Garlic

Garlic, or allium sativum, is a species in the onion genus, Allium. Close relations include the onion, leek, shallot, chive and rakkyo. As with all members of the onion family, garlic releases sulphurous compounds, mostly allicin, when it is cut – or nibbled by a curious animal. Releasing these odours ensures that only a small munch is eaten rather than a feasting. Despite this, garlic has been consumed by humans for over 7,000 years.

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Garlic is native to central Asia. The use of garlic in China has been dated back to 2000 BC. It was consumed by ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, sailors and the rural classes. Alexander Neckham, a writer in the 12th century, wrote about garlic being a ‘palliative for the heat of the sun in field labour’. Garlic was placed by the ancient Greeks on the piles of stones at crossroads as a supper for Hecate. Garlic was invoked as deities by the Egyptians at the taking of oaths. Garlic has also been recorded to be part of a cure for smallpox and for curing some cases of edema singlehandedly.

In England, garlic was supposed to have been grown from 1548 but was quite rare in the British cuisine, being a far more common use in Mediterranean culinary. However, garlic has become a staple in most households as a form of flavour due to our experimentation with global cookery. It was not until the Renaissance period that England included garlic in their medicine chests, and it was used for treatment of toothache, constipation, dropsy and plague. By the World Wars, garlic was accepted by the English medicinally for using as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene.

This is an interesting picture I found on ‘AllicinFacts’. It is a table showing the historical uses of garlic in medicine over the centuries in different cultures.

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In Europe, many cultures have used garlic for spiritual protection, owing to its reputation as a potent preventative medicine. European folk beliefs considered it a powerful ward against demons, werewolves and vampires. To ward off vampires, garlic could be worn on the body, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes to prevent them from entering. In Iranian countries which celebrate Nowruz  (Persian calendar New Year) and Central Asian countries, garlic is one of the items in a Seven-Seen table, a traditional New Year’s display. In some Buddhist traditions, garlic,  along with the other five ‘pungent spices’, is understood to stimulate sexual and aggressive drives to the detriment of meditation practice. In Mahayana Buddhism, monks and nuns are prohibited from consuming garlic or other pungent spices such as chili, which are deemed as being earthly pleasures and are viewed as promoting aggression due to their pungency.

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It may be tempting not to grow your own garlic. A whole bed donated to it can take up room and it is cheap and easy to buy anywhere. However – garlic is a good companion crop: it can be planted amongst other crops to ward of pests with its strong smell. For example, it is supposed to repel flea beetle so try planting some around your orientals or brassicas if they are suffering. It is also meant to ward off carrot fly so pop some in near your root crops around the edges. It fits into most places. We have lots planted under our blackcurrant bushes. It will keep in the ground for a long time like root crops or potatoes but it will also keep once harvested indoors in a cool, dry, dark place. Homegrown garlic is far more stronger tasting and smelling and the white bulbs you dig up will be beautiful compared to any supermarket variety. The increased fresh taste of it means you need less bulbs for your dishes to taste incredible, meaning you are being more economical after all despite the cheapness of garlic in your local shop.

Garlic likes to be planted in a sunny, free-draining patch. You will buy either individual cloves or a whole head of garlic. If it is the latter, separate the garlic cloves and plant them directly during October or November or February or March. They will be ready for harvesting in the summer months, from May to September. You want to try to sow it in the autumn as it will be larger and slightly earlier than ones sown in February or March. To sow, put them 7cm deep with the flat base downwards, allowing 15cm between them, rows 20cm apart. When flowers appear, snap them off so that energy is directed towards the bulbs to make them grow bigger. The flowered garlic heads I feed to my pigs.

To harvest, pull the plants from June as green garlic for immediate use in the kitchen or wait for a while until the leaves brown to peel back the soil to see if there are large bulbs ready for digging up. Once pulled up, dry them in the sun for a day or two, turning them over so that both sides benefit from the light. Store them indoors somewhere cool.

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All members of the onion family are vulnerable to rust. Crop rotation is the best answer to this problem.

Garlic is famous for being antibacterial, blood-twining, sprit lifting, cholesterol lowering and detoxifying. Legend says that garlic bestows a lucky charm upon those that eat it as well as protection and good fortune. It discourages the devil and restores lost souls. Sounds like a magic plant!

A 2013, a study concluded that garlic preparations may effectively lower total cholesterol by 11–23 mg/dL and LDL cholesterol by 3–15 mg/dL, if taken for longer than two months. The same analysis found that garlic had a positive effect on HDL cholestreol and no significant effect on blood levels suggesting that garlic preparations were generally well tolerated with very few side effects by all. A 2014 meta-analysis of observational epidemiological studies found that garlic consumption is associated with a lower risk of stomach cancer in the Korean population.

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When cooking with garlic, the simple trick to remember is that the finer you chop, the stronger the flavour. Raw garlic has the most beneficial qualities; cooking diminishes them slightly but there is no need to panic, it is just as good for you if slightly less. I use cooked garlic in quite a lot of recipes. Along with onions, it is the base for a flavoured sauce. A classic is to fry some sliced onion in oil until it is golden brown, to add one or two diced cloves of garlic along with some tinned tomatoes and then to add some pre-cooked beans (kidney, butter bean, chickpea etc.) to make a vegetarian meal to have alongside some rice, potatoes or pasta. I use cooked garlic in pizza toppings, bolognese and lasagne, curries, stews, pie fillings… It is a cooking ingredient I rarely go without. I am also a big fan of raw garlic, seeing as I am a humous-monster. Another recipe I was taught by my mum that uses raw garlic is eggy spaghetti – a sort of carbonara styled dish using egg yolks instead of cheese sauce, raw garlic and salt and pepper for seasoning. In Italy, it is common to have this dish with chilli and garlic instead of egg yolks but we have used this delightful meal when we have had a few too many chicken eggs and it works a treat and will pack a protein punch for a vegetarian. Cut some ham or left over bacon up and sprinkle it on top for a meat eater.

If you keep chickens along with your kitchen garden, then this is a great recipe for using up egg yolks. Don’t discard the egg whites – put them in an old yoghurt pot and label with the date. Use them up in a week in a meringue of pavlova, if you have time.

You want the spaghetti to still be quite hot when you stir in the egg yolks and garlic as it is better if the yolks slightly cook but you don’t want them to turn into scrambled eggs so be wary. Remember: the finer you dice the garlic, the stronger it will taste.

Eggy Garlic Spaghetti 

(Serves 6)

-About 500g spaghetti – 6-8 egg yolks – 2 large cloves of garlic, diced very finely – Salt and pepper, for flavour – Peas, runner beans, broccoli or a mixture of salad leaves to serve – Ham, bacon or Ketchup to serve, optional

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Put the spaghetti in it and allow it to simmer for about ten minutes, until the pasta is well cooked. Drain and set aside, keeping it warm.
  2. Whisk the egg yolks and garlic together in a separate bowl. Add the mixture to the hot spaghetti and stir until thoroughly combined (add more egg yolks if needed. You want the paste to look yellow and for it to cover the spaghetti). Sprinkle a tiny bit of salt and pepper over the top and stir in.
  3. Serve with cooked vegetables or salad. If you care for it, cut some ham or bacon up into little pieces and sprinkle over the top. Offer Ketchup for the kids… and me.

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Broad Beans

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Broad beans this year, 2016

Broad beans or Vicia faba, is a species of flowering plant in the vetch and pea family, Fabacea.

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It is considered that broad beans were cultivated in the Middle East for 8,000 years before spreading to Western Europe, along with the garden pea, lentil and chickpea. The earliest archeological findings of broad bean remains are from the Neolithic period (6800BC-6500BC) from Israel. After 3000BC, numerous archeological remains can be found in the Mediterranean and central Europe.

Broad beans were cultivated by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. In Egypt, broad beans were considered as the food for poor man and shunned unfashionable by the upper classes. In ancient Rome, broad beans were used in funeral rites and Pythagoras forbade people to eat them, believing them to contain the souls of the dead. In ancient Greece, initiates of the Elusinian mysteries (cult initiations) would drink kykeon and visit the home of Kyamites, the Greek demigod of broad beans. In Italy, broad beans are traditionally sown on 2nd November, All Souls Day. Small cakes made in the shape of broad beans and are known as ‘fave dei morti’ or ‘beans of the dead’. The story is that Sicily once experienced a failure of all crops other than the beans. These beans kept the population from starvation and the people’s gratitude was given to Saint Joseph. Broad beans subsequently became a traditional feature on Saint Joseph’s Day altars in many Italian communities. Some people carry a broad bean for good luck as they believe that if one carries a broad bean, one will never be without the essentials of life.

Today, broad beans are cultivates in more than fifty different countries, China accounting for the largest fraction of world production. Broad beans are used as a cover crop to prevent erosion in parts of the world because they can overwinter and as a legume they fix nitrogen in the soil.

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Broad beans last year, 2015

Broad beans can be sown straight into the ground in October or November. This is supposed to give one a slightly earlier harvest however, after personal experience I would recommend waiting until the next sowing season, February. Sowing the seeds in autumn produces all sorts of pest and weather related problems – you have to keep them alive over the winter months under fleece or another cover without a pest eating them or the beans rotting off and they produce perhaps a week earlier than the plants sown the following year. I have grown ‘Masterpiece Green Longpod’ and ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ reliably.

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Baby broad beans, 2015

I grew mine this year by planting them in tall yoghurt pots (the type you buy Yeo Valley yoghurt or something similar), with a hole punched in at the bottom to allow water out, in February. After filling the pots with compost, I sowed one bean per pot, 5cm (2inches) deep and kept them in a warm room until they had germinated. I then put them on a sunny windowsill during the day time and took them down and kept them on the floor and night time when the temperatures dropped. Once they were big enough, I moved them to a cooler room to try and harden them off, making sure they had ample light. Once they were getting too big for their pots, I planted them outside, 23cm (9inches) apart and gave them small sticks for support. These eventually turned into canes and then string to hold them upright. I planted them on in soil that had been prepared with well-rotted manure, Blood, Fish and Bone and mulch. You want to grow the beans in a sunny spot with a rich, fertile soil, manured, and hopefully with protection from the wind. Keep well watered. Pinch out the growing tips after the first flowers have set pods to deter blackfly (aphids) and encourage further pods to set by directing the plant’s energy into the developing pods.

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Broad bean flowers

You should be able to harvest your broad beans from perhaps April, May or June, all the way to September if you stagger the sowings. The pods are ready for harvesting when they are well filled and the seed is still soft. It is recommended that you allow the beans to be around a third of the weight of the unopened pods before picking. You will then need to remove the beans from the pods before cooking. They can be frozen once podded and cooked in containers of plastic bags.

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Harvested broad beans before podding

Unfortunately, like potato blight, powdery mildew and cabbage whites roaming the brassica beds, it is pretty much impossible to prevent aphids from appearing on your broad bean plants. Aphids appear as small, soft-bodied insects on the underside of leaves and the stems of the plant. They are usually green or yellow in colour but may be pink, brown, red, or black depending on species and host plant. If aphid infestation is heavy, it may cause yellow, distorted leaves with spots and stunted shoots. Severe infestations can significantly reduce yields. Look out for ants climbing over them – they are looking for the aphids that secrete honeydew that the ants are detecting that creates mould on the plant. You can spray them chemically if you are into that sort of thing. Picking and squashing small infestations is possible or spraying them off with water. Nettles are supposed to be a sacrificial plant that draws aphids to them and away from the broad beans so leave any that grow nearby. The other brilliant plant to distract those aphids is summer savoury – if you can grow it. I managed to get some to germinate this year but the slugs ate them as soon as they were planted out among the beans. Aphids do have a few predators that can be introduced, such as ladybirds.

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Aphid (blackfly) infestation, 2015

Other than the aphids and usual slugs and snails who will always love a member of the pea family, broad beans can suffer from fungal diseases, such as powdery or downey mildew or root rots. Make sure your plants have good air circulation, so no weeds and lots of space between them, and keep them well watered through dry patches but do your best to not waterlog them, especially during the winter months.

Broad beans are high in protein (26.12g per 100g). They are a rich source of dietary fibre, phosphorous, copper, manganese and folate. They are high in phyto-nutrients such as isoflavone and plant-sterols and contain Levo-dopa, a precursor of neuro-chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, epinephrine and nor-epinephrine. They contain good amounts of vitamin B6 and B1, riboflavin and niacin. Accounting for 23% of our daily recommended intake of potassium, broad beans are one of the highest plant sources of this mineral.

To cook broad beans, pod them and place them in a pan of boiling water for a few minutes until just tender. Drain and serve as a side-dish as you would for any pea or bean or use them as the main protein for a meal. I like them with potato or rice. Chefs applaud their companionship with fresh herbs, lemon juice and salty cheeses, like feta or goat’s. River Cottage advertises an interesting houmous recipe as an alternative to chickpeas.

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Podded broad beans and young ones ready for cooking (on board, bowl contains harvested peas)

You can pick the pods when they are very small to begin with – no more than a few centimetres long and boil them in water like you would cook runner beans later on in the year. These go marvellously with some fried onion and tomatoes poured over some spaghetti. Being dull, I do like to eat my podded broad beans boiled and plain but they do go very well with this tomato risotto recipe…

Tomato Risotto with Broad Beans

When making this, I used left over pre-cooked rice we had from the previous night. It meant that the rice was quite soft and gooey and not particularly crisp and fried. Of course, you can cook the rice in the actual dish, just give it at least half an hour.

(Serves 6)

– 1 large onion, finely sliced – Butter, for frying – x 2 400g tinned tomatoes – 2 large garlic cloves, finely diced – 400g brown basmati rice – Dash of soy sauce – Dash of Lee and Perrins – Salt and Pepper – Grated parmesan or cheddar cheese, to serve (optional) – 100g broad beans, podded – Other greens to serve (peas, courgettes, kale etc.), optional

  1. In a large frying pan, melt the butter and add the sliced onion, frying until golden brown. Tip in the tomatoes and add the finely diced garlic, stirring to combine. Turn the heat down to simmer.
  2. Add the rice and stir in, allowing it to soak up the tomato mixture.
  3. Add a dash of soy sauce and Lee and Perrins for extra flavour, followed by a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Stir in.
  4. Leave to simmer for about ten minutes or until you are ready to serve. Give it a final stir – you want the rice to have absorbed most of the liquid and to be well combined with the gloop.
  5. In a small saucepan, bring some water to the boil and add the podded broad beans, turning it down to simmer for a few minutes until the beans are cooked and tender. Tip the cooked broad beans on top of the risotto.
  6. Serve alongside other greens and with a sprinkle of cheese on top, if desired.

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Raspberries

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Raspberries, Rubus, are of the rose family. They are a widely commercial fruit crop, grown in all temperate regions across the world. Many of the modern commercial raspberries are hybrids of Rubus ideaus and Rubus strigosus. Recent breeding has resulted in thornless cultivators that stand upright strongly without the need of staking.

They are believed to have originated from Eastern Asia. Archeological evidence has shown us that Palaeolithic cave dwellers consumed raspberries and that the berries have been part of the human diet for centuries although the canes were not cultivated until about the 4th century. Raspberries were associated with fertility and in Greek mythology, raspberries were white until Zeus’ nursemaid, Ida, pricked her finger on a thorn and stained the berries red. Rubus ideaus translates as ‘bramble bush of Ida’. During the 13th century, the juice of the berries was used to stain artwork red.

The black raspberry is Rubus occidentalis with a distinctive flavour. Purple raspberries are hybrids of red and black types. They can be found wild in a few places, such as Vermont. A blue raspberry is a cultivator called ‘Columbian’, a hybrid of a purple raspberry, black and red. There are about 200 different species of raspberries in total. Raspberries have also been crossed to create the wonderful boysenberry and before that, the loganberry. My gran gave us a loganberry last year and we purchased a boysenberry plant this year after discovering ‘Bunny Loves: Boysenberry Jam’ when on holiday in Dorset a couple of years ago.

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Raspberries are grown for their fresh fruit market and their ease at being frozen, pureed, dried and made into wonderful conserves. Traditionally they were a midsummer crop but due to cultivation and travel, they can be obtained all year round. We often start picking our own around June until late autumn, often coinciding with the frosts.

Raspberries need ample sun and water and thrive best in a soil pH 6-7.

Raspberries are a rich source of vitamin C, 26g per 100g serving, and dietary fibre, 6% total weight and one of the highest recorded in whole foods.

Raspberry leaves can be dried and used for a flavoured tea that can soothe the digestive system and ease cramps. There was a time when the leaves of the raspberries were values higher than the berries due to their medicinal uses.

Raspberries have long been associated with herbal remedies. Today, we recognise cancer and heart disease fighting properties within these berries, notably ellagic acid. Raspberry tea is recommended to women after childbirth to ease pain, a mouthwash can be made including raspberries that prevent gum bleeding and the tannins in dried raspberry leaves can soothe sunburns and other minor burns. Raspberries also contain antimicrobial properties that can inhibit Candida albicans, a trigger for IBS. Like strawberries and other dark berries, raspberries fight macular degeneration and promote healthy eyesight.

The biggest threat to your raspberry fruits will be birds. If you have a severe issue, netting or bird scarers are the only defence. We fortunately have so many, our birds seem to run out of steam and target the strawberries, blackcurrants and redcurrant bushes more often. As far as diseases are concerned, raspberries can develop severe root rot from an overly-wet ground that can destroy the plant itself. You want to make sure the raspberry is well-watered when it is fruiting but is planted in well-drained soil to prevent this tragedy from happening – otherwise you will be forced to get rid of your plants and start again and Verticillium wilt can stay in the ground for years at a time.

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Raspberries are usually sold as dormant bare-rooted canes. Plant them 45 cm or so apart in well-fed soil in rich, rotted, organic matter. Leave 2 metres between rows of summer-fruiting varieties and 1 metre for winter-fruiting varieties. Raspberries are shallow rooting so resist planting them too deeply. Summer raspberries produce fruit on canes that grew the year before so do not expect any produce the first summer. Each cane fruits only once so remove the old canes after harvest is over to leave room for new ones to grow. If the canes flop over, tie them to bamboo sticks or some other prop to hold them up and make them easier to pick (we finally did that this year and it is making it a lot easier for us, and regrettably most likely the birds too, when harvesting them). Autumn raspberries ripen their fruit on the current year’s canes so they will not produce anymore the next year. Raspberries are very good at spreading suckers and creating new plants, hence why we have so many which we are very pleased about! If you do not want to extend your crop, pull up the baby plants as the sprout. It is recommended to replace your raspberry plants at around ten years. If you are considering growing one in a container, autumn varieties are smaller and are more suitable for you.

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Summer raspberries should be ready for picking from mid-June to August and autumn varieties will ripen from August to October. Keep an eye on them as they ripen and mould quickly. Keep picking as it encourages more growth from the plant. They are delicious eaten fresh but we almost always have a glut which I am happy about as I freeze them and make them into our ever-popular raspberry jam. Otherwise, I am happy to use frozen raspberries in baking, such as cakes.

Fresh raspberries can be eaten on their own, with yoghurt or ice cream, whipped in cream to make a fool, baked in a crumble, tart or pie, made into a fruit leather, bottled for preserving or juiced with apples or blackberries for a drink.

I start the raspberry recipe collection with my latest discovery, Nigella Lawson’s lemon and raspberry muffins (‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’). 

Lemon and raspberries pair quite nicely together. I would try replacing the raspberries with blueberries when they are in season, or bilberries if there are any ready for picking now. Happy baking!

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Nigella’s Lemon-Raspberry Muffins

(Serves 12)

– 60g butter – 200g plain flour – 2 teaspoons baking powder – ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda – 150g caster sugar – ¼ teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter) – Juice & finely grated zest of 1 lemon – Approximately 120ml milk – 1 large egg – 150g raspberries

1. Preheat the oven to 200C and line a muffin-tray with 12 large paper cases.

2. Melt the butter in the microwave or in a pan over a medium flame. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, bicarb, sugar, salt (if using it) and the lemon zest, finely grated.

4. In a measuring jug, pour in the lemon juice, then enough milk to reach  the 200ml mark. Beat in the egg and melted butter.

5. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients and stir briefly , until just combined. Fold in the raspberries gently.

6.Spoon the mixture into the muffin cases and bake in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes. When cooked, the tops should spring back to your touch and be golden coloured. Leave in the tray for about ten minutes before turning them out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

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The MIGHTY Potato

I do love potatoes. I love cooking with them. Eating them. But I particularly love to grow them. They can be easy to grow and take care of themselves quite well as long as they get space, food and water – and you keep your fingers crossed that the blight will miss you or will hit your crops in August rather than May or June.

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The potato, the perennial Solanum tuberosum, is the world’s fourth largest food crop, following rice, wheat, and maize. The potato’s cultivation in South America my span back 10,000 years but tubers do not keep well in archeological recordings and therefore precise identification of those that have been discovered is difficult. However, the earliest finding was found on the coastal sight of Ancon, central Peru, dating 2500 BC. Potatoes provided the Inca Empire as a principle energy source, perhaps their predecessors and the Spanish successors too. At 10,000 feet altitude, occupants of Peru could freeze the potatoes and preserve them as a food source, turning them into ‘chuno’. The Spanish fed chuno to silver miners during the 16th century that funded their country.

The Spanish Conquistadors carried the potato to Europe. Sailors of Basque’s families began to cultivate the crop along the Biscay coast of northern Spain. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with bringing potatoes to Ireland in 1589 where they were established near Cork. It took nearly four decades for the vegetable to spread across the rest of Europe.

The Spanish army spread potatoes amongst the peasants where they went. To begin with, the vegetable took up so much space on land that was reserved for livestock that potatoes were restricted to garden growers rather than fields. It was in the 1700s that the French and German governments and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow lands into potato fields. They had discovered that potatoes were easier to grow in a European climate rather than wheat or oats during the ‘Little Ice Age’ where temperatures rapidly dropped – potatoes continued to grow when other staple crops failed. Famines during the 1770s also contributed to their rise in popularity. Thus, the potato became an important staple crop in northern Europe. By the 19th century, the potato had replaced the turnip as the most popular crop to harvest.

The potato had three main advantages during the 19th century: it had a lower rate of spoilage, its bulk satisfied hunger and it was cheap. In England, potatoes were popular for the urban workers to grown in their backyards for an inexpensive source of food. The potato became equal to iron in its ‘historically revolutionary role’ (Friedrich Engels).

In Ireland, the expansive potato production was due to landless labourers renting tiny plots of ground from land owners who were interested in raising cattle and grain for market. A single acre of potatoes and the milk of one cow was considered enough to feed a whole family in a rural population. However, in the 1840s a major outbreak or potato blight swept through Europe after originating from the Americas. A lack of genetic diversity, especially in Europe, from the low number of varieties left the crop vulnerable to disease. The blight destroyed potato crops all over Europe but the damage done to Ireland where the working class relied on potatoes was significantly awful as their main food staple disappeared in 1845. The Lumper potato that was widely cultivated in Ireland before the strike of disease yielded large crops but was poorly resistant to blight. Dependence on the Lumper turned to disaster. The Irish Famine led to approximately a million deaths due to starvation and disease that attacked the weekend bodies that were lacking in nutrition due to the sudden reduction of food. There was a massive emigration to Britain, the US and Canada during this time and did not start to settle until the beginning of the 20th century after around a million had left.

Blight remains an ongoing problem in Europe and the US. During the crop year of 2008, many potatoes certified as organic were sprayed with copper pesticide to control potato blight. On analysis, these potatoes contained a low value of pesticide residue but the highest amongst the fifty vegetables analysed.

There is not much one can do with blight, only grow early varieties to try to beat the inevitable disease. Blight strikes when it is hot and moist, usually in late summer like August when we seem to get a period of high rainfall (hence my fears for this years wet summer weather after such a dismal June). The disease causes the potatoes to rot. The tell-tale signs are dark blotches on the leaves. At the first sign, cut away the foliage and burn, do not compost as the disease is airborne. Try and leave the infected plant in the ground for a couple of weeks to allow the skins to mature and hope that when you lift the potatoes, they have developed enough to be eatable and have not rotted down to mush.

Other problems one might encounter when grown potatoes are potato beetles and moths that spread infections to the plant. Another is the potato cyst nematode, a microscopic worm that thrives on the root and causes the plants to wilt. Its eggs can survive in the soil for year, hence the importance of crop rotation. The other is potato scab – just peel your potatoes well. The same attitude should be taken for slightly green potatoes that have been exposed to light: peel and cut the green areas out before eating unless all of the potato is green. Then I am afraid you will have to discard it.

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When growing potatoes, I like to class them as First Earlies, Second Earlies and Maincrop varieties and generally plant them in that order.

I dig a trench – it doesn’t need to be too deep, about one or two stabs with a spade will do – and fill it with well-rotted manure and soil before applying a good layer of mulch over the top to hold in the nutrients and moisture. Potatoes love a well-fed and watered bed with acidic soil. Potato scab is more of an issue in alkaline soil.

‘Chitting’ is nice and easy. Place the potato tubers you are going to plant in a dry, cardboard holder. We use our multiple of egg boxes or those cardboard containers they stock yoghurt containers in at supermarkets (I shamefully buy trays worths when I go for my breakfast). Leave the container on a windowsill in the light during early spring. The seed potatoes develop nodules, or chits. These are the beginning of new growth. When you have two or three chits, you can start planting.

To plant once chitted (as early as February or March they can start going in), dig a hole in your prepared trench or bed, 10 cm down for Earlies, 20cm for others. Place your potato in, chits up, and infill, forming a small mound so you can recognise the spot where your new shoots will start coming through. Leave 30cm gaps between each plant. It is a good idea to place some fleece or another cover over the top if you are planting them out early on in the year and the frosts are still around when the leaves start to grow – frost will damage the leaves and slow down the growth of the crop. As the green leaves start to grow, it is traditional to ‘earth up’. You rake up the surrounding soil to create a ridge along the line of the potatoes. It is to stop the light from reaching the top few potatoes that might show above the soil. Otherwise, they turn green and become inedible. Our ‘earthing up’ involves us putting a circle of well-rotted manure around the plant on top of more soil and then applying another layer of mulch. This feeds the plant at the same time in our sandy soil. Potatoes will benefit from a liquid feed very couple of weeks if you can get round them all. Pinch out the flowers as they appear to increase your yield.

To harvest, lift First and Second Earlies as you need them, starting from perhaps May or June. These are the traditional boiling potatoes, think of those tiny Jersey New potatoes we eat with a crisp salad on a summer’s evening.

Maincrop potatoes, our nice, big, baking ones, should be ready for lifting sometime in July or most likely August. Place the potatoes on newspaper to dry, turning them over to make sure both sides are dealt with. Store them in hessian sacks in a dark space. We use our cupboard under the stairs where it is quite cold as well as dark.

We discovered last year that even after all the plants contracted blight (quite late) the potatoes still kept better when left in the ground than stored in our house. We planted so many potatoes that we continued to dig them up in perfect condition into the new year, even after frosts. The leaves had died and gone but the fully grown potatoes still remained. We dug up the last in January meaning we were eating freshly dug up potatoes I had harvested on Christmas Day and Boxing Day morning as well and New Years Eve’s roast dinners we annually hold for relatives. This year, we will not be digging up the potatoes in a rush, we will be taking them when we require them as the year goes on as I really believe they store better in the ground. As long as you follow crop rotation and ensure that you did up all of the potatoes you plant each year before the new growing season to avoid ‘volunteer potatoes’ that can harbour blight, then you should be fine.

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Now there are around 4000 varieties of potatoes but we have bred standard, well-known ones, resulting in around 80 types being available in the UK.

Earlies I have tried and loved: Swift, Red Duke of York, Charlotte, Foremost, Epicure

Main crops: Picasso (my favourite for baking with), Sarpo Mira, Sarpo Nero, Desiree, Sarpo Blue Danube

There are of course plenty of others, especially popular varieties like Kind Edwards. Try and test as any as you like Sarpos are popular types as they are supposedly more blight resistant.

In 2013, it was reported that about 368 million tonnes of potatoes were produced worldwide. Two-thirds were for human consumption, the rest divided for animal fodder and use as starch. In October 1995, the potato was the first vegetable to be grown in space.

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Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, assisting our immune systems as well as many bodily functions. They are considered on of the best sources of potassium (they have more than a banana), vital for normalizing blood pressure and transmitting nerve impulses and helping muscles contract. One medium potato with the skin contributes 8% of our daily fibre intake that may help reduce cholesterol. They are a good source of B6, helping our bodies make nonessential amino acids needed to make various proteins, required for the synthesis of haemoglobin, an essential component of red blood cells. One medium-sized potato provides 6% of our daily recommended intake of iron. Another major component of haemoglobin that carries oxygen to all parts of the body, iron also has a critical role within cells assisting in oxygen utilisation, enzymatic systems, especially for neural development, and overall cell function everywhere in the body. The protein in potatoes is approximately 3g per serving. When combined with another protein source, like cheese or beans, potatoes are an excellent meal for someone who does not eat meat and relies on plant-based proteins.

For culinary purposes, varieties are often differentiated by their waxiness. Floury, or mealy (baking) potatoes have more starch (20–22%) than waxy (boiling) potatoes (16–18%). Potatoes can be cooked in many ways: boiled, baked, microwaved, mashed, roasted, fried, made into chips, dried into crisps… Personally, I love a good baked potato with a crispy skin, mashed with butter with perhaps some cheddar cheese sprinkled on top alongside a salad, or baked beans, peas or runner beans. Cut in half, microwaves and then at the last-minute placing strips of cheese on top, microwave them again until the cheese has melted and then serving the halfs with baked beans was another childhood supper. Otherwise, I like mine boiled, my brother likes his mashed with butter and a little milk, my sister adores them roasted.

I will be sharing plenty of potato recipes but to begin with, here is one I discovered earlier this year. It was after I had made Red Bean and Potato Moussaka ( Books – Cookery). One of my favourite parts of the dish were the par-boiled potatoes on top with the melted, browned cheese. I thought that it would be delicious as a meal on its own, like a different version of Potato Dauphinoise. We tried it and it was simple and delicious with either cooked vegetables (warming winter meal) or a salad (light and crunchy summer meal). This can be done with early potatoes or main crop ones cut into chunks.

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Potato Cheese Bake

(Serves 6)

– 75g butter – 900g (1kg) potatoes, peeled and sliced  -300g cheddar cheese, grated                 – Salad to serve with (lettuce, cucumber, spinach, watercress, rocket, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, beetroot…) or cooked vegetables (peas, runner beans, broad beans, boiled carrots, kale, cabbage…)

  1. Preheat oven 200C or put the grill on high.
  2. Bring a large pan to the boil. Add the potatoes and allow to simmer until cooked. To check that they are done, stick a fork into a potato and hold it above the pan. If it slides off easily, then it is cooked. If it remains stuck on, leave it to cook a little longer.
  3. Drain the potatoes and spread a layer over a long, oblong ovenproof dish. Cut the butter into chunks and mix into the potatoes in the dish. Scatter a thick layer of cheddar cheese over the top.
  4. Put the dish in the oven or under the grill to cook until the cheese had melted and turned brown on top. Under the grill this will take approximately 10-15 minutes, but keep an eye on it just in case as the time will vary. In the oven, this will take longer, perhaps even up to half an hour. Again, keep an eye on it.
  5. Serve with salad or cooked vegetables.

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Carrots

Homegrown carrots taste delightfully sweeter, fresher, crisper and have a far more pungent smell than ones we buy in supermarkets. If one can grow a carrot successfully and scrape back the soil to reveal a little glint of orange attached to the feathery green leaves (that resemble parsley and dill as distant relations), then they can feel very satisfied and like a proper vegetable grower.

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First carrots harvested June 2016

Carrot, a root vegetable, is usually recognisable to us as that bright orange crop but it can be found in black, purple, white, red and yellow. In fact, the orange colouring was the last to be developed from the list. The cultivated carrot originated from the wild carrot, initially coloured white. There are white rooted carrots still around today, mostly used for animal feed or as a novelty crop.

Carrots have an ancient history. Fossil pollen from the Eocene period, 55 to 34 million years ago, has been identified to belong to the Apiaceae, the original carrot family. It is said that the carrot dates back to about 5,000 years ago, first cultivated in Persia (areas that are now Afghanistan and where the wild carrot is still popularly grown today). From there, carrot seeds were sold by caravans to neighbouring African, Asian and Arabian lands where the cross-breeding began. Historians have been able to show that this particular vegetable was important to our ancestors in Egypt from the evidence of numerous carrots being placed in tombs alongside the dead pharos and drawings of carrot harvests in hieroglyphic paintings. During this time, the carrot was grown purple. This was before a mutant occurred, removing the purple pigmentation and creating a new species of yellow carrots (where our known orange ones eventually derived from and hung around). The orange carrot is thought to have developed in the early Middle Ages, after hybridisation with a central Asian species. The first European author who mentions red and yellow carrots is the Byzantine dietician Simeon Seth during the 11th century.

After its popularity in Egypt, carrots were medicinally used in Ancient Greece and during the Roman period although they do not appear in many scribes where parsnips had a more preferred role for harvesting. For a time, the word parsnip was interchangeable with carrot due to the confusing similarities between the two. Bitter and hard to eat, carrots were used to heal many illnesses and as use of a sexual aphrodisiac. In normal cooking, Romans boiled them and covered them in dressings and various herbs.

By the 13th century, carrots had moved to Japan and were being cultivated in the gardens of France and Germany. In  the 1600s, they were brought to the New World, Jamestown and Virginia in particular. During the Middle Ages, carrots continued to be confused with parsnips and some believed they originated from the same plant, mostly because carrots during this time were still white or purple rooted. It is thought that the orange colouring of carrots was not ‘stabilised’ until around the 17th century in the Netherlands after that mutation rid them of their darker outer-colourings. Yellow carrots had been gifted to the ruling House of Orange. After years of selective breeding, Dutch carrots were designed to no longer be bitter in taste, becoming Daucus Carota.

America were amongst the last to accept carrots in its cuisine. They only became customary after the Great War when soldiers returned home with knowledge of European dishes, French ones in particular, that had helped them survive their ordeals during military combat. The modern popularity of the carrot in cooking can be traced to English meals during World War II where the government actively encouraged the population to grow and cook the hearty vegetable as a way of increasing people’s consumptions of important nutrients during rationing and lack of imports.

Today, the carrot is a traditional vegetable, shared between horses and humans alike and is a customary delight of children’s diets. The average person will consume 10,866 carrots in a lifetime. Currently, China produces the most carrots in the world. In 2010, they produced 15.8 million tons. Purple carrots (still orange on the inside) were first sold commercially in British stores in 2002.

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Carrots have a rich supply of antioxidant nutrient beta- carotene and vitamin C. Different varieties of carrots contain different amounts of antioxidant phytonutrients. For example, red and purple carrots have a rich anthocyanin content and orange carrots have outstanding levels of beta-carotene (which makes them orange in the first place), 65% of their total carotenoid content. Due to the richness of antioxidants, carrots are advertised as being beneficial for our cardiovascular systems that need protection from antioxidant damage, particularly for our arteries that carry highly oxygenated blood. A study in the Netherlands suggested that carrots are the best food for reducing these cardiovascular diseases. Participants in the investigation who ate 25 more grams of carrots than other studies had a significantly lower risk. Those who ate less carrots, had a higher risk or having a cardiovascular disease. Carrots also contain anti-inflammatory and anti-aggregatory properties that prevent excessive clumping together of red blood cells, protecting our bodies from the inside pretty well. Other studies suggest that carrots are beneficial in reducing cancer, especially colon cancer but more research is required in these ares as to how much they help.

The tale that carrots help you see in the dark was in fact a World War II propaganda stunt circulated by the British to mislead their oppositions, suggesting that their RAF pilots ate a diet rich in carrots that helped them to see their enemies at night in order to hide the technology they were using. From this story, the belief that carrots improve our eyesight became ‘an old wife’s tale’ but there is some truth in the myth. Vitamin A, that carrots contain a fair amount of, helps the eye convert light into a signal that can be transmitted to the brain, allowing people to see in low-light conditions. Also, the cornea in the eye can disappear when one is lacking in vitamin A. Therefore, carrots might not give us super-night vision, but they will help to protect our eyesight a fair amount.

The other carrot nutrition story is that eating too many can turn one’s skin orange. This is, oddly enough, true, mostly noticeable in the palms and soles of the feet. This is called carotenemia and is fixed by reducing one’s intake of carrots.

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Carrot seedlings, 2015

Varieties I have grown:

Baby Carrots – Sow: January May

Autumn King 2 – Sow: March-July

Amsterdam – Sow: March – July

Flyaway – Sow: March – July

Eskimo – Sow: March – July

Sugarsnax – Sow: March – July

They can all be harvested from the summer until winter, depending on when they are sown and how kind the weather is for us.

These are all orange varieties. It would be fun to try growing different coloured ones but they do have a reputation for tasting woody. I believe Mark Diacono once wrote that their taste resembled eating a trowel…

Carrots are best sown direct into a finely prepared patch of soil. Most people advise not to plant carrots in manure to prevent forking carrots. However, as we work in such barren, sandy soil, this year I took the risk and dug a small amount of very well-rotted manure, compost and mulch into the soil a while before planting the carrots. It helped enormously for us – last year my carrots were tiny and took forever to germinate and grow to reasonable harvesting size. This year we have already picked a fair few in good shape and they have been delicious. I have only come across one forked carrot so far but to be honest, I am not too fussy. They taste the exact same even if they look comically odd.

Sow carrot seeds in drills, 1cm (1/2 inch) deep, trying to leave about 30 cm (12 inch) apart. Sowing the tiny seeds can be very hard and they do like to ‘bunch’ or ‘clump’ together, giving you patches of carrots rather than an even spread. Water the area well – inconsistent watering can lead to irregular growth and splitting in the carrot root so be wary of droughts.

Carrots should be sown successionally every few weeks for a steady supply throughout the year. Try not to sow them too close together as they are a nightmare to thin and release volatile chemicals that will attract carrot flies.

Carrot flies are the worst pest for carrots. They need to be guarded with a cover all the way around to keep the bugs out. This year we have stuck bamboo canes into the soil and draped fleece over like a tent so as not to crush the carrot heads this year. We then pinned the fleece to the ground to make sure no flies find a way in. Mark Diacono, River Cottage ‘Veg Patch’ book suggests comfrey or seaweed solution discourages carrot flies and improves plant growth. Companion planting of chives (we have done that this year around the edges) or spring onions work well, the strong smells deterring the carrot flies. French Marigolds are also great too and look beautiful. I always pop a few in close by for beauty if not purpose.

Other pests I have had slight problems with previously have been slugs and snails that munch underground. This is likely to happen if you leave your carrots in the earth over the winter months.

Harvest your carrots from May onwards when the tops are orange and the carrots look big enough to gently pull up from the ground. Leave the smaller ones to have the chance of getting bigger.

If you are planning to store them rather than eat them straight away, wash them, dry them and place them in a crate full of slightly damp sand or in paper sacks that exclude the light. Otherwise, you might be able to leave the carrots in the ground for a few months, especially over winter. They will keep better this way than in the fridge.

I like to eat my homegrown carrots raw, freshly pulled up from the earth. They taste best this way, finely sliced into matchsticks and eaten alongside more salad, perhaps with pasta or a baked potato and cheese or put in a dip. Otherwise, of course one can boil them and eat them with other vegetables with perhaps a roast dinner, sausages or fish and potatoes, see my recipe for Chicken Casserole:https://wordpress.com/posts/thekitchengardenblog.wordpress.com , or they can be finely sliced or grated for a stir fry or a Bolognese or Chilli Con Carne, see below. Or roasted in the oven after being sliced and drizzled with olive oil. Another classic is carrot and coriander soup or, for the juicers out there, carrot juice, blitzed in a processor. There is, of course, the popular carrot cakes as well if you ever have enough. The tops of the carrots are edible too for those with an acquired taste. My ducks love them so I share them out instead.

Chilli Con Carne 

Chilli Con Carne is best cooked with lots of grated carrot in it.

The chilli makes this a very warming dish. You can use any beans grown from your patch, podded, like borolotti beans, haricot beans, soy beans, broad beans, or stick to the traditional kidney beans you can buy canned or dried for soaking. Exclude the minced meat if catering for vegetarians. If you leave out the chili, this immediately becomes Bolognese to serve over spaghetti with cheese or a lasagna filling. It freezes well. Serve with lots of other vegetables from your kitchen garden, like peas, runner beans, broad beans, broccoli, kale, cabbage… I also like to add some greens into the actual dish itself, often kale or swiss chard, perhaps pak choi, komatsuna, perpetual leaf spinach or normal spinach. 

(Serves 6)

– 450g prepared and cooked kidney beans/ borlotti beans/ soy beans/ broad beans etc. – Olive oil  – 450g minced meat (omit if vegetarian) – 2 large onions, finely sliced – 2 large cloves of garlic, finely diced – 6 large carrots, finely grated – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g of greens (kale, lettuce, swiss chard, pak choi, spinach etc.), de-stalked and shredded – Dash of soy sauce – Dash of Lea and Perrin’s – Salt and pepper – 1 chili (or more, depending on how hot you like your meal to be), de-seeded and finely diced – 400g basmati rice, to serve – Peas, runner beans, broccoli, kale, to serve

  1. Fry the minced meat in an oiled pan until well cooked and browned.
  2. In a separate frying pan, fry the cut up onion in olive oil over a high heat. When it starts to brown, turn it down to a low heat and leave it to simmer. Add the grated carrot and allow to fry until the carrot is cooked (turn up the heat and stir if you can hang around the stove to speed it up).
  3. Add the tinned tomatoes and diced garlic and stir. Add the greens and stir in to wilt. Add a dash of soy sauce, Lea and Perrin’s and salt and pepper. Stir in.
  4. Add the cooked beans of choice and the mince to the con carne, stirring in well. Leave to combine flavors for at least ten minutes over a low flame. Add the cut chili and stir in well. Leave the ingredients to combine over a low heat, simmering.
  5. Meanwhile, bring a pan of water to the boil and add the rice. Turn the heat down to low and leave it to cook for about 20 minutes until all of the water has been absorbed.
  6. Bring another pan of water to the boil and add peas, runner beans, broccoli, kale, any green vegetables of your choice. Once cooked, drain.
  7. Serve the Chilli Con Carne over rice with the vegetables alongside.

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Storing your pickings

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 leavesLettuce, 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).

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Pod and eat peas and broad beans boiled straight away or freeze after boiling and cooling briefly

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.

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Dry onions out on newspaper before hanging up

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.

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Courgettes are best eaten straight away or stored in a fridge – do not freeze them or cucumbers (below)

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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).

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Romanesco cauliflower prepared for boiling

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.

 

That is it for now. More coming soon…

Rhubarb

We finally got round to harvesting some of our rhubarb, a vegetable masquerading as a fruit, a couple of weeks ago. We have quite a lot ready for picking this year…

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Rhubarb contains a good amount of fibre, hence why it was used in ancient Chinese medicine for soothing stomach ailments and constipation. 122g of rhubarb provides 45% of your daily amount of vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and limits neuronal damage in the brain. It contains vitamin C,  A (the red stalks provide more of this than the green ones, good for vision, protection against cancers, good skin and mucus membranes), B vitamins, as well as other nutritional benefits such as iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese and folate. A serving of cooked rhubarb provides us with as much calcium as a cup of milk would and is on the short list alongside salmon and spinach for food that provides us with the most calcium.
Rhubarb was a native of Siberia, found growing on the banks of the river Volga. The earliest recordings of rhubarb date back to 2700BC in China although it is believed that it was used as a drug even before this date. The plant was cultivated for medicinal purposes, particularly as an ailment for gut, liver and lung conditions. Marco Polo is attributed with bringing rhubarb, or ‘Rhacoma’ root, as a drug to Europe during the thirteenth century. The plant was so popular that in England during 1657, its asking price was three times that of Opium. The rise of modern medicine after the sixteenth century and the failure of the British trying to introduce the wrong strain of rhubarb to use as a drug replaced the root’s use for healing.

The first recorded planting of rhubarb in Europe was in Italy in 1608. It was not until 1778 that the plant was recorded as being grown for food in Europe. It was not until the Chelsea Physics Garden discovered forcing rhubarb in 1817, when some roots were accidentally covered with soil during the winter, that the vegetable became a British favourite. When the gardeners removed the soil, they discovered some tender shoots growing. These were found to have a superior taste, gaining favour with the public as commercial growers began to adopt the technique. The earliest cooking method of eating rhubarb was in tarts and pies.

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The forcing of rhubarb began in 1877 in Yorkshire, where the famous Yorkshire Rhubarb of course sprouts from. The Whitwell family are acknowledged as being the first family to produce enough rhubarb to out-sell the London markets. Special sheds were built for growing rhubarb in, prolonging the season. Yorkshire is an ideal place for growing rhubarb as it possesses the ideal requirements for growing the crop: cold, wet and a good deal of nitrogen in the soil. The quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned and other markets could no longer compete and ceased altogether. The production of rhubarb centralised between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, becoming ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’, the centre for the world’s production of forced rhubarb.

During the Second World War, rhubarb became diet staple as the government charged a shilling per pound of Yorkshire rhubarb to keep it financially available. The rhubarb industry became one of the largest providers of employment during these years. Despite this, sugar was difficult to get hold of and the sharp taste of rhubarb needs to be softened by this particular ingredient. After being a nutritious part of the human diet during the 1940s, rhubarb’s popularity dropped due to the undesirable memories of war-time children who had to suffer the strong taste of rhubarb for too long. When the war was over and overseas refrigerators became available along with the chance to purchase and store exotic, tropical fruits, rhubarb was abandoned in the garden and the producers began to suffer huge losses, some going bankrupt, some selling their businesses.

Despite the decline, rhubarb is starting to raise itself up again. More and more chefs are advertising new recipes to include rhubarb in – one does not have to restrict themselves to using it in a crumble, although that can be one of the most yummy, traditional ways of using it, as long as you remove the fuzzy feeling you can get on your teeth by not sweetening it enough. All of my latest cookery finds have some ingenious ideas for using this beautiful pink and green vegetable masquerading as a fruit: cakes, fools, pies, tarts, steamed puddings, stewed on its own and served with another pudding like a cheesecake, soufflés, grunts, muffins, jams, jelly, yoghurt, ice cream, raw rhubarb sorbet… The list goes on.

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We were given various rhubarb plants by friends last year so I do not know the names of all of them. However, I am pretty sure we have bought ourselves ‘Champagne’, ‘Victoria’ (fruits later) and ‘Timperley Early’ (produces earlier than most varieties and does have a fairly high chilling requirement so it is suitable for cold areas).

You can buy young crowns of rhubarb or established ones. When buying young crowns, allow the plant to establish for a year in the soil before harvesting from them. Rhubarb likes to be planted in rich, well-manured soil in the full sun and water through dry periods. Allow 90cm between plants.

Forcing rhubarb: In Yorkshire, the plants are grown in a field for  two years before being brought indoors each winter after a cold period to induce dormancy. The warm sheds encourage the plants to awaken but light is excluded, making the plant resort to its own glucose reserves in its base to feed the early growth of the new stalks. Without the light, the rhubarb grows a livid pink colour and is more sweeter and succulent than the versions not forced. It is romantically harvested by candlelight as strong light halts growth. We can replicate Yorkshire’s forcing techniques simply at home. Place a rhubarb forcer or, in our case, a large bucket over the small crowns in late winter after piling fresh manure around it (this raises the temperature and the speed of growth). Forcing rhubarb will give you hopefully a harvest four or five weeks ahead of the main harvest time.

Depending on the variety of the plant and the weather, one can start harvesting rhubarb in March until the end of July. You need to stop picking as the plant growth slows down to allow it to store reserves of energy for growth the following year. Choose tender stalks. These are stems with good colour, where the leaves have just unfolded fully. Do not cut the stems. Instead, grasp the chosen stem low on the plant, give a sharp pull and twist in order to remove it cleanly. Rip  the leaves off and discard into the compost heap – don’t give them to the animals as they are poisonous, despite what my pigs might say after breaking out and rampaging the neighbour’s crops of rhubarb and our own, they love it!

As far as pests and diseases go, there are not too many threats for this vegetable. If you notice limp foliage, weak steams nad new buds dying during the growing season your plant could have fungal disease, crown rot. You just have to be brave and discard the plant and purchase new crowns for planting.

If flowers appear on your plants (they did on a couple of ours last year), cut them off as they reduce the vigour of the part of the rhubarb you want to eat. In the autumnal months, remove the withering leaves and add well-rotted manure and mulch to encourage them for the next season.

So now I can finally offer you pudding recipes. I love puddings, especially homemade ones. I eat one after supper without fail every night for ultimate comfort and although it is often a cake, or something covered in chocolate, that I have made, I do love a good fruity pudding and I have recently purchased the ‘Puddings’ cookbook by Johnny Shepherd. He is obviously a fan of rhubarb and includes a fair number of interesting recipes involving it. Instead of launching straight into crumbles or rhubarb cakes, I played around with his recipe for rhubarb fool  first of all before going for the crumble. I have had the best rhubarb crumbles at school. I was never too keen on the dishes they served but their chocolate sponge and custard (of course), jam roly poly, macaroni cheese, baked potatoes, apple crumble and, finally, rhubarb crumble with custard were all delicious. The thing I never liked about rhubarb crumble was the fuzzy texture you get on your teeth after eating it. There is little you can do about this other than to use a good amount of sugar, to cook it well or to peel off the outsides and to serve it with something like custard to combat the texture. When making the crumble this year, I decided to try roasting it first of all using Shepherd’s technique to see if this would help. It did reduce it quite a lot and it was delicious and went down a treat with the family.

By the way, we just picked some strawberries and ate them with homemade chocolate cake with some pouring yoghurt last night – delicious! I am going through a real strawberry phase at the moment. My favourite breakfast is strawberry and rhubarb yoghurt and if I get enough strawberries (those pesky birds ate most of them  last year), then I would love to try making strawberry and rhubarb conserve, just to try. They making a surprisingly delicious match.

Here is my adaption of Johnny Shepherd’s fool recipe and my rhubarb crumble. I never took an photographs of my fool as it tasted amazing and looked revolting so I have included his photo instead to inspire rather than put you off. The crumble is my own though.

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Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool – Picture from Johnny Shepherd’s cookbook ‘Puddings’

Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool

(Serves 6)

For the rhubarb: – 500g rhubarb, washed and cut into 5cm batons – 175g caster or granulated sugar – 10 cardamom pods, cracked

For the custard: – 315ml double cream – 3-4 large egg yolks – 48g caster sugar

– 300ml double cream

  1. Preheat the oven to 160C. On a non-stick baking tray, lay out the rhubarb and cardamom seeds, sprinkling 75g of the sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the rhubarb is soft and tender.
  2. Meanwhile, make the custard: Put the cream into a non-stick saucepan over a medium flame and bring to the boil. Take the pan off the heat.
  3. Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together in a bowl. Pour the hot cream over the top, whisking all the time. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and place over a medium flame, whisking, until the custard is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Leave the pan to cool slightly before putting it in the fridge to chill completely.
  4. Return to the baked rhubarb once it is done in the oven. Pour the excess liquid from the tray through a sieve into a saucepan. Discard the cardamom pods. Heat the saucepan of liquid on the stove over a high flame to reduce it to a thick syrup. Remove from the heat and stir in the rhubarb along with the remaining 100g of sugar. Place to one side and allow to cool before keeping it in the fridge until fully chilled.
  5. In a large bowl, whisk the 300ml of double cream to soft peaks.
  6. Once you are ready to serve, remove the custard and the rhubarb from the fridge and combine. Carefully fold the cream into the rhubarb and custard to create a rippled effect. Serve in bowls.

 

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Homemade Rhubarb Crumble

Rhubarb Crumble

(Serves 6)

For the Topping: – 170g plain flour – 110g salted butter (or unsalted with a good pinch of salt) – 55g caster sugar

For the fruit: – 400-500g rhubarb, washed and cut into small strips, about 5cm long              – About 75g caster or granulated sugar – 100g caster or granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 160C. On a baking tray, spread the cut rhubarb out and sprinkle 75g of sugar over the top generously. Put the tray in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes until the rhubarb is just starting to become tender. Remove the tray from the oven and put it to one side. Turn the oven up to 180C.
  2. Pour the juice of the rhubarb into a small saucepan. Place over a medium heat and allow it to bubble until it has turned into a thick syrup. Turn down the heat to simmer and stir in 100g sugar and the rhubarb. Remove from heat.
  3. Prepare the topping: In a large bowl, mix the flour, butter and sugar with your fingertips until it has a breadcrumb consistency. If the mixture is too dry, add a little more butter and a dash of sugar. Likewise, if it is too wet, add a little more flour and sugar to the mixture.
  4. Scrape the rhubarb into a oven-proof dish. Scatter the crumble topping over the fruit, spreading it evenly and thickly.
  5. Bake the crumble in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm with custard.

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