Not so boring broad beans!

Broad beans seem to be treated with far more respect in Europe where they’ve even made it into fairy tales…remember Jack and the beanstalk?  Yep, that was a broad bean stalk that took Jack up into the clouds.  There’s even a town in Germany that has the Broad Bean as its mascot!  I received this as a gift from a German brother and sister while operating a backpackers a few years ago. Yes, they take broad beans very seriously!

Well I’m here to fly the flag for these wonderful legumes as they’re easy to grow, give a huge yield like nothing else and if you know how to prepare them, are really tasty!

When and How to grow them

Broad beans will grow happily over winter and are best planted around now (almost May) through to the end of winter.  Peter Bennett, the author of the fantastic Australian Organic Gardening now in its 7th edition, is a big fan of later plantings as he argues the flowers won’t set into pods if the weather is too cold.  This year I’m placing a bet each way, so in addition to the crop I’ve already planted, I’ll plant another in a month or so.

As they’re part of the legume or bean and pea family, broad beans can be planted in a garden bed that’s previously had a heavy feeding crop such as broccoli, lettuce, asian greens etc.  While you won’t need to specifically add any organic fertiliser, it’s wise to add compost to the soil and in the case of broad beans sprinkle some potash and dolomite over the soil and work in prior to planting.  This is one crop that grow best when planted from seed – don’t bother getting seedlings as it will work out to be hideously expensive and you’ll struggle not to damage their large root structure removing them from the punett.

Sow in rows about 50cm apart with the seeds spaced about 10cm apart.  They’re huge seeds so make sure they’re sufficiently covered by soil (about 5cm).  Water well once covered and don’t worry about watering again until the seedlings have emerged (usually around 2 weeks).  These guys will get quite tall (sometimes well over a metre) so it’s important to support them from falling over, especially in the windy weather we get in spring.  A good strategy is to plant in small plots so you can support a group of them together.  Simply place stakes at each corner of the plot and loop pantyhose around the stakes so the broad beans are enclosed.  Avoid using string as it can damage the plants in strong winds.

This is a photo of last year’s crop about a month after planting.  Leaving enough space between rows allows you to easily weed using a dutch hoe so no back breaking work and the weeds become a green mulch.  These stakes will eventually provide support for the beans.

Cooking broad beans – one tip you can’t miss!

Before I get to the tip an important medical fact with broad beans is that they should never be eaten raw by anyone taking antidepressants that contain monoamine inhibitors…the results can be fatal!  Okay now the scary stuff is over the most important tip for making sure your broad beans never resemble those greyish looking horrors from our youth is to DOUBLE PEEL them.  How?  Well you simply take the beans out of their velvety pods and pop them into boiling water for 30 seconds.  Take them out and refresh in cold water until cool enough to handle.  You’ll find the beans have an outer skin that can be removed with a small cut from a paring knife or long fingernails if your fortunate enough to have them.  This will reveal a new, green bean within which I guarantee will change your life…well almost.  This light blanching will be enough cooking for young tender beans, they’ll just need rewarming when added to non-salad recipes.

Generally speaking broad beans are a fairly dense bit of veg, and if you simply serve up a bowl by themselves it’s kind of like trying to eat half a cabbage.  They are best when served with flavours that are going to cut through and enhance their veggie goodness.  So think of strong cheeses (romano, parmesan, feta), bacon, panchetta or chorizo and of course my favourite – organic butter and sea salt.

They work really well with pasta dishes and can liven up stodgy dishes where other greens simply wilt away.

One final recipe idea which I’ve stolen from Stephanie Alexander (which she stole from Stefano de Pieri and he probably stole from a little old Italian lady) is as follows:

As above, pod, blanch and peel your broad beans.

Crush them in a mortar with a pestle – if you don’t have one you can do small pulses in a food processor making sure you don’t overdo it – it’s not a dip.

Remove into a clean bowl and mix with a grated hard cheese such as pecorino

Give them a good glug of some of our great local olive oil (I’m using extra virgin Camilo from Teesdale)

Season with ground black pepper and sea salt

Serve on toasted or better still grilled sourdough (make it La Madre or Zeally Bay) which has had a clove of garlic rubbed onto it

My own addition is to add some marinated Meredith Goat Cheese just prior to serving it up – perfect if you want a light meal rather than an entree.

A perfect way to celebrate spring and enjoy a bruschetta type snack long before you’re first tomato has ripened!

Unbeatable Beetroot!

Varieties and growing tips.

Two varieties that grow well in our cooler climate include Bulls Blood and Boltardy.  If you’re not one to usually grow from seed, try beetroot.  It’s a good vegetable to start with as the seeds are large and germination is quite reliable.  Several varieties are also available in a seed tape product helping you to get the spacing spot on.

Beetroot likes a pH of about 6.5.  Any higher than 7.0 and the soil alkalinity starts to prevent the uptake of boron which is essential for the edible root development.  Caution also needs to be taken with soils too high in nitrogen as you’ll end up with wonderful leafy growth but small beets!  Please don’t think this all has to be a complicated process, as once your garden is established it just becomes part of the natural flow.  Simply plant beetroot after a heavy feeding crop such as cabbage, lettuce or asian greens.  This way those previous crops will have taken up large amounts of the nitrogen in the soil.  Simply add some well rotted compost and water once established with a seaweed based liquid fertiliser.  If you’re starting in fresh soil, avoid adding large amounts of high nitrogen fertiliser such as poultry manures (especially pigeon) instead favouring compost, worm juice and liquid seaweed products.

The beetroot seeds themselves can lead to some confusion as they are actually a cluster of seeds all stuck together (kind of).  What you’ll find is that you’ll get several seedlings growing in the spot where you diligently only planted one seed.  Treat this as a gift from nature and when big enough to pinch with your finger, remove the weaker seedlings (leaving the most vigorous) and use them as a micro green in the kitchen.  If this backyard Darwinism isn’t your cup of tea, you can try replanting – but it’s very difficult not to damage the very fine taproot while they’re so young.  Nature can be cruel folks.

As the beetroot grow you’ll see the root become more visible.  This is actually pretty handy as you can see how big your beetroot are growing, so fight the urge to hill soil around them as you would with leeks etc.  Leaves can also be picked on younger beetroot and added to salads.  Just take a few from each plant as you don’t want to slow the growth by removing the plants’ energy source!

Beyond tinned beetroot (sigh)

While traveling in Eastern Europe a decade ago I was amazed at how much beetroot was used in local cuisines.  At Polish bar mleczny (direct translation is ‘milk bars’ – but more accurately described as vegetarian cafeterias) salads made from boiled grated beetroot and beetroot soup were staples.

The latter in Poland is called barszcz and I was reliably informed by a local that Polish ‘borscht’ recipes came from the Ukraine not Russia.  You know I’d never buy a Polish-made car, but I’m pretty sure no-one makes better soup.  The idea of sweating a few onions, adding some chopped beetroot and stock and creating a soup in an hour would be laughed at.  Even seemingly vegetarian soups such as barszcz start with pork of some sort, creating the stock in situ.  Always made the day before consuming there is plenty of time for flavour to develop depth.

Beetroot is also fantastic when simply grated raw.  I first tried this at Wholefoods Cafe in Geelong back in the 1990s where they added it as a standard to their salad sandwiches and awesome tofu burgers.  The Poles also make a cooked and grated beetroot condiment which when mixed with horseradish becomes “cwikla z chrzanem” – check out how to do that below.  It also goes wonderfully with the pierogi I made a little while back when discussing potatoes.


Another recipe that we collectively remain indebted to Stephanie Alexander for is chocolate and beetroot muffins.  I’ve modified the recipe slightly using olive oil instead of vegetable oil for nutritional reasons without noticing the taste coming through at all.  I mean chocolate and beetroot – what hope did the olive oil have?

Chocolate and Beetroot Muffins

60g organic butter, softened

1 large beetroot, peeled and grated (250g net)  A food processor makes this a whole lot easier

175g Plain Flour

1 tps baking powder

2 tbs organic cocoa

1 egg

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup local olive oil

1/4 castor sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar (well packed)

12 squares dark chocolate or milk with minimum 30% cocoa


1.    Pre-heat the oven to 180C and grease a 12 hole muffin tray.

2.    Sift the flour, baking powder and cocoa into a large mixing bowl and set aside.

3.    Lightly mix the eggs and milk together and set aside.

4.    In a bowl or mixer process the butter, oil and 2 types of sugar until nice and creamy. Gradually add the milk and egg mixture and process until combined.

5.    Add the wet batter to the flour mix and fold together. Stir in the beetroot, until well combined.

6.    Spoon the mixture evenly into the holes and press a square of chocolate well into the centre each muffin.

Cooking time is about 20minutes depending on your oven type.  The tops should be springy but the centre will remain a lot more moist than normal muffins due to the beetroot, so be careful not to mistake this for them being underdone.

Autumn activities!

Of course putting in another crop also helps to keep you in your garden and out of the supermarket’s fluorescent glow for just a little longer…

The lack of really severe heat waves means we can start to have more success with Asian style veggies such as pak choy and bok choy.  These guys love to be grown fast in highly fertile soil with lots of water.  As pretty as they are to admire, don’t let them get too big or they’ll get stringier than a dental floss convention.  You can see I’m growing pak choy and some coral lettuces amongst other things in a wall garden where I’ve got lots of control over the soil fertility, snails and watering.  If you put asian greens just anywhere they’ll be on the top of the menu for your local slug and snail population, trust me.


Mixing it up with the Asian greens, it is also a good time to plant traditional winter vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli.  With soil temps still high you’ll get fast growth while the milder weather will cause the white cabbage butterfly populations to settle down.  In a future post I’ll discuss some strategies for dealing with these in a way that doesn’t involve poisoning your harvest!

Now the cabbage family are BIG feeders.  That means if you just remove your tomatoes, tidy up the soil and plant your new seedlings you’ll be no doubt disappointed with the results.  Make sure you FEED THE SOIL ideally with compost, well rotted animal manure, worm castings, blood and bone etc.  Here’s some homemade compost using only grass clippings.  This stuff is so good it puts hair on your arms!

iautumn-tips compost-2-web

Remember, the vegetables we eat today didn’t just happen.   They really are MONSTER PLANTS that we have evolved to meet our nutritional needs as big brained mammals.  So while we’ve been teaching ourselves to garden more appropriately in our dry and depleted Australian soils over recent decades, we can’t expect highly bred and evolved plants such as this crop of a ripper cabbages to just grow without any help!