Peas

The pea is most commonly the small spherical seed or the seed-pod of the pod fruit Pisum sativum.  Pea pods are botanically fruit since they contain seeds and developed from the ovary of a (pea) flower. It is a cool-season crop grown in many parts of the world; planting can take place from winter to early summer depending on location.

In early times, peas were grown mostly for their dry seeds. The wild pea is restricted to the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. The earliest archaeological finds of peas date from the late neolithic era of current Greece, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. In Egypt, early finds date from ca. 4800–4400 BC in the Nile delta area, and from ca. 3800–3600 BC in Upper Egypt. The pea was also present in Georgia in the 5th millennium BC. Farther east, the finds are younger. Peas were present in Afghanistan ca. 2000 BC, in Harappa, Pakistan and in northwest India in 2250–1750 BC. In the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, this crop appears in the Ganges Basin and southern India. From plants growing wild in the Mediterranean basin, constant selection since the Neolithic Dawn of agriculture improved their yield. In the early 3rd century BC Theophrasturous mentions peas among the pulses that are sown late in the winter because of their tenderness. In the first century AD Columella mentions them in De re rustica when Roman legionaries still gathered wild peas to supplement their rations.

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In the Middle Ages, field peas are constantly mentioned, as they were the staple that kept famine at bay. Charles the Good, count of Flanders, noted this in 1124. Green “garden” peas, eaten immature and fresh, were an innovative luxury of Early Modern Europe. In England, the distinction between “field peas” and “garden peas” dates from the early 17th century. Along with broad beans and lentils, peas formed an important part of the diet of most people in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe during the Middle Ages. By the 17th and 18th centuries, it had become popular to eat peas “green”, that is, while they are immature and right after they are picked. New cultivars of peas were developed by the English during this time, which became known as “garden” or “English” peas. The popularity of green peas spread to North America.  Thomas Jefferson grew more than 30 cultivars of peas on his estate. With the invention of canning and freezing of foods, green peas became available year-round, and not just in the spring as before.

Sugar peas which the French soon called mange-tout, for they were consumed pods and all, were introduced to France from the market gardens of Holland in the time of Henri IV, through the French ambassador. Green peas were introduced from Genoa to the court of Louis XIV in January 1660, with some staged fanfare: a hamper of them were presented before the King and were shelled by a comte. Little dishes of peas were then presented to the King, the Queen, Cardinal Mazarin and Monsieur, the king’s brother.Immediately established and grown for earliness warmed with manure and protected under-glass, they were still a luxurious delicacy in 1696. Modern split-peas with their indigestible skins removed are a development of the later 19th century: pea-soup, pease pudding, Indian matar ki daal or versions of chana masala, or Greek fava.

In 2005, a poll of 2,000 people revealed the pea to be Britain’s seventh favourite culinary vegetable. The annual ‘Peasenhall Pea Festival’ in the English village of Peasenhall, Suffolk attracts hundreds of visitors every year, with events such as Pea Shooting, the World Pea Podding Championships and National Pea Eating competition. In 2012, the Pea Festival had an OlymPEAn theme, celebrating the London 2012 Olympics.

Peas do take a little bit of time. They need support while growing and podding takes time – this is after managing to get them to germinate, survive slugs and snails and then to actually develop peas inside the pods. However, homegrown peas are incredible. They are so much sweeter and smaller than any you will ever buy in the shop. You want to eat them as soon as they are harvested (the speed of conversion of their sugars to starches means that every second ruins them, like sweetcorn or asparagus). When young and tender and fresh from the first harvest, eat them raw straight from the pods. Otherwise, heat them very briefly in a pan of boiling water for a minute or two, drain and serve. Or, pop them straight from their pods into the freezer asap. A dream of mine is to have a surplus of peas to freeze like our runner-beans – unfortunately, hasn’t happened… yet?

The side shoots and growth tips, pea tips, or ‘green gold’ in Japan, are also edible and make a good addition to any salad. However, you will end up with fewer pods if you pick them but if you have lots of plants then go ahead!

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‘Meteor’ – Sow February-June, October-November

Sow March -June : ‘Sugar-Ann’, ‘Deliket’, ‘Alderman’, ‘Kelvedon Wonder’,

‘Ambassador’- Sow March-July

I learnt the hard way the first year I tried growing peas that they just don’t germinate in sandy soil, or if they do, they quickly become snail and slug fodder. One night, we went out with torches and saw basically a live trapeze act of slugs and snails crawling up peas. From then on it was military protection from creepy crawlies!

Last year we started them off indoors in toilet rolls in giant seed trays filled with compost, like sweet pea sowings. They did really well, all germinating just fine and producing a good crop – I just needed to make more successional sowings to get more, that would be my advice. However, the toiled rolls are rather exhausting and rot when the peas can’t be planted outdoors for a long time because of rubbish weather… So we started using normal plastic containers, old fruit cartons etc., filled with compost and they worked just fine (peas do have long, straggly roots so be cautious and delicate when planting out). So: sow indoors and when about 10-15cm tall plant them out under fleece until the frosts vanish, 10 cm apart, rows 75cm apart. Make sure they are in a trench with well-rotted matter. I have read before to avoid using manure but I really do think that it is the magic medicine for all plants, even the carrots (which are meant to fork) and alliums (which are meant to bolt). It really seems to help so I would try out working in some well-rotted manure with lots of compost and mulch into the earth where you are going to plant your peas. Use hazel prunings or other similar sticks to support the peas – thrust the fat end of the sticks into the soil to hold them upright so the tendrils have something to grab onto. Don’t let them dry out and the occasional comfrey feed can work wonders. For the permacultural lot, try growing radishes and salad leaves between the peas (chicory, spinach, wrinkle crinkle cress and poached egg plants did very well between ours last year). Many can be harvested May-October, depending when sown, averagely around 2 months after sowing. Check by the size of the bumps in the pods – pick them at their peaks.

Other than slugs and snails, mice and birds can be a problem. Put them under cover if this starts to become an issue. Caterpillars of pea moths could be a problem. Blight, powdery mildew, rust or other rotting diseases can also become an issue, weakening and ruining a crop.

Peas are starchy, but high in fibre, protein, vitamins A, B6, C, K, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, iron, zinc and lutein. Dry weight is about one-quarter protein and one-quarter sugar. Peas are stuffed with all sorts of antioxidants that help improve overall health, as well as help prevent cancer. These actively seek out and neutralize free radicals that are roaming around the body, which, studies have shown, are partially responsible for causing cancer. Peas are thought to be a heart healthy food. Their high dietary fiber content helps reduce bad LDL cholesterol in the heart. It has natural anti-inflammatory properties that help regulate inflammation in the cardiovascular system. There is also a good amount of ALA fat found in peas (one of the Omega-3 fatty acids), which has been shown to promote heart health. The high protein and fiber levels also help keep blood sugar levels in check. Both of these work to regulate the rate at which food is digested. Dietary fibre has also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

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Eat raw peas with any spring/summer salad – think boiled early new potatoes, butter and cut chives with a fresh bunch of salad leaves straight from the plot outside under the blue sky. Try them boiled alongside any cooked meal – sausages or chops and mash, weekend roasts etc. Peas go with nearly everything. Here are a few of my favourites: baked potato, butter, grated cheddar cheese and peas (perhaps with baked beans as well),Updated recipe: homemade pizza and peas (optionally with baked potato and butter as well), lasagne and peas, macaroni cheese and peas, Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock, pasta, tinned tomatoes, rocket, cheese and pine nuts with peas (Salad – Rocket), Matar Paneer is my all-time favourite curry, literally translates as peas and paneer cheese curry (Cucumbers), just rice, tinned tomatoes and peas is yummy.

Another recipe? How about a risotto?

Pea Risotto

(Serves 4)

-25g butter – 1 onion, sliced – 325g rice – Salt and pepper, for seasoning -750ml/1-pint vegetable stock or 2tsp Bouillon powder, dissolved in ½L of boiling water -300g peas –More cooked vegetables, to serve (optional) – Parmesan cheese, to serve (optional)

  1. Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the onion and fry gently over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat down a little.
  2. Add the rice and a grinding of salt and pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the butter.
  3. Add the stock after frying the rice like a pilau for a couple of minutes, bring to the boil, stirring frequently.
  4. Turn the heat down once the stock is bubbling and leave to simmer until almost all of the stock has been absorbed. Add the peas, cover, and leave to simmer for 6-10 minutes.
  5. Serve with cooked vegetables and parmesan cheese, if desired.

For a stock recipe, see: Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock, vegetarian. 

 

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Celery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aubergine

January is the month to keenly get ahead and start sowing your aubergine seeds indoors!

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Aubergine (Eggplant, American and Australian or brinjal, Asian and African), Solanum melongena, is a member of the nightshade family, grown for its edible fruit. A Solanum, it is related to the tomato, pepper and potato. Like its cousin, the Tomato, the Aubergine’s popularity was stifled in Europe and North America until relatively recent years due to its association to nightshade. Where as the Tomato was believed to be poisonous, the Aubergine was believed by superstitious Europeans to induce insanity and was unaffectionately known as the “Mad Apple” until only a few centuries ago.

It is a delicate, tropical plant that is only half-hardy – meaning it stays put indoors in rainy England. The stem is often spiny, the flower whitens to a pretty light purple. Botanically classified as a berry, the fruit contains numerous small, soft seeds that, though edible, taste bitter because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids like the related tobacco.

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Aubergines have been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory. The Aubergine’s scientific name “Melongena” is an ancient name for Aubergine in Sanskrit. About 500 B.C. Aubergine spread into neighbouring China and became a culinary favourite to generations of Chinese emperors. The Chinese saw the Aubergine differently than the Indians did and soon developed their own unique varieties. In particular, they preferred smaller fruited Aubergine, as well as differing shapes and colours. The first known written record of the plant is found in Qimin Yaoshu, an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544.

From India and Pakistan, the Aubergine soon spread West into the Middle East and the far west as Egypt and northward into Turkey. The Turks alone are believed to have over 1000 native recipes calling for the use of Aubergine in many different ways. The Moors introduced the Aubergine to Spain were it received its Catalonian name “Alberginia”. The numerous Arabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by Arabs in the early Middle Ages. The vegetable soon spread throughout Europe. The 16th century Spaniards had great respect for the Aubergine and believed its fruit to be a powerful aphrodisiac, an “Apple of Love”. The Italians too, held the Aubergine in very regard and called them “Melanzana”. The English were responsible for coining the name “Eggplant” in regards to a variety with egg shaped, white fruit that they became familiar with, yet strangely, they refer to them today by the French name of Aubergine, which is a corruption of the Catalonian name “Alberginia”. A book on agriculture published in 12th century Arabic Spain described how to grow aubergines. There are records from later medieval Catalan and Spanish. The aubergine is unrecorded in England until the 16th century.

Because of the plant’s relationship with other nightshades, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous. The flowers and leaves can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities. It has a special place in folklore. In 13th century Italian traditional folklore, the Aubergine can cause insanity. In 19th century Egypt it was said that insanity was “more common and more violent” when the Aubergine is in season during the summer months.

In 2013, global production of Aubergines was 49.4 million tonnes. More than 1,600,000 hectares (4,000,000 acres) are devoted to the cultivation of Aubergines in the world. 57% of output comes from China alone, followed by India, Iran, Egypt and Turkey as the following top producers.

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Aubergines require a little attention when grown at home. They like sun and are easily knocked off their steady course to maturity so they should be grown under cover.

I start mine off under cover in January otherwise they never seem to grow/develop fruit during the year. February-March is kind of the final deadline.  I start them off in compost in old tall yoghurt containers with holes punctured in the bottom to release water. I place them in a seed tray in the warmest room in our house (my dad’s bedroom is my propagator) and when they have germinated, I put them on the windowsill to get lots lot light during the day before putting them on the floor by the radiator again at night to keep them warm. Once they are big enough and the weather has improved, I pot them on in very large pots of compost in our greenhouse. As the plant grows, it must be supported by sturdy canes. Fortnightly comfrey or seaweed feeds will help to encourage the flowers to fruit. Mr Fothergills recommends spraying the flowers to encourage fruit to set. Be careful- those pretty purple petals are easily damaged.

I have tried growing ‘Black Beauty’, a popular breed. I was given some long, thin, purple-marbled styled ones (that I don’t know the name of) by a friend to grow last year. They unfortunately were not very delicious – they just would not ripen or swell properly. Other recommendations by research suggests: Moneymaker, Rosa Bianca and Slim Jim (especially if you live in the chillier North).

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You will hopefully be able to harvest from August-October. Don’t wait for the aubergines to reach supermarket size, just like courgettes or cucumbers. Snip them off whenever they reach 8cm in length and up to 18cm or so. Mark Diacono, Otters Farm, suggests salting aubergine slices for half an hour, rinsing them, patting them dry, before using as this can get rid of bitterness.

It will mostly be the weather/growing conditions that injure your crop. Otherwise known pests are aphids and red spider mites. Companion planting with basil is one human approach or parasitic controls.

Aubergines are an excellent source of dietary fibre. They are also a good source of vitamins B1, B6 and potassium. It is high in minerals copper, magnesium and manganese. Aubergines are rich in antioxidants, specifically nasunin found in aubergine skin – which gives it its purple colour. A potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger, nasunin has been found to protect the lipids (fats) in brain cell membranes. Cell membranes are almost entirely composed of lipids and are responsible for protecting the cell and helping it to function. The lipid layer is crucial for letting nutrients in, wastes out and receiving instructions from messenger molecules that tell the cell what to do. Research indicates that phenolic-enriched extracts of Aubergines may help in controlling glucose absorption, beneficial for managing type 2 diabetes and reducing associated high blood pressure (hypertension). Aubergines may also help to lower LDL cholesterol levels, likely to due to nasunin and other phytochemical in the fruit.

Aubergines come in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colours. The varieties range from dark purple to pale mauve and from yellow to white. The longer purple variety is the most commonly eaten. Aubergines have a very neutral taste, which allows them to be combined with many other ingredients. They are especially good when prepared with garlic (think Baba Ganoush dip) and herbs such as marjoram and basil.

A fresh aubergine is firm and has a smooth, very glossy, dark purple skin and white, spongy flesh. A ripe aubergine has a matte gloss and yields slightly under finger pressure. Its weight must be in proportion to its size: excessively light aubergines can be limp and dehydrated.

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Aubergine is used in plenty of cuisines worldwide. They are curried in India; they are also roasted, skinned, mashed, mixed with onions, tomatoes and spices and then slow cooked gives the South Asian dish gojju. Another version of the dish, begun-pora (charred or burnt), is very popular in Bangladesh where the pulp of the vegetable is mixed with raw chopped shallot, green chilies, salt, fresh coriander and mustard oil. Sometimes fried tomatoes and deep-fried potatoes are also added, creating a dish called begun bhorta. In a dish called bharli vangi, brinjal is stuffed with ground coconut, peanuts and masala and then cooked in oil. Aubergines are also deep fried as in the Italian parmigiana di melanzane, the Turkish karniyarik of the Turkish and Greek moussaka (yum).  It can be sliced and deep fried, then served with plain yoghurt (optionally topped with a tomato and garlic sauce), such as in the Turkish patlıcan kızartması (meaning fried aubergines), or without yoghurt, as in patlıcan şakşuka. Perhaps the best-known Turkish aubergine dishes are imam bayildi (vegetarian) and karniyarik (with minced meat). There are PLENTY of recipes from different cuisines worldwide to choose from, take a look on they internet to be inspired! One of my favourites of all time is the dip baba ganoush: roasted aubergine, blended in a food processor along with tahini paste, lemon juice, diced raw garlic, salt and pepper and served with raw parsley sprinkled on top, a mixture of your favourite salad leaves and Manneesh (sesame and thyme coated flatbread) for dipping – delicious with homegrown boiled potatoes or rice too. It is like another version of humous (which we all know I’m a fan of…).

Aubergines are also stewed in the classic French Ratatouille and here I offer my recipe that I used to cook the (few) Aubergine I managed to grow/harvest 2016 season. If you are lucky, you will be able to make the entire dish using homegrown produce!

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Ratatouille 

(Serves 2)

  • Olive oil, for frying in
  • 1/2 – 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 aubergine, sliced into small chunks
  • 1 courgette, sliced into discs
  • 1 red pepper, sliced into small chunks
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 200-400g fresh tomatoes, sliced in half
  • Salt and pepper, for seasoning
  1. Heat the oil in a large pan. Fry the sliced onion and aubergine, turning it down to simmer.
  2. Add the sliced courgette and pepper. Add the diced garlic and the tomatoes, stirring to combine.
  3. Leave to simmer for at least 15 minutes – 30 minutes, the longer the better, stirring now and then.
  4. Once the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes have broken down, releasing their juices to become a sauce, add salt and pepper for seasoning and remove from the heat and serve hot in dishes.

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Leeks

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Leeks are a member of the Allium family, making them related to garlic and onions but they have a much subtler, sweeter flavour. They can be used to enrich soups (think leek and potato soup) or stews and they partner well with potato or cheese (recipe later on). The edible part of the plant is a bundle of leaf sheaths, what we would call the stem or stalk. Historically many scientific names have been used for leeks but they are now all treated as cultivars of Allium ampeloprasum.

Leeks have been cultivated at least since the time of the ancient Egyptians and are depicted in surviving tomb paintings from that period. Dried specimens from archaeological sites in ancient Egypt as well as wall carvings and drawings, led Zohary and Hopf to conclude the leek was a part of the Egyptian diet from at least the second millennium BCE onwards. They also allude to surviving texts that show it had been also grown in Mesopotamia from the beginning of the second millennium BCE. The Romans considered the leek a superior vegetable and Emperor Nero got through so many he gained the nickname Porrophagus (leek eater). He is reported to have thought that eating leeks would improve the quality of his singing voice.

The leek is one of the national emblems of Wales worn along with the daffodil (in Welsh the daffodil is known as ‘Peter’s leek’, Cenhinen Bedr) on St David’s Day. According to one legend, King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd ordered his soldiers to identify themselves by wearing the vegetable on their helmets in an ancient battle against the Saxons that took place in a leek field. Shakespeare refers to the custom of wearing a leek as an ‘ancient tradition’ in Henry V. The 1985 and 1990 British £1 bear the design of a leek in a coronet, representing Wales. It is used in the cap badge of the Welsh Guards, a regiment within the Household Division of the British Army.

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Start sowing early or late harvesting leeks in small seed-trays undercover in good compost March-April, 3cm apart. Plant out in June or July. It is a particular process: tease the leek (should be about 20cm tall), make a hole 15cmish deep with a pencil and lower the leek gently into it, being careful of the roots. Keep the plants about 15cm from neighbours, 30cm apart. Fill the holes with water – it is important to water baby leeks frequently.

If you are after a larger ratio of white to green, earth the leeks up a little to encourage this.

Harvest September-May (earlier for baby leeks, pick them the size of spring onions during the summer months). Leeks are good hungry gap fillers during winter as they can survive the cold frosty months.

Leave a few to flower through the late spring and into the summer for beauty and seed for the following season but be aware that they won’t replicate the original variety unless that is the only variety you are growing.

The variety I sowed this year was ‘Blue Lake’ bought from the Real Seeds Company and they did really well and I will be sowing them again next year. Other popular varieties are ‘King Richard’ (very early), ‘Monstruoso de Carentan’ (early), ‘D’Hiver de Saint-Victor’ (late), ‘Saint Victor’ (late) and ‘Hannibal’ (early).

I planted my leeks along with my celery and celeriac as I read once that they made good intercropping veg – they both like damp soil so I suspect it makes sense. Otherwise plant them where you are sowing roots or other onions or after potatoes is recommended.

Rust (orange or brown blotches on the leaves) can affect your harvest but usually only decoratively. Seaweed or comfrey feed helps prevent it but rotating your crops is the best way of minimising the problem.

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Leeks have a mild, onion-like taste. In its raw state, the vegetable is crunchy and firm. The edible portions of the leek are the white base of the leaves (above the roots and stem base), the light green parts, and to a lesser extent the dark green parts of the leaves. One of the most popular uses is for adding flavor to stock. The dark green portion is usually discarded because it has a tough texture, but it can be sautéed or added to stock. Leeks are typically chopped into slices 5–10 mm thick. The slices have a tendency to fall apart, due to the layered structure of the leek.

To clean your harvest leeks, slit them along the length of the green part at intervals and immerse in cold water to tease out the soil.

Leeks are an excellent source of vitamin C as well as iron and fibre. They provide many of the health-giving benefits associated with garlic and onions, such as promoting the functioning of the blood and the heart.

One recipe I have been using our leeks in this year has been Homity Pie: a traditional British open pie. It is essentially a pastry case containing a mixture of potatoes and leeks with cheese. Its origins go back to Land Girl’s of World War II when the restrictions of rationing made it difficult to come up with a hearty dish to feed the land workers. At one point, the cheese ration was a mere ounce (28g) per person per week. Nowadays, we don’t need to worry about that and using plenty of cheese hides the vegetables from children allergic to green…

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Homity Pie

(Serves 8)

For the pastry:

– 150g plain flour – Pinch of salt – 75g unsalted butter – 1 egg yolk – 1 tbsp cold water

For the filling:

– 350g waxy potatoes, such as ‘Charlottes’ – 10g salted butter – 1 tbsp sunflower oil – 1 large onion, sliced – 1-2 leeks, sliced – 1 large garlic clove, diced – 175g grated cheddar cheese – 1tbsp chopped parsley – 1tbsp thyme leaves – 1 tbsp double cream – Salt and pepper – 3tbsp breadcrumbs – 3tbsp grated parmesan cheese

Make the pastry: In a large bowl, add the flour, salt and butter. Using your fingertips, mix the ingredients together until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre and add the egg yolk and the dash of cold water. Using a wooden spoon, bring the ingredients together until they start to form a dough – if it is too dry add more water, too wet add more flour. Once you have made a dough, using your hands, knead it together into a ball. Put to one side while you make the filling.
Preheat the oven 200C. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Scrub the potatoes and cut them into 2cm pieces and place in the boiling water and leave until cooked through. Drain and set to one side to cool.
Put the butter and oil in a frying pan and add the onion and leek, frying until soft and tender before stirring in the diced garlic and removing from the heat.
In a VERY large bowl, add the potatoes and contents from the frying pan, mixing together with the grated cheddar cheese, parsley, thyme and double cream. Season with salt and pepper.
Line a 20cm tin with baking parchment. Remove the parchment and place the pastry in the centre. Roll it out with a rolling pin so that it is a large circle. Place it inside the tin so that the pastry is evenly going up the sides of the tin halfway all around. Scrape the filling into the pastry case, smoothing down the top. Mix the breadcrumbs and parmesan together and sprinkle over the top.
Cook in the oven for 40 minutes until the pastry is cooked and the top is golden brown. Leave to stand for 5-10 minutes before serving with a leafy salad.

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Cabbages

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‘Traviata’ Savoy

The cabbage, Brassica orleracea is a leafy green, purple or white biennial plant grown as an annual vegetable crop for its dense leaved heads. Cabbage has been bred selectively for head weight and, well, pretty-looks, frost hardiness, fast growth and storage ability. The appearance of the cabbage head has been given importance in selective breeding, with varieties being chosen for shape, colour and firmness of the leaves.

The cabbage originated from the wild cabbage (also called colewort or field cabbage) and is closely related to broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and other similar vegetables that have descended from the same ancestor. ‘Cabbage’ was originally used to refer to multiple forms of B. oleracea, including those with loose or non-existent heads. The original family name of brassicas was Cruciferae that derived from the flower petal pattern thought by medieval Europeans to resemble a crucifix. Brassica derives from bresic, an actual Celtic word for cabbage.  Many European and Asiatic names for cabbage came from the Celto-Slavic root cap or kap, meaning ‘head’. The English word cabbage came from the word caboche, meaning head, too. This in turn has been sourced from the Picard Dialect of Old French. This is a variant of the Old French caboce. 

Ok, complicated origins of language done, onto the rest of the history…

It is difficult to trace the exact origins of the cabbage due to the number of crops given the same name (no surprise for the reader after the previous paragraph) over the centuries but the wild cabbage could have originated in Europe prior to 1000 BC. The wild cabbage that was originally discovered in Britain and other places in Europe was tolerant of salt and found to inhabit rocky cliffs and coastal habitats. Cabbages were probably domesticated by Celts of central and western Europe and along with kale were probably among the first of the brassica family to be domesticated. By early Roman times, Egyptian artisans and children are recorded to have eaten notable amounts of cabbages and turnips alongside a wide variety of pulses. The ancient Greeks are supposed to have eaten some form of cabbage but whether it was similar to the type we eat today remains unknown. Greeks were afraid that cabbages planted too close to grapevines gave the grapes a bad taste due to the strong smelling odour of the plant. This theory is still believed in the country today.

Cabbages were harvested in England as far back as the Celts but it was during the high Middle Ages that the crop became prominent in illustrations and manuscripts and seeds began to be listed for sale for the use of King John II of France when captive in 1360. Cabbages were a staple of the poor man’s diet. In 1420, the ‘Bourgeois of Paris’ noted that the poor ate ‘nothing but cabbages and turnips’. Cabbages spread from Europe into Mesopotamia and Egypt as a winter vegetable and later followed trading routes throughout Asia and the Americas. The absence of Sanskrit or other ancient Eastern language names for cabbage suggests that the crop was not introduced to South Asia until relatively recently. In India, the cabbage was one of several vegetable crops introduced by colonising traders from Portugal who established trade routes from the 14th to 17th centuries. Carl Peter Thunberg reported that the cabbage was not yet known in Japan in 1775. Cabbage seeds traveled to Australia in 1788 with the First Fleet, and were planted the same year on Norfolk Island. It became a favorite vegetable of Australians by the 1830s.

Total world production of all brassicas for calendar year 2012 was 70,104,972 metric tons. The nations with the largest production were China, which produced 47 percent of the world total and India that produced 12 percent. These countries used an enormous surface area in production. The largest yields were from South Korea, which harvested 71,188.6 kilograms per hectare, Ireland (68,888.9 kg/ha), and Japan (67,647.1 kg/ha).

Cabbage consumption varies widely around the world: Russia has the highest annual per capita consumption at 20 kilograms (44 lb), followed by Belgium at 4.7 kilograms (10 lb), the Netherlands at 4.0 kilograms (8.8 lb), and Spain at 1.9 kilograms (4.2 lb). Americans consume 3.9 kilograms (8.6 lb) annually per capita.

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‘Primo’

Start sowing cabbages under the cover of fleece or in little pots/modules indoors for the best results in germination. I have tried both of these approaches and the second worked best for me but I still got adequate results from direct sowing so see what works well for you. The timing varies on the type of cabbage:

Summer/autumn cabbages – sown March-April

Winter cabbages: April-May

Spring cabbages: July-August 

Plant out the cabbies around 6 weeks after sowing when they are 7/8cm tall and are growing their second leaves. Make sure they are planted into soil that has been fertilised well as they are hungry plants that need lots of feeding and watering to become gorgeous, wrinkled balls of good-stuff.

This is my first year of growing cabbages but I planted this year:

Primo F1 – (Sow February-April or July-August for overwinter)

Caserta F1 (mini-savoy) – (January-May)

Traviata F1 (another savoy) – (April-June) – I am harvesting these at the moment – DELICIOUS!

I would also recommend ‘Primero’ and ‘Kilaxy’ – I could not get hold of the seeds in time this year. ‘Primero’ is a red variety for those who would like to grow that colour.

They were all very successful but heaven for slugs and snails.

You can recognise when a cabbage is ready for harvesting when the centre forms a relatively solid heart. Use secateurs or a sharp knife to cut the head free. After you have cut the head off the plant, where the cut stem is, engrave a deep cross into the centre. This is a ‘cut and come again’ approach. The stem will produce small hearts that you can harvest again later. I tried this with ‘Primo’ stems and they have produced sweet little cabbages ready for picking.

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Cabbage white caterpillars are a cabbage’s most deadly enemy. They can decimate a cabbage patch overnight. Use insect netting straight away to protect your crops. The worst problems I have experienced with my cabbages are slug and snail infestations. Due to the insect netting, it means I do not always have the time to check that the cabbages are alright and it is hard to spot slug and snail damage through the green material. When I have harvested them, I have spent a long time picking slugs and snails out from the inner-leaves and the last time I weeded and fed the patch I was there for what felt like hours trying to be rid of those slightly slimy creepy-crawlies. The other big problem I had with about three of my cabbages was flee beetle. They destroyed nearly two but these ones I used for my sauerkraut recipe (see below).

Cabbage is an excellent source of vitamin C and K, containing more than 20% of the Daily Value. Cabbage is also a good source (10–19% DV) of vitamin B6 and folate. Studies suggest that cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, may have protective effects against colon cancer. Purple cabbage contains anthocyanin that are under preliminary research for potential anti-carcinogenic properties. Cabbages have been used historically as medicinal herb for a variety of purported health benefits. The Ancient Greeks recommended consuming the vegetable as a laxative and used cabbage juice as an antidote for mushroom poisoning, for eye salves, and for liniments used to help bruises heal. In Cato the Elder’s work De Agri Culturia (On Agriculture), he suggested that women could prevent diseases by bathing in urine obtained from those who had frequently eaten cabbage. Roman authors believed it could cure a hangover and Ancient Egyptians ate cabbage at the beginning of meals to prevent the dizzying effects of wine to be drunk later. The cooling properties of the leaves were used in Britain as a treatment for trench foot in World War I, and as compresses for ulcers and breast abbesses. Accumulated scientific evidence corroborates that cabbage leaf treatment can reduce the pain and hardness of engorged breasts, and increase the duration of breast feeding. Other medicinal uses recorded in Europe folk medicine include treatments for rheumatism, sore throat, colic, and melancholy. Both mashed cabbage and cabbage juice have been used in poultices to remove boils and treat warts, pneumonia, appendicitis and ulcers.

How one eats a cabbage depends on the person. I like my green ones (as you can see from the varieties I have planted) shredded/cut up into pieces and boiled. My parents and sister also like red cabbages, boiled and both types shredded and eaten raw, particularly in coleslaw to eat with a baked potato or a quiche (Salad – Lettuce Quiche recipe).

As for boiled cabbage, serve it with any meal you would eat a cooked green with. For example, try it with my Recipe: Mashed Potato, Cheese and Tomato BakeRecipe: Mum’s Fish PiesCalabrese Broccoli  – sausages, potatoes and veg.

The other way I eat cabbage is in sauerkraut. Now, it took me time to like this dish. I trained myself to eat it because of how good it is meant to be for people with gut problems, which I do suffer from time to time. Sauerkraut is finely cut cabbage that has been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria. It has a long shelf life and a distinctive sour flavour, both of which result from the lactic acid that forms when the bacteria ferment the sugars in the cabbage.

Sauerkraut is famously good for your gut. I really like it with cheese –  pasta, salad and cheddar, cheddar or brie melted on toast (my mum eats it with stilton, homemade oat soda bread, chutney and salad), baked potato and cheddar and salad… I also love a bowl of brown rice, lettuce, cut up avocado and sauerkraut all mixed up together. It looks strange and I was afraid to try it for so long (not a fan of vinegar and I didn’t like cabbage until I ate sauerkraut) but I’ve struggled from digestive issues and I took up eating it to cure them – I hasten to add it wasn’t a magic-curing-pill, neither was the raw milk, bio-organic yoghurt, sourdough and Symprove I took up at the same time, but it can still help and it doesn’t matter if it does or not, still tastes surprisingly good judging by how bad it looks and smells! Do not let appearances ruin your appetite, try a little with some cheese and crackers and transform your meal. Best of luck!

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Homemade Sauerkraut

1 red or green cabbage, about 1kg, thinly sliced or shredded

For the brine: – 1 litre water – 60g salt

– Kilner jar or large preserving jar(s)

1.For the brine, put the water and salt in a cooking pot and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally to encourage the salt to dissolve.

2.Allow to cool, then chill the brine in the fridge to about 5°C.

3.Put the shredded cabbage into a bowl or plastic container and pour in the chilled brine so that it covers the cabbage. It is quite tricky to keep cabbage submerged in brine, but placing a sieve, the right way up, on top of the cabbage, works well.

4.Cover the bowl (with the sieve still on top) with a tea towel or cling film and leave in a cool place, such as a pantry, with an ambient temperature no higher than 23°C, for 2 weeks.This will allow fermentation to begin without letting harmful bacteria multiply.

5.After 2 weeks, drain the brine from the cabbage. Your sauerkraut is now ready to eat. You can store the sauerkraut in a sealed Kilner jar or large jars in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

Pears

PRUNE: November – February

HARVEST: August – November

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Pears are a species of the genus Pyrus in the family Rosaceae.

Pears supposedly originated in the Caucasus from where they spread to Europe and Asia and that they were first cultivated more than 4000 years ago. There is evidence of its use as a food since prehistoric times. Many traces of it have been found in prehistoric pile dwellings around Lake Zurich. The word ‘pear’ occurs in all the Celtic languages. In Slavic and other dialects, differing appellations, still referring to the same thing are found. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans valued the fruit for its flavour and medicinal properties. The Romans ate them raw or cooked, just like apples. Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ recommended stewing them with honey and noted three dozen varieties. The Roman cookbook ‘De re coquinaria’  included a recipe for a spiced, stewed-pear patina, or soufflé. They also attributed aphrodisiacal properties to pears and the fruit was consecrated to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love.

Pears were cultivated in Britain during the Roman occupation but the production of the fruit was slow to develop although there is mention in the Domesday Book of old pear trees used for boundary markers. By the 13th century, many varieties of the fruit had been imported from France and was used mainly for cooking rather than eating raw. Towards the end of the 14th century, the ‘Warden’ pear had been bred and became famous for its inclusion in British pies. The variety is mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and the Michaelmas Fair at Bedford was renowned for baked ‘Warden’ pears. In 1640, about 64 varieties had been cultivated in the UK. Grafting onto quince rootstock began to replace pear and crab apples rootstocks. In the 18th century improved strains were introduced from Belgium however the majority of pears continued to be used for cooking rather than raw consumption. Dessert pears were grown in private gardens but were unsuitable for commercial cultivation. One exception was the ‘William’s Pear’, introduced in 1770 by a schoolmaster in Aldermaston, Berkshire. It became very popular and is still produced today but on a limited scale. Another old variety, the ‘Worcester’, has the distinction of being in the coat-of-arms of the city of Worcester although this russeted culinary pear has virtually disappeared from production today.

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During the early 19th century, renowned horticulturist Thomas Andrew Knight began developing new pear varieties. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) encouraged pear growing and in 1826 there were 622 varieties in their gardens at Chiswick. The breakthrough in dessert varieties occurred in 1858 with the introduction into England of ‘Doyenne du Comice’. The first significant English pear to be produced by controlled breeding was ‘Fertility’ in 1875, although this variety is no longer produced commercially. Well-known ‘Conference’ was introduced in 1894 and with ‘Comice’ quickly overshadowed all other pear varieties that have declined in production today. During the 20th century both the sales and production of ‘Comice’ declined whilst ‘Conference’ increased in popularity and today this variety represents more than 90% of UK commercial production. The 5 top pear producers in 2012 were China (17,325,831 metric tons), the USA, Argentina, Italy and Turkey.

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Pear trees can take a while to start fruiting properly and they do not appreciate the cold of an imperfect supply of water.

The varieties ‘Conference’ and ‘Doyenne du Comice’ are popular to grow in the UK. Both are recommended as reliable and relatively easy to expect a productive harvest from during October-November. For earlier pears, ‘Beurre Giffard’ produce in August. ‘Fondante d’Automne’ fruits September-October as does ‘Louise Bonne of Jersey’ and for a really late crop, ‘Clou Morceau’ is ready at the end of the year, December-January.

New varieties are self-fertile so if you only have space for one tree, look out for these brands. However, as with all fruit trees, even self-fertile trees will produce a better crop if there are other varieties of trees nearby. Some varieties do not pollinate with each other. Pears are usually grafted onto ‘Quince A’ (semi-vigorous, 4-6m in height) or ‘Quince C’ (semi-dwarfing, 2.5-5m).

Pears can be temperamental. ‘Conference’ is meant to be able to ‘rough it’ a little but that was our one pear tree that struggled last year, came back to life a little when we moved it to a better location earlier this year before dying on us a few weeks ago. Pears require a sheltered, sunny location with a fertile, well-drained soil that is neutral or acidic. Apparently, they do not like sandy soils – oops for us. However, if you can get your pear tree to survive and fruit, it is well worth it – they taste so much better than shop pears and you can grow varieties that your local supermarket would never dream of selling.

Plant your pear trees 5m from its neighbour if it is a ‘Quince A’ rootstock, 3.5m if it is a ‘C’. Pear trees are pruned as for apples. For the first winter, prune the central leader to a bud that is around 25cm above the highest lateral. Cut back the laterals by half, 6mm above an outward facing bud. Remove any other ranches that develop along the trunk. For the second winter, prune the laterals by 1/3, just above an outward facing bud to encourage an open centre to the tree. Sublaterals will have grown so choose three on each branch that are not facing the centre and are as equally spaced as possible, cutting them back by 1/3. Shorten other sublaterals to 3 or 4 buds to encourage growth into fruiting spurs. Remove any shoots that have grown along the trunk. For the third winter, choose further well-placed sublaterals to prune back by 1/3 to extend the network of beaches and prune back others to form short spurs of 3 or 4 buds as before. Remove nay branches that are crossing or growing towards the centre of the tree.

Water pear trees through any dry periods in summer and add well-rotten manure and Blood, Fish and Bone and mulch as a fertiliser at the base of the tree (not touching the trunk) in early spring, say March. This will really benefit your harvest and the health of the tree.

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Harvesting pears is an art. There are three stages: Picking, storing, ripening. You should pick nearly all of your pears while they are still hard. They need time to ripen and mature when they are off the tree. Judging the time for picking is the key. Look out for the first windfalls, a subtle lightening or flushing of the skin, or when you cup a pear and lift it upwards and gently twist it separates from the tree with the stalk intact. Check frequently as they ripen very quickly and will become mush or ‘sleepy’ – grainy, soft and sometimes brown. This will be the same on the tree or in storage. This year I picked all of mine when there were windfalls. Some were getting slightly soft, others were still very hard. They are sitting in a container in the kitchen and every day I check which ones are ready for cutting and slice and serve them alongside pudding every night as an option. We freeze any of the leftovers. You can freeze sliced pears as they are (coring them will make it easier to use them once they are out of the freezer as they do become soggy once defrosted) or you can layer them up and squeeze lemon juice over the top to prevent them from browning. I have tried both ways and they are fine. I would recommend only freezing pears you want to cook with. Eating them raw after freezing them will not be pleasant. Eat your fresh ones raw and same the frozen ones for cooking. You can also cook any that refuse to ripen or if you have a glut and are impatient for them to stop being so rock solid. Last year we had a glut of red pears that refused to ripen. I cooked them all in cakes and they were delicious.

Pears can suffer from scab, fireblight and pear leaf blister mites or pear midges that cause the leaves to roll up. In both cases, pull off and burn the leaves. Also, net your fruit if you can. Birds and foxes love to knick any they can.

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A pear in a 100 g serving (small pear) is a good source of dietary fibre. They are also rich in important antioxidants and flavonoids. The fiber content in pears prevents constipation and promotes regularity for a healthy digestive tract. A high fiber diet is associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes and keeps blood sugar stable. Increased fiber intakes have also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A review of 67 separate controlled trials found that even a modest 10-gram per day increase in fiber intake reduced LDL and total cholesterol.Recent studies have shown that dietary fiber may even play a role in regulating the immune system and inflammation, consequently decreasing the risk of inflammation-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. High fiber diets have been shown to decrease the prevalence in flare-ups of diverticulitis by absorbing water in the colon and making bowel movements easier to pass. Eating a healthful, fruit and vegetable and fiber-filled diet can reduce pressure and inflammation in the colon. Although the cause of diverticular disease is still unknown, it has been repeatedly associated with a low fibre diet.

Pears are the sort of fruit that goes wonderfully well with salads and salty cheeses (think pear and goats cheese salad). Walnuts are another great accompaniment. You can poach pears and serve them with a sauce or ice cream or cream or other spices. Pear crumble is probably a good option for a warming winter pud and I have seen pear and chocolate puddings floating around on the internet that look yummy. I do think that pears in a plain sponge cake go very well and even better with raspberries too (they make a good pairing). I offer you my take on the traditional Welsh Plate cake. These were historically currant cakes. I was inspired to try my own variation when I saw a white chocolate and cherry welsh plate cake. I was not so keen on the combination but saw the opportunity to create my own version using pears and raspberries as a fresh fruit alternative to currants. The cooking time will vary completely on the amount of liquid you use so give it time to bake and practice patience with this cake. Otherwise, it is very easy and quick to make and delicious hot or cold. I even had one of my slices with some homemade chocolate sauce which was OK, but plain was better in my opinion. Give it a go.

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Pear and Raspberry Welsh Plate Cake

(Serves 10, makes one 20cm cake)

– 225g plain flour – 2tsp baking powder – Grinding of nutmeg – 110g salted butter – 110g caster sugar – 2 large eggs – About 100ml milk/ pouring yoghurt/ buttermilk – 100g pears, cored and sliced into segments – 100g raspberries – Demerara sugar, for the top

  1. Preheat oven to 180C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Tip the flour, baking powder and nutmeg into a large bowl. Using your fingertips, mix in the butter until the ingredients combine and resemble breadcrumbs.
  3. Using a spoon, mix in the sugar and then the eggs until well combined.
  4. Add a little milk/yoghurt/buttermilk at a time until you have a dropping consistency – you may not need all of the liquid. Stir in the fruit.
  5. Scrape into the lined cake tin and smooth over the surface. Sprinkle Demerara sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for 40minutes-1hr until a cake skewer inserted into the centre leaves the cake clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool a little before serving.

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Cucumbers

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‘Passandra’

Cucumbers (Cucurbitaceae family, or gourd) originated from Asia where it spread over its borders around 4000 years ago, becoming eventually the fourth most widely cultivated vegetable in the world. Long, green cylinders that are on every shop shelf around the country, the cucumber is a strangely popular vegetable – strange because it is more fruit-like in its appearance and watery, cooling taste. It is the ultimate ingredient for a summer salad or a glass of pimms.

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‘Marketmore’

They originated in the wild in India. Around 2-3 millennia BC they started to be cultivated and infused into the rich Indian cuisine. It spread through trading with Middle Eastern and European countries.

The Romans embraced cucumbers heartily. Their ease at producing them made them popular amongst the nobility and lower classes alike – Emperor Tiberius declared he would eat a cucumber every day and during the summer months his gardens were tended just for vegetables and in the winter cucumbers were grown in moveable bed frames that were moved to expose the sun or illuminated with mirror-stones. In Rome, cucumbers were also used in the medical profession, over 40 various remedies included them. They were used to treat everything, from bad eyesight, scorpion bites, infertile women who wished for children were encouraged to carry them around their waists.

After the end of the Roman Empire, cucumbers decreased in popularity and it was not until the court of Charlemagne in the 8th or 9th century that cucumbers resurfaced. Cucumbers arrived in England during the 14th century where they were not popular until the mid-17th century. During the 18th century, the expansion of cucumbers across North America halted when several medicinal journals claimed that uncooked cucumbers and similar vegetables produced serious health risks. Discouraged by this theory, cucumbers were abandoned on the continent until the 19th century when their safety and nutrition was confirmed. In 2010, worldwide production of cucumbers was 57.5 million tonnes.

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‘Crystal Apple’

The cucumber is a creeping vine that bears cylindrical fruits. There are three types of cucumber: slicing, pickling and burpless. Cucumbers enclose seeds and develop from a flower and are botanically speaking classified as pepoes (a type of botanical berry, like courgettes I posted about previously). In this way they are very much like tomatoes and squashes (same family) as they are often also treated as vegetables.

Cucumbers are usually more than 90% water. This high water content means that they are low in most essential nutrients, the only notable one really being vitamin K, 16% of our daily recommended value.

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Cucumber sandwich means summer

Cucumbers can be difficult to keep healthy. They are fussy about temperature changes and like to be kept in a humid environment, watered well but not too much and they really do hate being potted on, they don’t like to be disturbed. They are also quite hungry little plants so remember to feed them every fortnight if possible. Common diseases include powdery mildew and cucumber mosaic virus (see Courgettes for more information about these two diseases). The worst pest is the sap-sucking red spider mite that attacks the foilage on the cucumber plants (and other greenhouse plants) which eventually causes a mottled look followed by death of the plant. Biological control is the only remedy as the mite is immune to most pesticides.

Cucumbers have been bred to remove their natural bitterness and most supermarket varieties have a watery, diluted taste and consistency. They can be pickled, cooked and eaten raw. They are perfect for salads or as side dishes, such as combining them with yoghurt alongside curries where their cooling taste takes the heat off spicy dishes. Once pickled they can be kept in the fridge for a few days but are recommended best eaten fresh (‘Letith’s Vegetable Bible’). You cannot freeze cucumbers successfully due to the high water content. If you have a glut and cannot eat them all, pickling or including them in a chutney is your best way of using them up and preserving them that little bit longer. If you ever do produce a bitter cucumber, try peeling the skin off, the inside should be fine.

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‘Crystal Apple’

Varieties I have tried: ‘Marketmore’ – Sow: February-April. Traditional, cylinder shaped, dark green produce with bumpy skin that smooths during growing. The skin has a stronger taste than shop bought ones but I quite like it; I find it more flavoursome. The taste is not bitter unless the watering is inconsistent. Do not remove the male flowers on this plant. Suitable for outdoor and indoor growing.

‘Crystal Apple’ – Sow: April-June. Suitable for indoor and outdoor growing, this plant produces yellow coloured balls – literally apple-shaped cucumbers. They have a lighter, crisper taste than ‘Marketmore’. They are gorgeous and quite small too if you want to eat a whole cucumber in one meal.

‘Passandra’ – Sow: February-April. A new type I am trying out this year. Cylinder shaped, light green, smooth skin. They are advertised as being disease resistant. They taste delicious and are my little brother’s favourite. They look a little more like the ones we have bought from Sainsbury’s and are a safe option for starting to grow your own cucumbers, especially if you are growing for a family. The ‘Passandra’ variety have been our most productive so far this year.

Sow indoors, 0.5cm (1/4 inch) deep, on edge, in pots of compost. I like to sow mine in tall yoghurt pots (think Yeo Valley yoghurt styled containers, tall ones that give the roots lots of space to grow). Puncture a hole in the bottom to let the water drip out so that the plant is not drowning). Water the plant well and place in a temperature of 21-24C (70-75F). When mine have germinated, I like to place them on a warm, sunny windowsill during the day time and keeping them on the floor at night-time when the temperatures dip. When the plants have grown 3-4 leaves, harden them off in slightly cooler conditions (I move mine to a cooler room in the house to begin with). Some varieties can be planted outside by the brave (I have tried and failed with ‘Marketmore’ last year, never again, I will stick to indoor growing after losing 11 plants over various months…) at 60cm (2 inches) apart. Otherwise, pot them on inside a greenhouse in large containers up to their lower leaves. Water well and stake them with canes to give the tendrils something to cling onto as they grow and climb. Give them a weak, liquid comfrey feed every couple of weeks to encourage the growth of new flowers and to keep them healthy. Once they start producing, don’t be tempted to leave all of the cucumbers on the plants to become ginormous. Keep picking them at a medium size and they will be encouraged to produce more fruit so that you get a constant supply over the harvest season. With any luck, you may be picking them from July to October.

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There are plenty of ways to use a cucumber: add to any dish that requires a salad in circular discs, make cucumber sandwiches, cucumber and tuna and mayonnaise sandwiches, cheese and cucumber sandwiches, shred them and serve it in Chinese pancakes along with crispy duck and plum sauce, shred them and put them in a stir fry, the classic Greek salad, or as, I said earlier, add to yoghurt and eat alongside a curry – cucumber raita.

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Matte Paneer Curry
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Cucumber Raita

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Matte Paneer Curry with Cucumber Raita

Paneer is an Indian cheese with a sort of rubbery texture that can be bought it most supermarkets. Do not be put of by its look, it tastes amazing and is my favourite curry. ‘Matte’ translates as ‘peas’. To make ‘Saage Paneer curry’, replace the peas with spinach (‘saage’ means ‘spinach’). For meat eaters, replace the paneer with some freid chicken and for a vegan replace with some cooked chickpeas. You can also replace the coconut cream or milk with about 100-200g ground cashew nuts – it just thickens the curry a little.

(Serves 6)

For the curry: – 1 large onion, finely sliced – Olive oil or ghee, to fry in – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1 tsp fenugreek seeds – Handful of curry leaves (if available) – 2 large garlic cloves, finely diced – 1/4 tsp ground cumin – 1/4 tsp ground coriander – 1/2 tsp Garam masala – 1tsp ground turmeric – 2x 400g can of tinned tomatoes  – 225g paneer cheese – 250ml can/packet coconut milk or cream – 100g peas

For the cucumber raita: -1/2 cucumber – 200g Greek or natural plain yoghurt

To serve: – 300g brown or white basmati rice – Popadoms, chapatis, naan bread, or a mixture of all three – Mango, lime or tomato chutney – Shredded lettuce and other salad like chopped up tomatoes or plain cucumber, optional

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Stir in and leave to simmer for a few minutes to combine flavours.
  3. Add the tinned tomatoes, stir in and turn the heat up to high. Add the coconut milk or cream and stir in again – this thickens the curry a little.
  4. Cut the paneer cheese into small cubes. Add to the curry followed by the peas.
  5. Once the curry has thickened slightly and the peas have cooked, turn it down to a simmer until you are ready to serve.
  6. To make the cucumber raita: cut the cucumber into discs and then cut crosses through those discs to make 4 triangles. Put them into a large bowl and stir in the yoghurt until it is combined. Set aside until ready to serve.
  7. Serve the Matte Paneer curry along with the cucumber raita and rice, any Indian bread, chutney, side curries and salad you like. Try my Red Lentil, Carrot and Courgette Dahl Courgettes and my Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread.

Happy Indian banquet!

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Mix the Matte Paneer curry with other side dishes
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Top with the cucumber raita for a crispy, cooling accompaniment for the spicy curry