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Fava beans (broad beans)

Posted May 17 2009 4:22am
We have a garden, huge enough to grow most of our vegetable supplies, a fact that we are very proud of. This year we planted broad beans (otherwise known as fava beans, not to be confused with the Greek fava dish, which uses yellow split peas ). Broad beans are one of the oldest beans known to man, but have a low-class reputation, due to their likeness to the human big toe. They can also cause a toxic shock to the human system, as not all people can digest them. They are often used in European cuisine, as well as the Mediterranean diet, which is heavily weighted in favour of beans and legumes.

broad beans koukiabroad beans koukia
Broad beans (fava beans) growing in our garden

Typical uses of broad beans in Crete and Greece are limited in range. There is never a copious supply of them in the market, but this is not necessarily due to their unpopularity; they grow easily (as we found out) and are often planted by the locals for their own use, so few people need to buy them. They are more popular at various periods of the year, especially during religious fasts. Freshly picked and shelled in their raw state, they are added to salads, or eaten as a meze with olives, cheese and rusks (the older male populaiton eat them like this at the kafeneion with their tsikoudia). They are also boiled (with the 'black eye' removed) and added to a warm salad of boiled leafy horta. During lenten periods, dry broad beans are soaked overnight and eaten with olives and bread, especially on days when no olive oil is permitted ( during Easter ). Broad beans are also added to tomato- or lemon-based stews. They pair well with artichokes which are also in season at the same time.

broad bean stew
Broad bean stew in tomato sauce; the same meal can be made with anegg-and-lemon sauce, and potatoes and carrots can also be added to this dish. If the pods are very fresh and tender, they can also be eaten (cooked), otherwise they taste very bitter.

But that's pretty much it. Whether you love the nutty buttery taste of broad beans, or are simply mildly tolerant of them, choosing to add them to your meals as a token gesture of their importance to mankind and for the sake of the survival of biodiversity, you'll probably tire of them eventually, which is what happened in my family. But if broad beans are so easy to plant and grow, surely our ancestors ate them more often when there was a general lack of variety and quantity of food, most of which was home-grown or foraged. My husband's over-enthusiasm to plant them in the first place declined when he saw plate after plate of broad beans served up in traditional fashion. I'm wondering how I am going to use up the remaining 1,000 broad beans that I shelled from their pods and froze; this must have also made good animal feed in the days when all people kept animals for their food needs, but what do modern people do with broad beans in the instant gratification culture of our times?

broad beansshelling broad beans
Broad beans in their pods; shelling broad beans
removing black eye from broad beans
Once the broad beans are removed from the pod, they need to have the 'black eye' removed from their skin. If they are to be eaten fresh, the skin is also removed and discarded, but if they are cooked, the skin is left on. If over-cooked, broad beans become soft and mashy.

An internet search of 'broad bean' and 'fava bean', followed by country name produces an interesting wealth of fancy modern recipes, as well as the customary use of this bean in more traditional cuisines like my own. Here are some of my findings for the humble broad bean:
  1. The UK tolerates them. The broad bean is seen as a necessary part of biodiversity. It is mainly used as an addition to a main meal, notably a soup or salad.
  2. The US is just beginning to learn how to incorporate them more into their food, part of the slow but steady interest they are showing for real food and moving away from the fast food culture that has dominated their daily life.
  3. In Spain, China and other parts of Asia, fried broad beans are a favorite snack, eaten in a similar way as peanuts.
  4. Broad beans are Egypt's national food, made into the dish ful medames, a rich dip similar to the Greek fava; this cooking style is typical for broad beans in other African nations.
  5. Beans are often combined with meat in rich stews in the Mediterranean region. The broad bean makes a good alternative to potatoes and other chunky vegetables (eg peas, carrots, etc); it could easily be added to a mince chili dish instead of the usual red kidney beans.
Whatever you do with it, the broad bean will always be an interesting addition to a meal rather than the main ingredient. I may add them to a cheese pie, a bacon risotto and some hummus; all these recipes came from the BBC's GoodFood site which I've taken quite a liking to lately for their healthy looking recipes using seasonal produce.
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