Well, it is December and the festivities are drawing closer.
I end my uni term this Friday (finally) and at space 2 grow we have our last meeting on Wednesday to clear space for the vegetable patch!!!! before breaking up until the new year. We have a special Christmas dinner on Thursday night to celebrate all of the work that we have done so far. I thought I was going to have to make nut roast for it (ah) but it turns out I don’t need to (phew) so instead I am making some brownies tomorrow night to bring along to our Wednesday meeting to encourage everyone to keep digging, pruning and burning (we have a couple of pyromaniacs on board).
But back to Christmas – this is a time for not so much growing in the garden, but they are very special because of this. Brussel Sprouts, Celeriac, Celery, Kale, Cabbage, Carrots. All of those cosy winter veggies. And Cranberries.
You’ve planted all of your delights in the warm weather, now it is time to play with the harvest indoors when it is hitting minus temperatures outside. So here are some little festive treats to get you in the mood. Some are from this blog, some are from my other blog Bella’s Baking, now very recently Beagle Baking. If any of you have a beagle, you will understand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What has my mum been doing while I have been absent at uni? Collecting chestnuts. No, no, not just a handful. I am talking kitchen-overflowing-with-chestnuts sort of collection. There will not be enough for the squirrels despite ht productive year.
Last year (luckily) we got away with a poor chestnut harvest – I had too many apples to deal with that autumn – but the year before we had a similar glut. I am ashamed to admit that I don’t like chestnuts. It is a nice little fantasy of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a Victorian Christmas treat, but I just don’t like them. Give me walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, brazil nuts and I am fine – dare to wave peanut butter under my nose and you risk a slap. Again, just don’t like the stuff!
However, in an attempt to find a way to a) preserve chestnuts, b) see if I can like them and c) just for fun, we tried making chestnut jam last winter with what we had.
Unfortunately, I still don’t like it but for anyone who likes chestnuts, vanilla or fun things like this, it might be a good gift this winter.
The recipe is from the River Cottage Handbook: Preserves. It is also on their official website. They recommend dolloping it on top of meringues or ice cream or buttered toast. I tried mine on toast, a bit like Nutella. If you like the idea of mixing it with whipped cream in a chocolate swiss roll it might be nice?
(Makes 5 x 225g jars)
1kg sweet chestnuts
400g granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
The first task is to remove the leathery shells and skin from the chestnuts. Use a sharp knife to make a knick in the top of each chestnut. Plunge them into a pan of boiling water for 2–3 minutes – sufficient time to soften the shell but not to let the nuts get piping hot and difficult to handle. Remove the pan from the heat. Fish out half a dozen or so chestnuts and peel off their coats. With luck, the thin brown skin under the shell will peel away too. Continue in this way until all are peeled.
Put the chestnuts into a clean pan and just cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25–30 minutes, or until tender. Strain, but keep the cooking liquid.
Purée the chestnuts with 100ml of the cooking liquid in a food processor or using a stick blender.
Pour a further 100ml of the cooking liquid into a pan and add the sugar. Heat gently until dissolved. Add the chestnut purée, vanilla paste and honey. Stir until well blended. Bring to the boil then cook gently for 5–10 minutes until well thickened. Take care, as it will pop and splutter and may spit. Remove from the heat and stir in the brandy. Pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal immediately. Use within 6 months. Store in the fridge once opened.