Fenugreek – damped off, need to sow some more indoors
Cucumbers – Cucumbers – sown indoors, doing best at moment, please stay that way!
Tomatoes – germinated very well indoors
Potatoes – time to think about planting them outdoors under a lot of earth and some cover
Turnips – just sown some
Purple Sprouting Broccoli – just sown some (as well as some more Calabrese Broccoli) indoors AND just harvested first batch of last year’s crop the other night to have with some of the last dug up potatoes from last season with baked beans, cheese and frozen homegrown runner beans – yum!
Sweet Corn – on my list but I know from experience that I can still get away with sowing it in May, indoors
Rhubarb – Rhubarb – time to feed and start forcing
Fruit Trees/Bushes – time to feed!
There are bound to be plenty more veggies to sow/plant out as we plough on through the first month of spring. Temperatures are finally warming up but hang onto some fleece – the fruit trees might be lured into a false spring, deadly for blossom and fruit production… Make sure anything you sow outside/ plant out is wrapped up under cover, nice and snuggly. It will be a shock to the system if they are exposed to Britain’s ‘spring time’ too early!
FLOWERS TO SOW INDOORS:
Sweet Peas – they are ready to plant out under cover
We have had a bit of a glut for cucumbers this year and I panicked when we had a fair amount starting to wither in the fridge so I quickly whipped up this recipe from River Cottage ‘Preserves’ book: Sweet Cucumber Pickle.
It is recommended in sandwiches, salads and with fish. My mum and dad ate it with macaroni cheese the other night and said it was a delicious mix.
It will last for two weeks in the fridge once you have macerated it over night.
Sweet Cucumber Pickle
(Makes 2x 450g jars)
– 1 kg cucumbers – 1 1/2 large onions – 1 tbsp dill, chopped – 250g granulated sugar – 1 level tbsp salt – 200ml cider vinegar
Using the slicing blade of a food processor or a very sharp knife, very finely slice the cucumbers. Peel the onions and slice them very thinly. Combine the cucumber, onion and dill in a large bowl or plastic container.
Mix the sugar, salt and cider vinegar and pour over the cucumber, onion and dill. Stir in.
Leave overnight in the fridge (or at least 3 hours).
Pack into a large air-tight container or jars and store in fridge. Use within 2 weeks.
Following the posts about courgettes and cucumbers, I need to follow up the depressing facts about powdery mildew with a possible preventative or cure.
I was given ‘Grow for Flavour’ by James Wong as a birthday gift a year ago. In his section about growing cucurbits, James Wong wrote about an interesting concoction he named ‘Supersquash Tonic Spray’ which I was taken by as some of my cucurbits were starting to show signs of that horrid virus, especially my pumpkins. My cucumbers and butternut squashes fortunately escaped unscathed but I was very afraid for the lives of my courgettes (which the disease did eventually slow down to a halt in early autumn) and my pumpkins (that fortunately managed to hang in there until they were ready for harvesting, then the powdery mildew reached the stems and rotted them). James Wong’s spray is for preventing the disease from taking hold of the plants but it was a little late for that last year by the time I got the book. We used it as a way of trying to hold back the disease. We don’t know if it was the tonic or just some strong cucurbits fighting for their lives, but the powdery mildew was kept at bay – it didn’t vanish but it didn’t go out of control and kill of the plants straight away.
This year, we started using the tonic spray on the plants that could possibly suffer from a powdery mildew attack as soon as they were in the ground. The weather has been so odd this year that we really do fear for any plant disease coming along so it is best to be prepared.
If you read the ‘Life’ section that comes with the ‘Telegraph’ paper (my grandma gives them to us for the chicken houses every week), then a slightly recent article written by Bunny Guinness mentioned that she now uses a 50/50 milk and water solution to spray her cucurbits with to cope with powdery mildew too.
Here is the concoction we make to help keep our cucurbits strong and healthy to fight powdery mildew when it attacks, from James Wong’s ‘Grow for Flavour’ instructions (all credit goes to the author):
Supersquash Tonic Spray
Add a splash of seaweed extract to 1 litre (1 3/4 pint) spray can of water along with a 1/4 of 300mg soluble aspirin tablet. Add a splash of full-fat milk for added nutrient content. Spritz the tonic spray over the plants’ leaves whenever you can but at least once a month over the summer. Saturate the leaves as much as you can.
Trials at the US Dept of Agriculture have shown that a foiler spray rich in potassium improved the quality of melons (squash’s close relative) by improving the firmness and sugar content and increasing vitamin C and beta-carotene levels.
Trials have demonstrated that chemicals closely related to aspirin can act as a tonic to help boost squash plant defences against drought and cold. Experimental evidence suggests that aspirin spray can improve their resistance to disease such as mildew and mosaic virus.
Wong emphasises using full-fat milk, not skimmed or soy. The fatty acids in milk have been shown in some trials to inhibit the growth of mildew.
Wong does point out that neither aspirin or milk are approved formally as registered pesticides or for the treatment or prevention of plant diseases. It is entirely legal though to apply them to boost plant growth and crop flavour.
As I mentioned before, all credit for the recipe and facts goes to James Wong’s published work. Give it a go!
Cucumbers (Cucurbitaceae family, or gourd) originated from Asia where it spread over its borders around 4000 years ago, becoming eventually the fourth most widely cultivated vegetable in the world. Long, green cylinders that are on every shop shelf around the country, the cucumber is a strangely popular vegetable – strange because it is more fruit-like in its appearance and watery, cooling taste. It is the ultimate ingredient for a summer salad or a glass of pimms.
They originated in the wild in India. Around 2-3 millennia BC they started to be cultivated and infused into the rich Indian cuisine. It spread through trading with Middle Eastern and European countries.
The Romans embraced cucumbers heartily. Their ease at producing them made them popular amongst the nobility and lower classes alike – Emperor Tiberius declared he would eat a cucumber every day and during the summer months his gardens were tended just for vegetables and in the winter cucumbers were grown in moveable bed frames that were moved to expose the sun or illuminated with mirror-stones. In Rome, cucumbers were also used in the medical profession, over 40 various remedies included them. They were used to treat everything, from bad eyesight, scorpion bites, infertile women who wished for children were encouraged to carry them around their waists.
After the end of the Roman Empire, cucumbers decreased in popularity and it was not until the court of Charlemagne in the 8th or 9th century that cucumbers resurfaced. Cucumbers arrived in England during the 14th century where they were not popular until the mid-17th century. During the 18th century, the expansion of cucumbers across North America halted when several medicinal journals claimed that uncooked cucumbers and similar vegetables produced serious health risks. Discouraged by this theory, cucumbers were abandoned on the continent until the 19th century when their safety and nutrition was confirmed. In 2010, worldwide production of cucumbers was 57.5 million tonnes.
The cucumber is a creeping vine that bears cylindrical fruits. There are three types of cucumber: slicing, pickling and burpless. Cucumbers enclose seeds and develop from a flower and are botanically speaking classified as pepoes (a type of botanical berry, like courgettes I posted about previously). In this way they are very much like tomatoes and squashes (same family) as they are often also treated as vegetables.
Cucumbers are usually more than 90% water. This high water content means that they are low in most essential nutrients, the only notable one really being vitamin K, 16% of our daily recommended value.
Cucumbers can be difficult to keep healthy. They are fussy about temperature changes and like to be kept in a humid environment, watered well but not too much and they really do hate being potted on, they don’t like to be disturbed. They are also quite hungry little plants so remember to feed them every fortnight if possible. Common diseases include powdery mildew and cucumber mosaic virus (see Courgettes for more information about these two diseases). The worst pest is the sap-sucking red spider mite that attacks the foilage on the cucumber plants (and other greenhouse plants) which eventually causes a mottled look followed by death of the plant. Biological control is the only remedy as the mite is immune to most pesticides.
Cucumbers have been bred to remove their natural bitterness and most supermarket varieties have a watery, diluted taste and consistency. They can be pickled, cooked and eaten raw. They are perfect for salads or as side dishes, such as combining them with yoghurt alongside curries where their cooling taste takes the heat off spicy dishes. Once pickled they can be kept in the fridge for a few days but are recommended best eaten fresh (‘Letith’s Vegetable Bible’). You cannot freeze cucumbers successfully due to the high water content. If you have a glut and cannot eat them all, pickling or including them in a chutney is your best way of using them up and preserving them that little bit longer. If you ever do produce a bitter cucumber, try peeling the skin off, the inside should be fine.
Varieties I have tried: ‘Marketmore’ – Sow: February-April. Traditional, cylinder shaped, dark green produce with bumpy skin that smooths during growing. The skin has a stronger taste than shop bought ones but I quite like it; I find it more flavoursome. The taste is not bitter unless the watering is inconsistent. Do not remove the male flowers on this plant. Suitable for outdoor and indoor growing.
‘Crystal Apple’ – Sow: April-June. Suitable for indoor and outdoor growing, this plant produces yellow coloured balls – literally apple-shaped cucumbers. They have a lighter, crisper taste than ‘Marketmore’. They are gorgeous and quite small too if you want to eat a whole cucumber in one meal.
‘Passandra’ – Sow: February-April. A new type I am trying out this year. Cylinder shaped, light green, smooth skin. They are advertised as being disease resistant. They taste delicious and are my little brother’s favourite. They look a little more like the ones we have bought from Sainsbury’s and are a safe option for starting to grow your own cucumbers, especially if you are growing for a family. The ‘Passandra’ variety have been our most productive so far this year.
Sow indoors, 0.5cm (1/4 inch) deep, on edge, in pots of compost. I like to sow mine in tall yoghurt pots (think Yeo Valley yoghurt styled containers, tall ones that give the roots lots of space to grow). Puncture a hole in the bottom to let the water drip out so that the plant is not drowning). Water the plant well and place in a temperature of 21-24C (70-75F). When mine have germinated, I like to place them on a warm, sunny windowsill during the day time and keeping them on the floor at night-time when the temperatures dip. When the plants have grown 3-4 leaves, harden them off in slightly cooler conditions (I move mine to a cooler room in the house to begin with). Some varieties can be planted outside by the brave (I have tried and failed with ‘Marketmore’ last year, never again, I will stick to indoor growing after losing 11 plants over various months…) at 60cm (2 inches) apart. Otherwise, pot them on inside a greenhouse in large containers up to their lower leaves. Water well and stake them with canes to give the tendrils something to cling onto as they grow and climb. Give them a weak, liquid comfrey feed every couple of weeks to encourage the growth of new flowers and to keep them healthy. Once they start producing, don’t be tempted to leave all of the cucumbers on the plants to become ginormous. Keep picking them at a medium size and they will be encouraged to produce more fruit so that you get a constant supply over the harvest season. With any luck, you may be picking them from July to October.
There are plenty of ways to use a cucumber: add to any dish that requires a salad in circular discs, make cucumber sandwiches, cucumber and tuna and mayonnaise sandwiches, cheese and cucumber sandwiches, shred them and serve it in Chinese pancakes along with crispy duck and plum sauce, shred them and put them in a stir fry, the classic Greek salad, or as, I said earlier, add to yoghurt and eat alongside a curry – cucumber raita.
Matte Paneer Curry with Cucumber Raita
Paneer is an Indian cheese with a sort of rubbery texture that can be bought it most supermarkets. Do not be put of by its look, it tastes amazing and is my favourite curry. ‘Matte’ translates as ‘peas’. To make ‘Saage Paneer curry’, replace the peas with spinach (‘saage’ means ‘spinach’). For meat eaters, replace the paneer with some freid chicken and for a vegan replace with some cooked chickpeas. You can also replace the coconut cream or milk with about 100-200g ground cashew nuts – it just thickens the curry a little.
For the curry: – 1 large onion, finely sliced – Olive oil or ghee, to fry in – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1 tsp fenugreek seeds – Handful of curry leaves (if available) – 2 large garlic cloves, finely diced – 1/4 tsp ground cumin – 1/4 tsp ground coriander – 1/2 tsp Garam masala – 1tsp ground turmeric – 2x 400g can of tinned tomatoes – 225g paneer cheese – 250ml can/packet coconut milk or cream – 100g peas
For the cucumber raita: -1/2 cucumber – 200g Greek or natural plain yoghurt
To serve: – 300g brown or white basmati rice – Popadoms, chapatis, naan bread, or a mixture of all three – Mango, lime or tomato chutney – Shredded lettuce and other salad like chopped up tomatoes or plain cucumber, optional
Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Stir in and leave to simmer for a few minutes to combine flavours.
Add the tinned tomatoes, stir in and turn the heat up to high. Add the coconut milk or cream and stir in again – this thickens the curry a little.
Cut the paneer cheese into small cubes. Add to the curry followed by the peas.
Once the curry has thickened slightly and the peas have cooked, turn it down to a simmer until you are ready to serve.
To make the cucumber raita: cut the cucumber into discs and then cut crosses through those discs to make 4 triangles. Put them into a large bowl and stir in the yoghurt until it is combined. Set aside until ready to serve.
So there are plenty of fruits and vegetables in the world and only so many hours to talk about how to store them. Perhaps we should start with what is around right now and work from there?
Salad leaves – Lettuce, rocket, watercress and other cresses, like land cress or crinkle cress, (watercress wilts quickest) and spinach (wilts second quickest) are best eaten straight away once they have been picked and washed. To store it, I put mine in containers in the fridge mostly because I know I will be using it over the next few days. Other people keep theirs in plastic bags or between kitchen roll. If you have left the salad out for too long and it has wilted, leave it in a bowl of cold water to rejuvenate it before refrigerating it immediately. You can freeze green leaves, like spinach or lettuce but they will be incredibly soggy and are only useful for cooking. You might as well stick to fresh leaves rather than freezing them.
Carrots – If you are using them over a couple of days then they can be again kept in the fridge in a plastic bag or a container. Otherwise, the traditional way of storing them is in a cool, dark place in a box filled with dry sand. This can also be done to swedes, celeriac, sweet chestnuts, parsnips, celery and beetroot (celery will keep in the fridge for ages. Swedes and celeriac can be left in the ground for months at a time).
Peas – Best eaten as soon as they have been podded if consumed raw. If they are slightly too old to be delicate enough to eat raw, pop them into a pan of boiling water for 2 minutes, drain and serve. To freeze them, once you have boiled them, place them in freezing ice-cold water for a few minutes until cool. Place them in plastic bags ideal for the freezer, make sure no air has been caught inside. Freeze them and use over the next few months. This is the same technique for runner beans, broad beans or sweetcorn (by the way, sweetcorn loses its taste rapidly after being picked. It needs to be cooked and eaten or frozen asap).
Onions – Once pulled out of the ground, lay them out on newspaper to dry out, turning them over so that both sides are dealt with. Then, suspend them from the ceiling in a cool room or inside hessian/netted sacks. We use our utility room as it is very cool and is not too light.
Garlic – harvest the bulbs whole from the ground and place in a cool, dark place. We keep ours on a low-down shelf in out kitchen. When using, take one segment from the entire garlic bulb at a time, peel and use. From my experience, homegrown garlic tends not to keep as long as shop bought garlic so only pull them up from the ground a little at a time, don’t be tempted to harvest them all at once.
Potatoes – I worked out last year that potatoes can be left in the ground for a long time and you do not need to rush to dig them up unless you have a wire worm or slug problem. Even if they have blight, they will keep better in the ground rather than out of it. However, to store them once they have been harvested, copy the same technique used for drying onions, laying them out on newspaper and turning them over. Then put them inside hessian sacks in a dark place, like a cupboard under the stairs to prevent them from turning green and becoming unusable.
Berries – If you can’t eat them all fresh at once because you have a glut or want to spread them out for later in the year, freeze them in plastic bags or containers once they have been washed and slightly dried. To use them, defrost well and drain the excess liquids that will taste a little to fridgey. Some berries like raspberries, blueberries or grapes should taste fine uncooked once they have been frozen. Other berries, like strawberries, have such a high water content that they will taste strange once defrosted raw. I prefer to use my frozen fruit for jam or inside cooked puddings, like muffins, cakes, stewed fruit dishes, crumbles or pies. I save the fresh fruit for eating uncooked.
Summer squashes: Courgettes – You might have been starting to pick some already. These are best sliced from the plant, washed and cooked straight away but can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, depending on the variety and the ripeness of the vegetable. Best stored in an air-tight container or a plastic bag. Boil, fry, grill or roast them. Courgettes cannot be frozen because of their high water content, much like strawberries. Winter squashes (e.g. Butternut squashes and pumpkins can be frozen once they have been roasted – Slice, into small pieces, lay out on a baking tray and drizzle generously in olive oil. Roast in a preheated oven of 180C for about 40 minutes or until they are browned. Allow to cool. Place in plastic bags and freeze straight away). Courgettes and cucumbers will only become sloppy mush when frozen so do store them only in the fridge or eat straight away.
Cabbages: Can be stored whole in the fridge for a few days. If the outer leaves start to brown, wilt too much or go mushy, peel them off and discard them and use the rest if unaffected. If cooked, cabbages can last in a container for about three days. This is the same for cauliflower and broccoli (broccoli seems to brown slightly quicker out of the two when stored in the fridge).
Spring Onions – Can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days. If the outside skin starts to dry up or the stem wilts too much, cut and peel the outside coating off and use what is underneath if it is unaffected.
Radishes – Likewise, they can be stored whole in the fridge or cut up and kept raw in a container for about two or three days before they will start to brown and become un-appetising.
Kale – Store in an air-tight container, raw, for up to a week maximum inside the fridge. Once cooked, store in a container for two or three days in the fridge.
Oriental greens – Think Pak Choi, Tatsoi, Komatsuna, Chinese Cabbage, Mibuna, Mitzuna, Mizpoona… Once cooked, they can be stored for about two days. Raw, they might be able to last a little longer in the fridge before they wilt or turn to liquid. Treat them more like spinach, liable to becoming soggy after some time being picked.
Tomatoes – It might be slightly early to write about tomatoes but it is getting close enough. I did not know until last year that tomatoes keep their looks and taste longer if stored outside the fridge. Gardner James Wong (‘Grow for Flavour’) suggests keeping them in a fruit bowl. We tried this last year and it does work well. It also allows some of the slightly under-developed ones to ripen. If freezing the tomatoes, dunk them briefly into a pan of boiling water to shed their skins before placing them into cold water, likewise for the beans and peas. Store in plastic bags in the freezer and use in dishes where you would use cooked/tinned tomatoes or make tomato chutney.