Rocket, or Arugula has a sharp, peppery taste. It is high in vitamins A and C. Rocket is popular in Italian cuisine because of its aromatic flavour. In Roman times, this green was grown for both its leaves and seeds. The seeds were used for flavouring oils which is still practiced today.
Rocket is quite easy to grow: it germinates efficiently and quickly. It can be sown all year round if you start them off in containers indoors during the colder months and plant them out under the cover of horticultural fleece, cloches or cold frames. Their only real pest concern are slugs and snails.
However, rocket does tend to bolt and flower before you are ready for it to do so. Once this happens the delicate, tender leaves you were once eating become a bit stronger and the tougher. This is fine for some people but displeasing for others. When this happens, you can included these leaves in cooking instead of eating them raw if you do not like the taste – the leaves will just be a little hotter than the new, younger ones.
To avoid this, sow little and often, successional sowings. I am on my third sowing this year since February. I started the first batch off indoors and they germinated really quickly, in a couple of days. I am still picking them but they are starting to flower (you can eat these flowers, include them in salads or a stir fry). My second sowing I made outdoors under the cover of fleece when temperatures were still low in March. These took about a week or two to germinate because of the cold. My third sowing I did a couple of weeks ago indoors just before the temperatures rocketed to 20C daytime and an average 12C at night. These I will plant out shortly when they are big enough, perhaps in a couple of weeks.
Types of rocket I am growing this year are ‘Buzz’, ‘Monza’ and ‘Tirizia’. These can be grown indoors nearly all year round and then sown outdoors from March until the end of August, perhaps under the cover of a cold frame or fleece in the early months when frost is still about. These have all been delicious and easy to grow and transplant.
Rocket, spinach and watercress is a green salad made in heaven. Try adding this mix to your sandwich at lunch.
Another way I love eating rocket is with one of our ‘lazy family suppers’ when the idea of cooking anything extravagant is just exhausting: Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes. The rocket adds an extra classy flavour and makes it oh-so Italian – and it could take you no longer than half an hour to prepare on your own, tops.
Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes
– 250g pasta – Olive oil – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g cheddar cheese – 400g peas – 80g pine nuts – 6 large handfuls of rocket
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the pasta and turn the heat down to simmer for ten minutes or until the pasta is cooked. Drain and drizzle olive oil over the top, stirring it in. Set aside.
Put the tinned tomatoes in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove when hot. Meanwhile, grate the cheddar cheese.
Bring another pan of water to the boil. Add the peas and leave to cook until heated and ready.
Place a frying pan over a high heat. Add the pine nuts and stir in the dry dish. Once they start to brown, remove from the heat immediately and continue to stir the nuts over the very hot dish for a couple of minutes.
Serve: place pasta on a plate, scrape tinned tomatoes over the top, scatter cheddar cheese on top followed by the toasted pine nuts and fresh rocket before adding lots of peas on the side.
With the (partly) sunny weather and hopefully a good approaching summer, it is time to write about the salad to be harvested from the plot. Currently, I have lettuce, rocket, spinach and radishes ready for picking. We will be starting with lettuce.
We planted some lettuce under the cover of fleece and in our falling apart cold frames last autumn, mostly ‘Vailan’, a light green winter gem that is hardy and currently thriving right now. It looks beautiful and tastes delicious. It can be sown from January until March and then again from September to December, germinating in the cooler months and then growing steadily for the next season. We planted some in November last year and I started again in February this year, starting these off indoors before planting them out under the cover of fleece. I have been harvesting them all month and they are delicious.
I still have so many lettuces sown indoors that need planting out and I am avoiding looking at the windowsills they are sitting on because they make me feel guilty. The problem with sowing lettuce seeds is that they are tiny and grow close together, making planting out a nightmare with delicate roots snapping in all places. It is more than likely I will have a good sob when planting them out. I planted some out the other day between my cabbages (that are netted so I will probably never be bothered to harvest them) and mum has been planting some out in our baby asparagus bed that we just started this year.
Since March, I have sown the following types of lettuces that are all looking pretty good, they just need planting out to give them some room and nutrition.
Little gems: ‘Amaze’ (March-June sowing), Winter gem ‘Vailan’
Hardy hearting lettuce, ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ (February-April and August-September), ‘Black seeded Simpson’ (February-September) and the most popular loose leaf variety out there, ‘Lollo Rossa’ (March-August) which I have tried, tested and liked and have some around right now from last year’s planting. The other two I could not buy this year but they are a popular and reliable variety recommended to me and I will be looking out for them.
Lettuces are not too fussy but do love nutritious soil. Plant them into a patch that has been weeded and fed with Blood, Fish and Bone and well-rotted manure before applying a good layer of mulch on top to hold those nutrients in. They can be grown as catch-crops between other larger vegetables that need a lot of spacing out, such as cabbages, sweetcorn, cucurbits etc. They do not mind shade or sun but many often plant them in the shadiest patches because they will still thrive there. Most of mine are in full sun and they are still great so it really does not matter. Lettuce go wherever you can fit them!
The worst thing about lettuces is that they can bolt very quickly when you turn a blind eye for five seconds. Bolting is when the lettuce goes to seed and flowers when it is too hot, the watering conditions are unstable and the sun is offering too much light (unbelievable in England, yes?). The problem with bolting lettuce is that it tastes, well, vile. The only use people can find for bolting lettuce I am afraid is perhaps lettuce soup or perhaps cooking it in some other way, perhaps as an oriental vegetable in a stir fry or a stew? Chickens love some bolted lettuce though so don’t be afraid to share if you own livestock. Waste not, want not.
The other major problem with growing lettuce is that a patch of it is the garden of Eden for slugs and snails. I think salad is their favourite, as well as perhaps peas? If you can deter the slugs with any means you can and manage to successfully grow and harvest the lettuce for yourself, it is worth the time and trouble. Everyone likes lettuce and it goes so well with everything and it is so good for you! The aim this year is to successfully sow and grow crops like lettuce so that we have a steady supply all year round for ourselves and our neighbors. This means sowing some every few months throughout the year during the sowing times.
The nutrition of lettuce varies in each variety. The most beneficial nutrients are vitamin A and potassium. The vitamin A comes from the beta-carotene in the leaves (the yellowing orange colour is hidden in lettuce by the green chlorophyll pigments in the lettuce). Our bodies convert the beta-carotene into vitamin A. The darker the green colouring of the lettuce, the more beta-carotene there will be. The stems and spines of the lettuce leaves provide us with dietary fiber while the minerals and vitamins are concentrated in the leaves themselves. Most lettuces, excluding iceberg varieties, included moderate levels of vitamin C, calcium, iron and copper, too.
Lettuce is one of the oldest vegetables around and a statement in the patch. It is a member of the daisy and thistle family, Asteraceae. Lettuce was first cultivated in Egypt for the production of oil from its seeds. Evidence of its cultivation has been dated back as early as 2680BC. Ancient Greeks believed it contained sleep inducing properties and served it at the end of a meal. 12,500 hectares in the UK are used to grow salad crops and lettuce accounts for 50% of it. Apparently, half of all UK households eat lettuce three times a fortnight. Growing your own in your own veg patch and you can beat this figure hands down: it is so prolific and easy to grow and eat that it will become an everyday green staple in your diet.
This is the Quiche recipe that my mum taught me to make, with bacon, cheese and cream in it. Serve with a freshly picked salad from the garden, whatever is in season. Right now, that could mean lettuce, spinach, rocket and radishes. Later on try pairing it with some crisp carrots, cucumber, watercress, beetroot, anything that you have growing to make a light summer supper.
(Serves 10, 20cm tart case required)
Pastry: – 170g/ 6oz plain flour – 110g/ 4oz salted butter – A little cold water to mix in
Filling: – 2 eggs and 1 yolk – 2-4 strips of pre-fried or grilled bacon – 60-100ml double cream – 100g grated cheddar cheese – 1 small onion, finely sliced – A little butter or olive oil, for frying – Salt and pepper for seasoning
Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
To make the pastry, put the flour into a large bowl with the butter. Using your fingertips, rub the ingredients together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre and add cold water, a little at a time and mix in to form a dough. Knead lightly until smooth and set to one side or if you are making it in advance, wrap it in cling-film and store it in the fridge.
To make the filling, melt the butter or oil in a frying pan and fry the onions until golden brown. In a new bowl, beat the whole eggs and yolk with 80g of the grated cheddar cheese. Beat in enough double cream so that the mixture thickens and looks creamy. Break the pre-cooked bacon into tiny pieces and stir them in along with the fried onions, followed by the salt and pepper for seasoning.
Press the pastry into a 20cm tart case. Scrape the filling on top of the pastry and smooth it over the base evenly. Scatter the remaining grated cheese over the top.
Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes until the Quiche is firm and golden brown. Serve hot or cold with salad.
I am currently picking the last ‘burst’ of small kale leaves from the curly kale I sowed last summer as they flower.
Kale has had a lot of publicity over the last few years as a member of the dreaded team ‘superfood’. I’m a little snobbish of the phrase ‘superfood’ as it is basically ‘trendy food’ or ‘fad food’, ‘faze food’. It is the in-group in the culinary world, when leggings and purple hair are the height of fashion before jeans and original colours return, a superfood, like coconut which I think is the latest addition to the group, joins the Mean Girl cliche before being cast aside for the next fad that everyone has to join in with – to be cool. Since when did food need to be cool? I suppose it was always the case. Nevertheless, kale needs to be adored for it’s usefulness for the vegetable grower instead of the publicity it gets in the press. I was surprised when I ate it as I was expecting it to, honestly, be vile. It certainly does not look pretty on its own but it tastes, well, great.
Kale is high in iron, beta-carotene and folic acid. It is a source of vitamins A, C (more than in carrots, apparently) and K, manganese and copper. 80g contains 120mg of calcium, great for dairy-free dieters over the world. It is rich in lutein, an anti-oxidant that keeps our eyes healthy, 76mg lutein per kg while broccoli only contains 17mg. So far, so good.
It is thought to have descended from the ‘wild cabbage’, like broccoli, cauliflowers and other brassicas that came to Europe around 600BC by Celtic wanderers, being cultivated for over 2,000 years. Apparently it was a significant crop during the Roman times (but they are famous for not being very fussy eaters) and it was a crop for peasants in the Middle Ages until the popular cabbage found its way to our hearts. Kale is known for being grown in colder climates because of its resistance to frost – our garden was hit by severe frost earlier in January reaching a -3C but I did not need to fleece them once, and they are still alive and pickable. It was so hardy, in the old days kitchens in Scotland used to have a special kale pot to cook the leafy green. Towards the end of the 20th century, kale was grown specifically as winter feed for livestock, such as sheep and cattle, on farms and consumed more by animals than humans. Now though, it has risen in our esteem more than ever as a nutritious vegetable and a valuable crop for the ‘hunger gap’ for home growers.
Kale is a wonderful vegetable for the kitchen gardener. It is tough and prolific. Start sowing under cover or indoors from March, the last sowing being in October, and you will have enough kale to harvest over winter and then the following spring. They are a brassica so remember that they do need a lot of feeding and it is a good idea to net them in the dreaded cabbage white season as the caterpillars go nuts for them. I found that out last year but do not despair and rip the plants up, squash the caterpillars and leave the plants that will heal themselves and grow a new, fresh batch of leaves if given a little time. All of my ravaged kale grew lots of new leaves over the months. My favourite types are the green ‘Dwarf Curly Kale – Starbor’ and ‘Nero de Toscana’ kale with smoother leaves (more of a favourite with pests I have noticed and flowers quicker than curly kale). Another popular variety is ‘Red Russian kale’, a deep purple colour which tastes the exact same, think of it being like the purple version of green lettuce.
Over the last winter, kale was the one vegetable I could always rely on to pick in the ‘hungry gap’ when nothing else was growing. When my beloved spinach had ended or was too small to pick, when the last batch of frozen beans had gone and we had run out of peas and were on strike and refusing to go shopping, kale was the answer to our need for cooked greens. We harvest the leaves by picking them from the plant – one is supposed to pick the tallest ones further up the plants – before washing and stripping them off their slightly tough stalks and dumping them in boiling hot water to simmer for a few minutes until cooked. It is surprisingly yummy just plain boiled (I am not a fan for eating it raw but if you like it then that is brilliant as it is another way of enjoying this green). As well as eating it just boiled alongside the main dish, we also put the leaves in casseroles, Bolognese, lasagna, curries, stir fries etc. My brother doesn’t like kale on its own but is fine when it is mixed in a gloop as you can’t tell it is in there. I have tried making kale pesto – awful, I think only my mum and perhaps my sister liked it and I am sure they were just being polite, there are still two jars hidden at the back of the fridge. We also invented a kale version of Crispy Seaweed that you can get in Chinese restaurants or take aways and it is a very good version which I will share with you one day as well as a Kale Rice Bake which is delicious. However, today I thought it was a good idea to share with you one of the best dishes known to mankind where you can slip some kale in subtly: homemade pizza.
Making your own pizza is way better than ordering Dominos and it really is not that hard. In the winter add kale to the sauce, in the summer you could very between swiss chard or spinach or even some oriental komatsuna or pak choi. Feel free to add cut up ham, pineapple, pepperoni, olives or even some sweet peppers on top. We sometimes do half a pizza with these extra toppings and leave the other half just plain cheese for fussy me. The brilliant thin about making your own pizza is that you can play and add whatever you like. By the way, for those of you that have not heard of Italian passata, it is basically thickened tinned tomatoes, a sort of tomato puree but I would recommend splashing out on the passata rather than a puree from the bottle, it will taste far better. You can buy them in any normal supermarket or of course, try making some yourself if you get a glut of tomatoes in the summer?
Unfortunately, for the most recent pizzas I have made lately, I was out of mozzarella which I love on top of a pizza – it makes it so gooey and cheesy and I would recommend trying it. I often use a mixture of any cheese in the house, always chedder, mozzarella if I available, parmesan if any is grated already… This time I used a lot of cheddar cheese and some gruye, a cheese made from raw milk as well as some shavings of left-over parmesan from a previous meal. There are plenty of cheeses in the world, plenty of greens to try on top so get going and experiment.
I have included two versions: one uses a bread machine (the cheats way I use to ensure I get a good dough) but I have also added a hands-on method to try. Many chefs will advise you to use Italian 00 pasta flour or strong white bread flour. I use a majority of one of these, depending on what I have available, and I add about 10% of Khoresan flour, an old-fashioned flour you can buy from Doves in large supermarkets or online now (it is really good to use in homemade naan or pitta breads) and I add a little wholemeal bread flour into the mixture too. If you are a little daunted by the idea of mixing flours, then just stick to the safe strong white bread flour, it is more likely to rise, especially is using the hands-on method.
Cheese and Kale Topped Pizza
(Serves 6, two or three slices per person)
Base: – 250g bread flour: I use mostly white flour, either ‘Strong White Bread Flour’, ’00 Pasta Flour’ with about 30g Khoresan flour with perhaps 50g-100g ‘Strong Wholemeal Bread Flour’. It is up to you, I would just advise using more white flour than any other to make sure the dough rises.
– 1 tsp (5g) fast-action dried yeast – 1tsp (5g) salt – 20 ml (2tbsp) olive oil – 160ml water
Topping: – 1 large onion, finely sliced – Olive oil, to fry in – 1-2 large garlic cloves – 500g packet of Italian Passata – About 200g kale, washed and de-stalked – A small handful of oregano leaves (I use anywhere from 8 – 14 small leaves), torn into fine pieces – A dash of maple syrup – Salt and pepper – 500g cheese of choice: I would advise about 300g cheddar cheese, one packet of mozzarella and the rest another cheese, like parmesan or gruye. Again, this is up to you – Any other additional toppings of your choice: e.g. ham and pineapple, olives, pepperoni etc.
If you have a breadmaker, use this process for quickness and ease: Put the tsp of yeast into the bread pan followed by the flour, salt, olive oil and water. Put the bread pan inside the breadmaker and set it to your DOUGH setting, the timer should say 45 minutes. It is going to knead the ingredients together and help it rise.
If you do not have a breadmaker: Put the yeast inside a large bowl followed by the flour and salt. Stir in the ingredients. Start to pour in the water, slowly as you mix to incorporate into a sticky dough, adding in the olive oil too. Once the mixture is completely combined, tip the dough out onto a floured surface and knead into a large ball so that it is not so sticky and more springy to the touch. Put inside a bowl or basket with a tea-towel and a plastic bag cover it and put it in a warm place, an airing cupboard is best, and leave to rise for about an hour.
Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to the highest temperature your oven can offer you, mine reaches 325C.
Make the topping: in a large frying pan, fry the onion in the olive oil over a a medium flame until starting to brown. Add the passata and the diced garlic, turning the flame up to high and stirring – the aim is to boil off some of the passata liquid so it looks more like a thick gloop, not a runny paste that will slide off the pizza base in the cooking process. Add the kale and leave the mixture to boil for a couple of minutes, still stirring it occasionally. Add the torn oregano, a good dash of maple syrup and a grind of salt and then pepper. Stir in and leave to continue boiling off. Turn it down to simmer and grate the cheeses (cutting the mozzarella into thick pieces instead).
Place a large silicone sheet on the floor, or baking paper, and dust with semolina. Dust the dough with semolina to prevent it from sticking to your hands and dump it on the sheet. Now, I cheat here for ease. I coat a rolling-pin in semolina and use to flatten out the dough, rolling it into a huge pizza shape to that it covers nearly all of the sheet (homemade pizzas are rarely a perfect circle, I call them ‘rustic’). Once it is large and flat, remove the topping from the low flame and scrape onto the pizza base. I like to use a spatula to do this. Spread the topping evenly all over the base.
Put a layer of mozzarella cheese all over the base and then sprinkle the rest of the cheeses on top thickly. Add any other toppings now.
Pull out a shelf in the oven and carefully lift and slide the large pizza onto it, be careful not to burn yourself. Cook in the oven for 10 minutes, keeping an eye on it towards the end to make sure it does not burn. Carefully remove from the oven and slide the sheet with the pizza still on top onto a large tray to carry. Cut using a large pair of scissors into slices and serve with a lovely salad picked straight from the garden. When we have a glut of runner-beans or peas, we serve these alongside it instead and it is as equally delicious. Any left-overs can be kept in a container in the fridge and eaten cold the next day or put inside a preheated oven to warm up.