all,
        Happy New Year! Our aim is in this series of “Cooking from the Blue Zone” recipes, is an attempt to give us all a weekly chance at sticking to our resolutions. These recipes will be vegetarian and delicious with lots of big flavors.

        For dried favas, you can also try Middle Eastern markets like Sevan’s Bakery and Arax in Watertown. Here is a link to a Chowhound about the search for dried favas. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/862711 Jody

  4. Help! This looks delicious, but at what stage do the favas go in? Is it after the garlic, etc have cooked the 1 minute and right before the water? Feel embarrassed to ask but do want to get it right! Thanks!

  5. I love this series, Cooking from the Blue Zone! very interesting! This recipe reminds me the first time I tried fresh fava bean with salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. That was really good!!! I didn’t know I had to remove their skin until my friend told me though ;-)

    Happy New Year, Buon Anno, 새해 복 많이 받으세요! Bella

    • In all the times I’ve been to Italy, I don’t think I’ve ever had fresh fava beans–I have had fresh/frozen, but that was in the US. The skin just requires a pinch to remove and you get really good at it quite quickly. I think it’s kind of relaxing. 새해 복 많이 받으세요! to you too. Ken

    • Just make sure you peel them first. One of the real delights to travelling through southern Italy, Greece and much of the Middle East is the ready availability of fave bean purée–evoo + favas + garlic. Just incredibly good as a mezze. Ken

  6. I want to go to the Blue Zone (especially Greece.) But since that’s not really an option, I will happily settle for this great-sounding soup. Bright garnishes and all. Thanks! (great pics, BTW)

    • Sigh… don’t we all. Half the secret to a long life is the ability to retire to a Greek island or hilltop Italian village. In the meantime, we’ll always have fava beans. Ken

  7. Happy New Year to you both! I have heard about these communities that seem to go on living a lot longer than the rest of the world. Great idea to do blog posts for the month of January focusing on foods that these communities would eat. Perfect for New Year.

    • The story is pretty intriguing, even if there are still a lot of questions to be answered. In the meantime, we can at least be certain that however long anyone lives, they eat well. Ken

  8. I wish you a very Happy New Year! As always, wonderful post, and wonderful photography. I had never heard of the Blue Zones, but I like your idea of sharing recipes from those different parts of the world with us. This one looks very good, I love fava beans, and the idea of adding almonds to soup sounds very appealing! Thank you

    • Thank you, Darya–and Happy New Year to you too! It’s a great soup–and I can promise that next week will be even more interesting. Check back–I’ll be curious to hear if the ingredients are eaten in France. Ken

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. If you have leftovers, you may want to thin the soup with a little water while reheating. It gets quite thick after it’s refrigerated. Thanks for stopping by. Ken

  9. Looks delicious! But, alas, we so seldom find favas of either the fresh or dried variety that I fear we will never make it to the century mark. (Though my grandmother just died at 98, and I’m quite certain she never had a fava in her entire life, so maybe there’s some hope.)

    • You know, we order Rancho Gordo beans online, and Bob’s Red Mill stuff whenever I enter a serious break-making stage, as I sometimes do. We can find favas pretty easily, but if we couldn’t, they would be one of the things I’d go out of my way to order. When you taste fava been puree with evoo and garlic you suddenly realize what all of those white bean garlic dips have been trying to imitate. And FUL, an Egyptian fava bean dish, is also one of the world’s great bean dishes. Ken

  10. This was a perfect pantry recipe, as I had everything on-hand, including the dried fava beans, which I’d picked up at one of the Armenian stores in Watertown some time ago.
    In my pressure cooker, this soup took four minutes. We enjoyed our bowls for a late afternoon lunch, and the rest was just put into the freezer.
    Thanks for the recipe!

    • Wow! Four minutes! That’s got to be a record. Now you ‘ve got me curious. 1) Did you soak the beans first? and 2) Did you use the same amount of liquid? Thanks! By the way, it was great to finally meet you in person, to put a face to all of those Cheap Beets posts. Happy New Year! Ken

      • I soak everything. There’s also two cups of farro soaking on the counter to be done in the pressure cooker (20 minutes) for a roasted broccoli and farro salad I’ve become very fond of.

        I used the 3 cups of water you suggested, but it was super thick, and ended up adding more water when I was using the hand blender. It’s still very thick, and could actually benefit from even more water. The rest of the soup is now in the freezer, so it will be interesting to see how it will be in a month’s time. Rich describes the soup as more of a porridge. Very very tasty. I’m a soup junkie, so I’m thrilled for the new recipe.

        Great meeting you, too!

      • Molly–the soup is quite thick, but it grows even thicker when it’s allowed to cool. Of course you can thin it with more water or stock. We definitely add more water when reheating the leftovers. Thanks for the pressure cooker info. Ken

  11. Hi Ken, Great blog. FYI, there’s a minor typo in the text: asnswers. Keep up the good work – I aspire to have my blog someday be half as good as yours. Charles (itsthefood.net). PS You don’t need to post my comment — it’s just an FYI on the typo.

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