Thursday, 23 July 2009

Two bags of beans

I grow broad beans every year even though I can’t stand the things. My husband likes them and I enjoy growing them. They are, after all, one of the easiest things to grow. They germinate reliably, don’t need supporting on our sheltered site, then they flower with their beautiful black and white flowers (or crimson when we can get the seed) and soapy perfume, before yielding heavy pods of beans. The only pest they suffer from of any significance is blackfly.

Every year the presenters of Gardeners’ World and the writers in the gardening magazines say "remove the top of broad bean plants to prevent blackfly" and every year I think "it doesn’t work!" However, this year I finally understood what they really meant when I read somewhere that the growing tips of broad beans should be removed as soon as the bean pods start to form. Previously, I had always waited until the blackfly had arrived then removed the growing tips and found the whole thing completely pointless and ineffective. This year as soon as I spotted the young pods forming I systematically removed the growing shoots from the top of all the broad bean plants and you know what? Yes, it actually worked! No blackfly infested beans this year.

Now, the other problem we usually have with broad beans is eating them before they become too big. My husband looks forward to the first tiny, fresh green beans of the year and then eats beans with every meal for the next 4 or more weeks until the beans became large, the scar turns black and the skins tough. It always seems a bit wasteful when we harvest the first pods that look so fat but squash in our fingers, telling us that the beans inside are still small. But, hey, we may as well start harvesting them when they are so tiny and enjoy them because there will soon be plenty of big ones. Ideally, somewhere in between, we try to pick a load, pod them, blanch them and package them up in bags with a sprig of savory for the freezer.

I don’t know what happened this year but somehow we missed the ideal harvest time for picking beans to freeze and when we finally stripped all the remaining pods from the plants the beans were big and tough. So there I was, confronted with two carrier bags of broad bean pods, containing tough broad beans. Every pod needed beans removing from them and every bean needed cooking and its tough outer skin removing. What a task!

As will any job like this, the only sensible way to tackle it was to do a little bit at a time. So I started with 260g of podded broad beans to make bean and pea pate. My husband likes this spread on his sandwiches in the place of sauce with a slice of cooked meat. It also freezes really well so can be frozen in ice-cubes and a little bit thawed out at a time to use in a sandwich or as a dip.

Bean and Pea Pate

260g broad beans
100g peas (frozen are fine)
¼ teaspoon each ground cumin and coriander
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons of natural yoghurt or soya alternative

Boil the broad beans for 5 to 10 minutes then drain and allow to cool. Remove the outer skin from the beans and place in a food processor. Boil the peas for 3-5 minutes and allow to cool before putting them in the food processor too. Finely chop the garlic and fry in a little oil for about 3 minutes then add to the peas. Add the spices and salt and pepper to taste, along with the yoghurt. Blend all the ingredients until a smooth pate forms. Decant into suitable containers. Refrigerate for up to 4 days or freeze.

Last year I had a go at making beetroot houmous. This had been my first venture into making my own houmous and it had turned out pretty well. I’d kind of made up the recipe on some vague suggestion of ingredients in a magazine but sadly I forgot to make a note of what I did. I discovered this oversight when I went searching for the recipe when I had the idea that I might try adding broad beans to the recipe instead of beetroot. Not defeated, I Googled for a houmous recipe and was reminded that, in addition to tahini, the main ingredient is chickpea. It was then I had the idea that I could just substitute all of the chickpeas for broad beans as they are a very similar ingredient. The next challenge was to buy some tahini. I searched what I considered the most obvious places in Tesco but couldn’t find it so then I asked a shelf-stacker and a personal shopper and neither of them knew what tahini was let alone where to find it! I concluded it was possible that Tesco doesn’t stock the stuff but in fact when I got home I checked their online shop and found it available, which was somewhat irritating. However, a few days later I ordered some shopping from Ocado and included tahini, which was duly delivered. So now it was time to work out a broad bean houmous recipe.

Broad bean houmous

650g podded broad beans
100g tahini
½ teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Good pinch salt
Pepper to taste
Clove of garlic

Cook the broad beans then drain, cool and remove the outer shell. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Can be frozen.

By now I had it in my mind that shelled broad beans can be substituted quite successfully for chickpeas in a recipe, although the result is obviously a lot more beany in flavour – lovely if you enjoy the flavour of broad beans but not the tough skin. I had also come to the conclusion that broad bean and ground cumin make a pleasant combination, the cumin taking away some of the overty beany flavour and, to my taste, making it more palatable. So with this in mind I thought I might try making broad bean falafel. There just happened to be a recipe for falafel in a magazine I was reading at the time but they aren’t a usual part of our menu at home so I wasn’t entirely sure what they were or how to eat them. The recipe called for a tin of drained chickpeas but when I looked falafel up in Wikipedia I discovered that falafel can be made with fava beans, which just happens to be another name for broad beans. So in a roundabout way I had an idea that turned out not to be at all original after all!

Broad bean falafel (makes 20)

650g podded broad beans
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 clove garlic
4-5 shallots
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon plain flour

Boil the broad beans for 10 minutes then drain and cool and remove the outer skin. Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Remove small amounts and mould into balls. Can be frozen. Cook from thawed. Fry for 5-6 minutes, turning occasionally. Commonly eaten with pitta bread but can be used as the basis of a vegetarian meal with potatoes and vegetables.

On a similar note but along a more familiar line, I decided to try a broad bean potato cake. This turned out to be a huge hit with the family and even I enjoyed this despite my general dislike of broad beans.

Broad bean potato cakes (makes 6-8)

350g potatoes
150g broad beans
1 rasher smoked bacon, well cooked
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Salt & black pepper to taste

Peel and cut the potatoes into small chucks then boil until soft. Boil the broad beans for 5-10 minutes then drain, cool and remove the outer skin. Place the broad beans in a food processor and whizz until broken into crumbs. Add the potatoes and snip in the bacon. Finally add the spice and seasoning and blend until a sticky dough forms. Remove handfuls of dough and dollop onto a floured plate and roll until a ball forms. Flatten. Chill until needed. Fry for about 3-4 minutes per side. Serve hot. Tastes lovely with a fried egg.

By this point I could almost see the bottom of the second carrier bag of broad beans so I decided to use these up on my tried and tested broad bean and savory soup recipe.

Broad bean and savory soup (serves 2)

Oil (for frying)
1 medium onion
8 oz (225 g) broad beans
1 pint (500 ml) vegetable stock
1 tablespoon savory leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Pod the broad beans and finely chop the onions. Heat the oil in the bottom of a large saucepan and fry the onion until soft. Add the beans and the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Add the savory and continue to simmer for a further 2 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat and allow to cool. Remove the thick outer shells of the broad beans then blend the soup until smooth. Return to a clean saucepan, bring back to the boil, season to taste and add more water if necessary. Serve hot.

By the time the soup was cooked two important things had occurred to me. The first was that I didn’t want to pod or shell another broad bean for 12 months! And the second was that I had changed my mind about broad beans. Where previously I had viewed them as a crop that my husband enjoyed as a side dish during June and July, I now viewed them as a useful ingredient that could be transformed into a variety of interesting and tasty recipes and, in fact, preserved for use for throughout the year. So next year, rather than panicking about eating the broad beans as quickly as possibly whilst still small, I shall relax and be happy to make use of broad beans that have past their best. However, another important conclusion is that I shouldn’t consider eating young broad beans as a waste because by the time the beans are bigger they are old and roughly 35% of each large bean is tough skin that will be removed and thrown away.

End of term gardening club party

I’ve had a busy time of it recently, what with the allotment producing food faster than we can eat it. Added to that, I had to organise the end of term party for my gardening club. Over the course of the year a total of 28 different children between the ages of 4 and 7 had joined me for my weekly after school gardening club and they were all invited to the party. Twenty-five of them came in the end. The idea of the party was to celebrate our successes in our little fruit and vegetable garden and to give them an opportunity to eat some of the things we had grown during the year.

I have commented before on how strange it is to grow any kind of fruit and veg during school term time. We have an hour once a week to tend the garden and every six weeks we have one or two weeks of holiday and then a huge 6 to 7 week holiday right in prime growing time in the summer. So we don’t have much success with tomatoes, cucumber and sweetcorn but with a bit of thought we manage to grow quite a few things that are ready to eat in mid-July. I start gardening club straight away in September and get a few autumn/winter crops sown then, continuing with things such as overwintering broad beans, peas, garlic and onions into October. In the half term between Halloween and Christmas we come inside and do a bit of house plant gardening and gardening related Christmas presents. Then between New Year and Shrove Tuesday gardening club takes a break, returning at the end of February to start sowing the summer crops. From then on we do a lot of proper gardening until mid-July when the whole thing gets left to its own devices for 6 weeks.

The week before the party, my gardeners came inside for the session and we made strawberry ice cream and raspberry jelly and decorated some paper bags to be party bags. That was dessert organised just had to make some savoury nibbles from the vegetables. We had a good crop of potatoes, a few broad beans, some peas, the first French beans, some herbs, shallots, garlic, lettuce and a carrot or two. So on the menu was hot new potatoes with butter, potato wedges with three different herb dips, garlic bread, bread and homemade raspberry jam, lettuce, raw peas, cooked French beans and home made vegetable samosas with potato, carrot, shallot, broad bean and pea filling.

Then to finish off, each child was given a party bag to take home. Bear in mind that I charge 50p per child, per session to run gardening club and host the party for free, using up the spare cash left over, it doesn’t leave a huge budget for party bag contents. Nonetheless, I managed to fill 25 party bags for almost no cost at all. Where you may have expected a lollypop in a normal party bag, my partygoers found a shallot (to eat or grow, their choice). They had 3 gardening related stickers (from the sheets that I sell in my ebay shop), an oversized postcard of mini beasts (also a product from my shop), and then one runner bean seed to grow in a jar, and some grass seeds with instructions of how to make a grasshead at home.

Whilst I made the finishing touches to the food, helped by a willing parent, my colleague took the children outside to play gardening related games, such as trowel and potato races, watering can relay etc. Then for the last half-hour they came inside and tucked enthusiastically into the party food. They were all keen to try things, made with fruit and vegetables they had grown and there was nothing left by the end of the party. And to top it all, some of the parents commented when they saw me the next day that their child had enjoyed the party and they loved the party bag. So that was the end of another successful year of gardening club… time to start thinking about next year…

Vegetable Samosas (makes 36)
1 large potato
1 medium carrot
1 handful peas
6-8 broad bean pods
2 shallots
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon garam masala
250g pack filo pastry
Sunflower oil

Peel the potato and cut into small chunks. Peel the carrot and cut into small pieces. Boil the potatoes and carrots until soft. Remove broad beans from their pods then boil for about 10 minutes. Drain and cool then remove the outer shell from each bean. Peel and finely chop the shallot and fry until softened. Remove the shallots from the frying pan then add the mustard seeds and fry until they start to pop. In a bowl, combine the vegetables with the spices and salt to taste (add more spices if you prefer a stronger flavour). Preheat oven to 200°C, gas 6 and grease a large baking tray. Open the pack of filo pastry and keep it covered with Clingfilm and a tea towel to stop it drying out whilst you work.

To make a samosa, cut a sheet of filo pastry in half and brush it all over with some sunflower oil. Fold it into thirds along its longest length to make a long, thin rectangle. Place a spoonful of the filling at one end of the pastry strip then fold the end of the pastry diagonally over the filling to make a triangle shape. Then fold this over and over in a triangle shape until it reaches the other end of the pastry. Brush both sides of the parcel with sunflower oil and place on the baking tray. Cover with Clingfilm to stop it drying out whilst you make the other samosas. Cook the samosas for 15-20 minutes until lightly brown. Either serve immediately or store in an airtight container until needed then reheat for 10 minutes at 200°C, gas 6 to crisp up the pastry before serving.

Monday, 6 July 2009

That's the weight of a small child!

Everyone who visited the allotment this weekend was focused on one task alone - picking the soft fruit. I stood with full punnets in hands as one man scurried past, "Have to pick the fruit," he muttered, "crying shame if I don't," and that was the last I saw of him for the rest of the afternoon, as after that he remained hidden behind undergrowth somewhere on his plot as he endlessly picked.

During the course of the weekend I picked blackcurrants, gooseberries, redcurrants, tayberries and raspberries. The jostaberries will have to wait for another day and there will be more raspberries by Wednesday. It is an amazing thing to grow food quicker than you can eat it and I am determined to use and preserve as much of it as I can but that does mean a lot of hard work. The clue is in the name really - kitchen gardening - once you come in from the garden there is still a heck of a lot to do in the kitchen. Mainly it involves picking over the fruit and decanting it into bags for the short term before being more creative with it later. And all this on top of the vegetables - broad beans, peas, courgettes etc. that need preparing before they can be made into something tasty for dinner.

Last year I didn't own a chest freezer and this year I marvel at that and wonder what I did with it all before preserving it. By the end of the weekend I could barely get the lid closed on my chest freezer and I had already resorted to putting bags of fruit in the kitchen freezer. Fortunately, a friend of mine had been given a large chest freezer by a relative who was downsizing and she said I could use some of the space in it if I wanted it. I almost bite her hand off at the offer and this morning I took all the bags of fruit out of my chest freezer in order to move it into hers. This allows me to continue making lollies, ice-cream, frozen veg etc. as well as continue to throw bags of fruit in as I pick more. It was particularly useful because it gave me the opportunity to gather all the bags of the same fruit together and weigh them so I knew exactly how much I had of each fruit.

Now, bear in mind that I have already made strawberry and raspberry jam as well as several batches of ice-cream, lollies, jelly and cordials. I move out 4lb 13 oz of gooseberries, 6lb 14 oz raspberries, 4lb 14 oz tayberries, 2lb 5 oz cherries, 5lb 15 oz redcurrants and 12lb 4 oz blackcurrants. Added up that works out as 37 pounds of fruit or, to put it another way, 2 stone, 9lb of fruit. That's the weight of a small child!

I gave my friend a pound of fresh raspberries as a first installment for freezer space rent (not that she asked for anything) but I'm very grateful for the breathing space it has provided.

This afternoon I used 4lbs of fresh blackcurrants to make jam but the plant still has fruit on it!

Saturday, 4 July 2009


It was 12 years ago when my husband and I got our first allotment. The plot and our relationship were new experiences to us then. My husband informed me that this favourite jam was blackcurrant and that we should try to grow some on our allotment. So that year we planted 3 blackcurrant bushes. Then the same summer I harvested our first soft fruit and looked up a recipe for jam making... and the rest is history, as they say.

That year I picked about 2 lbs of blackcurrants and since then the yield of blackcurrants has gone up every year. I don't know how many pounds of fruit the 3 bushes give now - I don't even pick them all, not worrying too much if I don't stripe every currant from the bush nor picking up any that I drop. I make blackcurrant jam, blackcurrant and liquorice jam, blackcurrant and apple jam, blackcurrant cordial, blackcurrant ice-cream, blackcurrant jelly, blackcurrant cheesecake... and then wonder what to do with the remaining currants. Oh, and I'm generous with them too, giving them away to my friend!

I've already had one friend over this year to do a "pick your own" job on the blackcurrants, and in the week I picked about 4 lbs in a spare 20 minutes before picking up the girls from school. But today I decided to tackle the job in a more serious way, although I didn't intend to complete it in one go. My youngest daughter was a willing helper but I was realistic about how much help she would actually be. It's a week until she's five and her attention span is still equivalent in minutes to her age in years! So as I grabbed handfuls of currants, stripping them into a container clamped between my knees, she delicately picked individual currants and carefully placed them into her container. In the time it took me to harvest a couple of pounds she had picked about 8 currants. "I've got lots!" she proclaimed proudly, "Yes, dear, well done," I replied. Then when she had picked about 20 she declared, "I think we have enough now," to which I said, "No, we have to pick them all." She looked alarmed, "But there are too many!" she cried, "There much be a hundred million!" And just for once I don't think she was exaggerating!

Blackcurrant Jam

This is a very easy jam to make because blackcurrants are high in pectin and the jam sets well.

Ingredients (makes 4 to 5 jars)
4 lb (1800 g) blackcurrants
2½ pints (1400 ml) water
4 lb (1800 g) sugar

NB: Every pound of blackcurrants requires 12½ fl oz water and 1 lb sugar

Pick over the blackcurrants but there is no need to wash the fruit. Put them into a preserving pan with the water and bring it to the boil. Simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the skins are tender. In the meantime, warm the sugar. When the fruit is cooked, add the sugar to the blackcurrants and stir over a low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Boil rapidly for 6 to 8 minutes until the setting point is reached.