Sweetcorn

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Sweetcorn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa), is a variety of maize with a high sugar content. It is the result of a naturally occurring recessive mutation in the genes which control conversion of sugar to starch inside the endosperm of the corn kernel. Unlike field corn varieties, which are harvested when the kernels are dry and mature (dent stage), sweetcorn is picked when immature (milk stage) and prepared and eaten as a vegetable, rather than a grain.

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Ready for pollinating

The cultivation of corn as maize began over 8000 years ago in Mesoamerica, a geographical area which includes central and southern Mexico, and Central America. Corn was first domesticated from teosinte (Zea mexicana), an annual grass native to this region. Wild teosinte mostly has value as a fodder plant, as it provides very little edible seeds. The first archaeological evidence of domesticated corn comes from the San Marcos cave in Tehuacan and the Guilá Naquitz cave in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The corn in San Marcos cave is dated to over 5,000 years ago. The cobs from the Guilá Naquitz cave were dated to over 6200 years old. Humans first domesticated corn by selecting the teosinte plants that had the largest amount of edible seeds until they eventually provided a substantial food source. In the process, humans have transformed corn into a plant that can no longer self-sow and modern corn now requires breaking the tightly bound cob to remove the seeds. Wild teosinte, however, is very fragile and the seeds easily fall off and grow new plants. Without human interaction modern corn would probably cease to exist.

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Tassels – this is where the grainy seeds need to fall to pollinate

The Iroquois, Native American tribes, gave the first recorded sweetcorn, called ‘Papoon’, to European settlers in 1779. It soon became a popular food in southern and central regions of the US. Open pollinated cultivators of white sweetcorn started to become widely available in the US in the 19th century. Two of the most enduring cultivars, still available today, are ‘Country Gentleman’and ‘Stowell’s Evergreen’. Sweetcorn production in the 20th century was influenced by the following key developments: hybridisation allowed for more uniform maturity, improved quality and disease resistance, and, in 1933 ‘Golden Cross Bantam’ was released. It is significant for being the first successful single-cross hybrid and the first specifically developed for disease resistance. Open pollinated (non-hybrid) corn has largely been replaced in the commercial market by sweeter, earlier hybrids, which also have the advantage of maintaining their sweet flavour longer.

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Grainy seed tops

There are different varieties of sweetcorn – old types and supersweet types as well as mini types. Choose only one variety or they cross pollinate and make a gross hybrid that you don’t want.

I’ve only grown ‘Swift F1’ – and it is brilliant.

Sow in pots as early as March or as late as May, indoors. I use tall yoghurt pots filled with compost. Keep them in warm temperatures to grow with plenty of water and sunlight. Plant them out when they are about 7cm tall and the frosts have most definitely passed, May or June, 30cm apart. Sweetcorn is wind pollinated so plant them in clustered groups (picture the fields of corn grown on the country farms around Britain, all packed together) rather than rows to maximise pollination. Plant in soil that has been prepared with compost and well-rotted manure. I keep feeding mine with Blood, Fish and Bone and well-rotted manure or a liquid feed throughout the season to encourage the growth of the corn itself. Keep well watered in any dry periods. To increase pollination, try brushing the dusty pollen off the tops of the sweetcorn onto the tassels – this is where the corn will grow if pollinated. The tassels on the plant will turn yellow if fertilised. The cobs are ready when the tassels turn dark brown, July-September. To check, peel back the green covering and pierce a thumbnail into one of the niblets – if the liquid that is released is milky, your sweetcorn is ready. If it is clear, leave if a little longer but check daily.

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Undeveloped corn on the cobs – I’ve never taken a picture when they actually looked like ones bought in the shop, only the odd looking ones here 😦

The aim is to harvest sweetcorn in its prime. The sugars convert to starches rapidly once the corn leaves the plant and the taste will only become poorer as time goes on – same for asparagus and peas. Have the pan of boiling water ready, pick and plunge your cobs straight in. Or freeze them immediately (it stops the sugar/starch conversion process).

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Tassels dying back – the corn is forming

The only problems with sweetcorn are they take up space, they might not pollinate as reliably as insect pollinated plants (it will be very weather dependent) and if you have a problem with mice you might need to consider some protection.

For companion planting, consider the ‘Three Sisters’ from the USA: sweetcorn, beans and pumpkins. My first year I grew pumpkins with the sweetcorn. Last year I grew lettuces and radishes between them. This year I am considering a variety of cucurbits because they both enjoy the sunny conditions – courgettes, pumpkins and squashes, that is.

To cook and eat sweetcorn: it can of course become ‘corn on the cob’ – boil, grill or barbecue and slather in butter and hand them out for people to chew off the little gold nuggets. To remove the kernels from the cob, boil for a few minutes in boiling water (don’t add salt, it hardens the kernels), get a sharp knife and scrape them off into a bowl and serve. They are lovely with any meal that includes boiled veg, salads, mixed with tuna and mayonnaise is a traditional one, delicious with peas and baked potatoes mashed with butter, they are a traditional vegetarian option for the barbecue – try spreading some chill sauce over the top after grilling for a spicy taste. I think they are delicious also in a stir fry and a great addition to Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock. I offer you the other recipe that springs to mind when I picture sweetcorn – my mum’s sweetcorn fritters.

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Sweetcorn Fritters 

(Makes enough to serve 4 people a few each)

-260g fresh sweetcorn (if you are using bought canned, use a 325g tin) -100g gram flour (or plain flour, gram flour is made from chickpeas and adds extra protein) -3 eggs -120g cheddar cheese -80g Gruye cheese -50g grated courgette or 1tbsp milk, optional -Small knob of butter, for frying

  1. Scald the fresh sweetcorn so the corn comes off the cob easier. If you are using tinned sweetcorn, drain it and set to one side.
  2. In a large bowl, sieve in the flour. Make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and stir them into the flour to make a batter.
  3. Grate the cheese and mix it in. Ass the corn and either a little courgette or milk to make it a dropping consistency, only a little though.
  4. Warm up the butter in a frying pan and drop spoonfuls of the batter into it – four per frying pan. Fry on one side and then flip over, using a spatula, and fry on the other side. Press down on the batter – when it is no longer leaking liquid, it is cooked through. Place on a plate lined with kitchen roll. Serve with vegetables, salad, rice, potatoes, dips… ketchup?

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Beetroot

The beetroot is the taproot portion of the beet plant, usually known in North America as the beet, also table beet, garden beet, red beet, or golden beet. It is one of several of the cultivated varieties of Beta vulgaris, grown for their edible taproots and their leaves, beet greens. Beta is the classic Latin name for beets, possibly Celtic origin before becoming bete in Old English in the 1400s. 

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Other than as a food, beets have use as a food colouring and as a medicinal plant. From the Middle Ages, beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, especially illnesses relating to digestion and the blood. Bartolomeo Platina recommended taking beetroot with garlic to nullify the effects of “garlic-breath”. Many beet products are made from other Beta vulgaris varieties, particularly sugar beet. During the mid-1800s, beetroot juice was used to colour wine. Beetroot can also be used to make wine nowadays completely, no longer just an addition to the drink made from grapes.

I’ve only ever used ‘Bolthardy’ but I think that it is a brilliant variety. Very rich, dark pinky-red colour, tastes pretty good and lasts in the ground for a long time. I grew too many two years ago and had loads left over in the ground (seeing as only three people in my family liked beetroot then). I thought they would just rot and I would give them to the pigs in winter, but they didn’t. I have been pulling them up two summers on. The outside is as rough as I thought it would be so I discard them, but the inside is still usable. Of course, I would recommend harvesting them in their first season as that will be when they are most delicious!

Another variety I have seen in a vegetable garden lately is candy coloured beetroot – white with pink swirls in it, called ‘Chioggia’. It is very pretty and tastes good too.

To grow beetroot seeds, sow thinly, March-July, where they are to crop, 2.5cm (1″) deep, directly into finely-prepared, well-cultivated, fertile soil, which has already been watered. Allow 30cm (1′) between rows. I discovered that mine grew so much better when the ground was fed with well rotted manure. Beetroots can be grown in shade, but they seem to prosper more in direct sunlight. Keep them shaded when starting off with horticultural fleece. Regular sowings every three weeks should ensure a continuous supply of young beetroots. Harvest June-October. Harvested roots can be stored in dry sand for winter use.

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Usually the deep purple roots of beetroot are eaten boiled, roasted or raw, either alone or combined with any salad. A large proportion of the commercial production is processed into boiled and sterilised beets or into pickles. In Eastern Europe, the beetroot soup borscht is popular. In India, chopped and spiced beetroot is a delicious side dish. A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish is picked beet egg. Hard-boiled eggs are refrigerated in the liquid left over from pickling beets and allowed to marinate until the eggs turn a deep pink-red colour. In Poland and Ukraine, beet is combined with horseradish to form popular cwilka. This is traditionally used with cold cuts and sandwiches or added to a meal consisting of meat and potatoes. In Serbia cvekla is used as a winter salad, seasoned with salt and vinegar, alongside meat dishes. As an addition to horseradish it is also used to produce the “red” variety of chrain, a popular condiment in Eastern European cuisine. A slice of pickled beetroot is combined with other condiments on a beef patty to make an Aussie burger. When beet juice is used, it is most stable in foods with a low water content, such as frozen novelties and fruit fillings. Beatnins, obtained from the roots, are used industrially as red food colouring e.g. to intensify the colour of tomato paste, sauces, desserts, jams and jellies, ice cream, sweets, and breakfast cereals.

Oldest archeological proofs that we used beetroot in ancient times were found on the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands and in Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt, which dates from third millennium BC. There are Assyrian texts that say that beetroots were growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 800 BC. We can be positive that Mesopotamia knew about beetroots at that time because of these texts. Ancient Greeks cultivated beetroot around 300 BC but didn’t use the roots of the plants, only eating the leaves. They still respected the root and offered it to the sun god, Apollo, in the temple of Delphi and also considered it to be worth its weight in silver. Hippocrates used leaves of beetroot for binding and dressing wounds while Talmud, written in 4th and 5th century, advises eating beetroot, among other things, for longer life. Romans ate the roots but mainly for medicinal purposes. They used it as a laxative or to cure fever. Some used it as food as Apicius, the famous Roman gourmet, wrote a book called “The Art of Cooking” and in it gave recipes with beetroots used in broths and salads with mustard, oil, and vinegar. The root part of the beet was cultivated for consumption in either Germany or Italy, first recorded in 1542. The Elizabethans enjoyed them in tarts and stews. Medieval cooks stuffed them into pies. All these uses were an old variant of beetroot which was long and thin like a parsnip. This variety is thought to have evolved from a prehistoric North African root vegetable. The one that we know today appeared in the 16th and 17th century in Europe. It needed a few hundred years more to become popular in Central and Eastern Europe where new cuisines with beetroot started appearing. In 1747 a chemist from Berlin discovered a way to produce sucrose from beets. His student, Franz Achard, perfected this method for extracting sugar, leading him to predict the inevitable rise of beet beer, tobacco and molasses, among other products. The King of Prussia subsidized a sugar beet industry. The first plant was built in what is now western Poland. Today, around 20 percent of the world’s sugar comes from sugar beets. Beet sugar production requires 4 times less water than sugar cane production, making it an attractive crop throughout Europe. In Victorian times, beetroot was used to bring color to an otherwise colorless diet and as a sweet ingredient in desserts. Industrialisation allowed for easier preparation and conservation of vegetables, so beetroot became more available. The rosy betalain-rich juice of red beets was used as a cheek and lip stain by women during the 19th century, a practice that inspired the old adage “red as a beet.” Food shortages in Europe following World War One caused illnesses, including cases of mangel-wurzel disease. It was symptomatic of eating only beets. After the Second World War, because of the rations in some places, the most available vegetable was pickled beetroot in jars.

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The beet greens (leaves) are also edible. The young leaves can be eaten raw as part of a leafy salad whilst the older ones are better boiled or steamed, like cooked spinach. I find that the leaves are very strong tasting and don’t particularly like them. But my poultry love them. Do not cut the leaves, but twist them off to prevent the colour ‘bleeding’.

Many complain that beets have an “earthy” taste, which isn’t far off the mark. Beets contain a substance called geosmin, which is responsible for that fresh soil scent in your garden following a spring rain. Humans are quite sensitive to geosmin, even in very low doses, which explains why our beet response ranges from one extreme to the other.

They are rich in antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. They also contain unique antioxidants called betalains, which are currently being studied as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer. Beetroot can lower blood pressure and may increase blood flows to the brain thereby preventing dementia. A 2010 study carried out by Queen Mary’s University in London found that drinking just one 250ml glass of beetroot juice a day dramatically lowered blood pressure for several hours. Nitrates lower blood pressure because bacteria in the mouth and gut convert it into the gas nitric oxide, which relaxes and widens the blood vessels, allowing blood to circulate more freely. Tests were conducted to see if beetroot would effect athlete’s performances. Athletes could run faster after drinking beetroot juice and cyclists racing in high altitudes had quicker finishing times, averagely 16 seconds quicker after drinking beetroot juice too. Betacyanin, the pigment that gives beetroot its rich hue, is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to possess anti-cancer properties. In 2011, a study carried out by Howard University in Washington, USA,  found that betacyanin slowed tumour growth by 12.5 per cent when exposed to prostate and breast cancer cells. I remember reading an interview a while ago in the Telegraph about tennis player Ross Hutchins who suffered from a variety of cancer. He had beetroot and orange juice every morning and evening. ‘Even when I was feeling really ill, I made sure I nailed eight beetroots a day,’ he says. The red colour compound beatnin is not broken down in the body, and in higher concentrations may temporarily cause urine or stools to assume a reddish colour, in the case of urine a condition called beeturia.

I really didn’t like beetroot. I really intensely disliked it. The first time I got myself to like beetroot was when it was grated with a leafy green salad alongside a baked potato with cheese and baked beans. I had to finish everything on my plate, including the beetroot, but surprisingly, I actually came round to it. It was ok grated into tiny pieces, not so earthy and overpowering. I was pretty happy as it meant I could grow it in the garden and actually eat it. They didn’t convert me into a radish or fennel fan, but beetroot was good enough. I have been harvesting my two year old beetroots and enjoying them at last.

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Grated beetroot on top of poached egg yolk on toast

Sprinkle grated beetroot over mashed avocado on toast, it looks beautiful. Another thing I like is grated beetroot sprinkled on top of toast that has been covered with butter and a poached egg yolk (I don’t like egg whites. I’m sorry I’m so fussy…).

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Avocado on toast with beetroot – this is two year old beetroot!

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Recipe: Pasta, Courgette and Pine Nuts

I was inspired to make this recipe after my vegetable course at River Cottage in July. It was a different dish but it gave me the idea of peeling the courgette into slices, ribbons, and frying them before serving them as a topping over pasta. The pine nuts were an addition I added instead of cheese for protein so that you get all the nutrients you need, making this dish vegetarian, even vegan and a good way to use a courgette or two.

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It is a fancy looking dish but it is so simple. It took me about 15 minutes and that was while I was faffing around with other stuff in the kitchen.

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You could try adding herbs, lemon juice or parts of rind would be nice, a scattering of mint over the top afterwards. I added some runner beans alongside because I wanted more greens but it is completely optional. Maybe some raw tomatoes tossed in the fried dish when it is off the heat, soaked in some oil?

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For a non-veggie bits of bacon might be nice?

This serves just one. To increase the amounts, just double etc.

Have fun and experiment anyone who wants to try something new with their courgettes.

 

Pasta, Courgette and Pine Nuts

(Serves 1)

-About 2 serving spoons/ 2 nests of tagliatelle pasta -Olive oil, for frying in -1 medium sized courgette -1 handful of pine nuts

  1. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Add the pasta and leave to simmer for about ten minutes until cooked. Drain and set aside.
  2. Put the olive oil into a frying pan. Top and tail the courgette and using a peeler, take slices off the courgette into the frying pan until all of the vegetable has been used. Fry gently in the frying pan, tossing it in the olive oil for a minute. Add the handful of pine nuts and continue to stir over the flame for a few minutes.
  3. Put the pasta on a plate and scrape the courgette and pine nuts on top. Serve.

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Runner Beans

 

Phaseolus coccineus, known as runner bean, is a plant in the legume or Fabaceae family.

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This species originated from the high altitude regions of Central America. From there it made its way to Spain then eventually spread throughout Europe. The runner bean is believed to have first been introduced to England in the 17th century by plant collector John Tradescant the younger. The runner bean plant was grown for nearly one hundred years in Britain as an ornamental until the pods were rediscovered to be edible by Philip Miller of Physic Garden in Chelsea. Runner beans are easy to grow and a staple vegetable in British cuisine. In the 1969 Oxford Book of Food Plants the runner bean is described as, “by far the most popular green bean in Britain”.

The knife-shaped pods are normally green. However, there are an increasing number of other climbing beans that are purple or yellow for a variety of colour. (Maybe in another post…)

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Sow your runner beans in trenches filled with well rotted manure and compost. Sow the seeds indoors in deep pots of compost (tall yoghurt pots are ideal) with compost in April-May 2.5cm (1″) deep. Water well and place in a warm position and make sure the beans get plenty of light when they germinate. When the frosts have finished, plant the beans out into the prepared trench 25cm (10″) apart. Keep watered and protected from wind or too much sun by shading them in horticultural fleece. While you plant the beans out, stick a pole, such as a bamboo pole, next to each bean. Encourage them to climb up it as they grow upwards. Or sow outdoors May-July where they are to crop, 5cm (2″) deep, directly into finely-prepared, well-cultivated, fertile soil, which has already been watered. We often do some of each (as we love beans) – we start off with some indoors and add more outside when the weather warms up.

Over winter, do not pull your bean roots up. Leave them in the ground and cover with layers of thick horticultural fleece. The next season, the roots should re-grow and give you an early harvest of beans. This year we harvested beans from the roots of beans that we planted three years ago!

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Harvest the beans July-October. Pick off the beans gently, trying not to damage the plant or the flowers (which will be pollinated by the bees and made into the beans themselves). Try not to leave the beans until they get too big. Once the plant believes that it has enough large beans formed, it stops trying to produce flowers and your harvest ultimately fails. At the height of bean picking, we are often harvesting craters worth of beans daily and have far too much to prepare.

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To prepare beans for eating, I like to remove the tops (I don’t bother with the tails), string them if needed (but I prefer to harvest them before they need stringing) and to slice them in the bean grinder we have in out kitchen. I’m sure they are easy to buy on the internet, and are so worth it.

To cook them, bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the beans, turning the heat down to low. Leave to simmer for about 5-8 minutes, remove from the heat and drain.

To freeze beans, dip the beans in the boiled water for less than a minute, remove and plunge into icy cold water. Once they are completely cold, seal in a plastic bag and store in the freezer. This way, we often eat homegrown runner beans still on Christmas day.

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Variations of runner beans we have tried are: ‘Moonlight’, ‘St George’, ‘Firestorm’, ‘Wisley Magic’ 

They are all yummy. Growing your own beans is so much nicer than buying them from a supermarket. I remember loving runner beans from my gran when she used to grown them for us when I was little, before I every tried gardening. It was so disappointing to try them from the shop. If you ever try to grow something green, runner beans are so worth it.

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Runner beans contain vitamin K, folate, vitamin C and manganese. Legumes are a good source of fibre in general, and runner beans are no exception: 100 grams has 9 per cent of the daily RDA. And good fibre intake is essential for colon health, including maintaining healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Runner beans are a great way to load up on vitamin A, with 28 per cent of your RDA in 100 grams. This essential nutrient is important for eye, skin, bone and tooth health. Lutein, zea-xanthin, and B-carotene are some of the antioxidants are found in runner beans. Zea-xantin is thought to be important for UV light-filtering functions in the eyes. The beans inside the runner bean pods can be cooked and eaten on their own. They’re a good source of vegetarian protein, 20g per 100g of dried beans.

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Here are some recipes to try runner beans with:

Raw runner beans dipped in homous.

Boiled or steamed runner beans dressed in the juice of one lemon and tossed in sesame seeds as a side dish.

Favourite dinner: baked potato, baked beans, cheese and runner beans – Beans Means Heinz

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Eaten with your roast dinner, a cooked pasta dish, like bolognese or lasagne, with your potato and sausages, even as a side to pizza they are amazing.

Anything you would eat peas with, beans go very well with as an alternative.

I adore runner beans. If I ever had to grow one green vegetable in the garden, runner beans would be it!

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Recipe: Fried courgette-tomato sauce with spaghetti

 

Celery

Celery (Apium graveolens), a marshland plant in the family Apiaceae. First attested in English in 1664, the word “celery” derives from the French céleri, in turn from Italian seleri, the plural of selero, which comes from Late Latin selinon, the latinisation of the Greek σέλινον (selinon), “celery”.

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Celery has a long, fibrous stalk tapering into leaves. Depending on the location and cultivar, either the vegetable’s stalks or leaves are eaten and used in cooking. Celery seed is also used as a spice, its extracts are used in medicines.

Most experts believe that celery originated in the Mediterranean basin. Other areas that lay claim to nativity for celery include Sweden, the British Isles, Egypt, Algeria, India, China, and New Zealand. Though today it is mainly thought of as a vegetable meant for consumption, celery was originally used for medicinal purposes, as a flavoring herb, and sometimes fed to horses. It has medicinal properties because of the oils and seeds it contains. In ancient times it was used to treat many ailments, including colds, flu, digestion, water retention, and more.

Celery leaves were part of the garlands found in the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamen (died 1323 BC), and celery mericarps dated to the seventh century BC were recovered in the Heraion of Samos. Archeological digs found celery dating to the 9th century BC, at Kastanas. However, the literary evidence for celery’s use in ancient Greece is more telling: in Homer’s Illiad, horses graze on wild celery that grows in the marshes of Troy, and in Odyssey, there is a mention of the meadows of violet and wild celery surrounding the cave of Calypso. A chthonian symbol among the ancient Greeks, celery was said to have sprouted from the blood of Kadmilos. The spicy odour and dark leaf colour encouraged this association with the cult of death. In classical Greece, celery leaves were used as garlands for the dead.

Celery’s late arrival in the English kitchen is an end-product of the long tradition of seed selection needed to reduce the sap’s bitterness and increase its sugars. By 1699, John Evelyn could recommend it in his Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets. Celery makes a minor appearance in colonial American gardens; its culinary limitations are reflected in the observation by the author of A Treatise on Gardening, by a Citizen of Virginia that it is “one of the species of parsley”. In fact the name for parsley actually means rock-celery. After the mid-19th century, continued selections for refined crisp texture and taste brought celery to American kitchens, where it was served in celery vases to be salted and eaten raw.

In Europe it was not until the 1600s in France that celery was first noted as an edible plant meant for consumption. Soon the Italians began using celery the way we use it in modern times. They set out to find a way to give it a more desirable flavor because celery was thought to be quite bitter and strong. A technique was developed to remedy this stronger taste in the form of blanching. This led to two different types of celery developing. There is self-blanching or yellow celery (a recent hybrid) and green or Pascal celery. In America most people prefer the green variety. In Europe self-blanching varieties are more popular.

In the past, celery was grown as a vegetable for winter and early spring; it was perceived as a cleansing tonic, welcomed to counter the salt-sickness of a winter diet without greens based on salted meats. By the 19th century, the season for celery had been extended, to last from the beginning of September to late in April.

In the 1850s celery seed was brought to Kalamazoo, Michigan from Scotland by George Taylor. He began growing it at a nearby farm. At a fancy ball at the Burdick House he offered it free of charge to be on the serving table. It got considerable interest. Dutch immigrants in the area caught on to the idea, and Kalamazoo became the “Celery Capital” of the nation. However, this was not to last. Celery production died out after a blight hit the area in the 1930s. Now the biggest producer of celery in the nation is California.

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To grow your own celery: start seeds off indoors in small modules in early spring, March is a good time. Give them a lot of heat and keep moist for germination. Mine are in the warmest, sunniest room in the house – they get put on the windowsill during daylight hours before being ‘snuggled’, put back on the floor in the heated room for the chilly nights. I will then be moving my celery to a colder room to begin the process of hardening them off (i.e. making them tougher and able to withstand the British weather) once they are looking strong with some proper leaves developed. Plant outside, 25cm apart, in May or June, after the frosts if you can. Celery likes a moisture retentive, well-drained soil in a sunny location. I prepare the bed for them by digging a trench, filling it with well-rotted manure and compost before covering it with soil and a good thick layer of mulch – it will help to hold onto the water and suppress the weeds. I often prepare this in early spring/winter, giving the worms time to do their work below before planting the little babies out. Once I have planned them out, I like to place plastic bottles with their bottoms cut off over each individual plant before covering them with horticultural fleece, making sure they are slug protected, very important! The bottles protect the celery from cold, wind and being squashed; the fleece protects them from strong sunlight, cold, and again wind which is no friend to the plastic bottles. Keep the celery well watered and slug protected and weed free as much as possible. Once they look big and strong enough to stand the world on their own and the frosts have vanished, remove their protection and let them fend for themselves.

Self-blanching varieties avoid the need to be earthed up like the older varieties of celery. Recommended are ‘Golden Self Blanching’, ‘Daybreak’ and ‘Green Utah’. I have tried growing before now ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Green Sleeves’. Very tasty although you will have to de-string them if you are feeling fussy about chewy textures!

Try to harvest before the frosts, when the sticks are recognisably big, from around August. However, we have managed to leave our celery (when we had pretty much a whole fields worth a couple of years ago thanks to my over-generous sowings and surprisingly successful germinations and survivals) under fleece throughout the winter. They did go to seed the following spring but it meant that a steady harvest for us/pigs saw us through the winter- although I think I put a lot of my family off celery… similar to the runner-bean situation that occurs yearly…

Problems with celery: slugs and snails are your ultimate competition. Starting them off indoors not only increases the likelihood of germination but it also helps to protect them from these pests. Celery fly maggots can strike in April, planting them out in May avoids this. The problem I had last year was celery blight. It looks like rust, similar looking to potato blight. The outer stems get these nasty brown patterns that eventually droop and become inedible. It also prevents the plant from ever developing to a proper size, so my harvest was very poor last year. There is nothing you can do but to snap off the outer stems infected to slow down the spread of the disease and to harvest them as small treats instead of large, supermarket-style vegetables.

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Celery is among a small group of foods (headed by peanuts) that appear to provoke the most severe allergic reactions; for people with celery allergy, exposure can cause potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. Seeds contain the highest levels of allergen content.

Celery is a rich source of phenolic phytonutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Celery is an excellent source of vitamin K and molybdenum. It is a very good source of folate, potassium, dietary fiber, manganese and pantothenic acid. Celery is also a good source of vitamin B2, copper, vitamin C, vitamin B6, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin A. Celery supposedly: helps lower blood cholesterol, lowers inflammation, lowers blood pressure, prevents ulcers, sustains liver health, boosts digestion and reduces bloating, prevents urinary tract infections and may help in preventing cancer. Altogether, a very good veggie!

I mostly eat my celery raw – homegrown it can be stringy but once prepared by being sliced in sticks it is deliciously sweet and juicy. Serve with any other salad, Waldorf Salad is popular in the US (celery, apple and walnuts, I think?). My mum used to have raw celery sticks dipped in salt. Use for dips like humous. I think it is yummy dipped in baked potatoes that have been mashed with salted butter. It is also delicious stir fried after being sliced into small pieces – a whole new taste, it is one of my favourite veggies to stir fry, along with broccoli stalks and sweetcorn, I don’t know why, they are just yummy too! Celery can also be boiled, steamed or roasted along with some carrots and parsnips to accompany your roast dinner. It is fundamental in my dad’s homemade Christmas stuffing alone with pear or apple. Very good in stocks, especially the leaves. It can easily be added to stews and casseroles too, perhaps even curries. Someone I know once said that veggie bolognese was nothing without celery – I am not sure I agree, I prefer grated carrots in mine but why not give it a go?!

Fun fact: The perennial BBC television series Doctor Who featured the Fifth Doctor (played by Peter Davison, from 1981–84), who wore a sprig of celery as a corsage.

Brussels Sprouts

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Sow: February-April

Harvest: October-April

Brussels Sprouts are members of the Gemmifera Group of cabbages, Brassica oleracea, grown for its edible buds. They look like mini-cabbages and taste like slightly stronger versions. The Brussels sprout has long been popular in Brussels, Belgium, and may have originated and gained its name there.

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‘Maximus’

Forerunners to modern Brussels sprouts were likely cultivated in Ancient Rome. Although native to the Mediterranean region with other cabbage species, Brussels sprouts first appeared in northern Europe during the 5th century, later being cultivated in the 13th century near Brussels from which they supposedly derived their name. The French coined the title in the 18th century. It was common to put a landmark on a food. Whether they actually were developed in Brussels is not certain but there are records of Brussels Sprouts around where Brussels is as far back as the 13th century. During the 16th century, they enjoyed a popularity in the Southern Netherlands that eventually spread throughout the cooler parts of Northern Europe.

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I grew this year the brilliant ‘Maximus’ which I highly recommend. I sowed it in February and planted it out after the frosts had gone. I did not harvest any until Christmas Day, Boxing Day and the day after but they could be picked from September onwards if you are lucky. I still have a few small ones left to develop that should see us through the winter months.

Other varieties to consider:

‘Noisette’ and ‘Groininger’ are good earlies, pre-Christmas.

‘Seven Hills’ is recommended for the Christmas season.

‘Wellington’ will offer a late winter harvest as will the red coloured ‘Red Rubine’.

Start sprouts off indoors in February in pots of compost, 1.5cm (1/2 inch) deep. Transplant April-June when the plants are big and strong with at least three leaves growing. Plant firmly in a trench with well rotted manure and Blood Fish and Bone mixed in. Space them 60cm apart. Water well – brassicas need hydration. Prop the plants up with sticks, especially as they get bigger. You will want to net them straight away to keep out the pesky Cabbage Whites, and I am afraid you will have to keep the insect netting on them all year round. However, these hardy plants will not need fleecing or any type of frost protection. In fact, they need a little cold to prosper.

Pick the sprouts from the bottom of the plant upwards, the largest ones first, a few at a time. However, don’t ignore the leaves of the actual plant. They make good cut-and-come-again greens and often taste milder than the sprouts themselves. Take a few at a time. Another thing you can do is chop the tops of the plant off. They taste very mild and are like mini-cabbages when boiled.

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Brussels sprouts are rich in many valuable nutrients. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin K. They are a very good source of numerous nutrients including folate, manganese, vitamin B6, dietary fiber, choline, copper, vitamin B1, potassium, phosphorus and omega-3 fatty acids. They are also a good source of iron, vitamin B2, protein, magnesium, pantothenic acid, vitamin A, niacin, calcium and zinc. In addition to these nutrients, Brussels sprouts contain numerous disease-fighting phytochemicals including sulforaphane, indoles, glucosinolates, isothiocynates, coumarins, dithiolthiones and phenols. Brussels are credited with reducing cancer, cardiovascular disease and supporting the dietary system as it contains a good amount of fibre.

Steaming or boiling sprouts should only take about 6 minutes. Cook until just tender. They are of course brilliant with Christmas dinner or any other boiled veg meal (sausages and mash, roasted chicken are such examples) but don’t just reserve them for roast dinners. Shredded bacon mixed with Brussels Sprouts makes a good side dish. Bubble and Squeak is a classic. Chestnuts is another good one to mix in. Melted parmesan cheese on top. I personally like boiled potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce mixed together in the form of a dish – a light, warming continuation of Christmas dinner.

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‘Brukale’ Petite Posy

Brukale

Another veg to consider is Brukale – which I actually prefer to Brussels Sprouts. It is a cross between a Brussels Sprout and a Kale. It is basically mini-kales that grow like Brussels Sprouts. Sow indoors in February (try ‘Petite Posy’ from Mr Fothergills) and plant out along with the Brussels Sprouts. Pick them like you would pick Brussels Sprouts and boil them for slightly less longer. Their taste will be less potent than a sprout.

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Brukale and Brussels Sprouts picked for Christmas lunch 2016
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Boiled Brussels Sprouts
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Boiled Brukale
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Christmas Lunch 2016 – homegrown Brussels Sprouts, Brukale, Potatoes, Carrots, Runner beans and cranberry sauce (unfortunately, roasted parsnips and peas were not, fortunately the sausages, bacon, turkey and homemade stuffing were not too!)