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’
Cos lettuce: ‘Romaine Ballon’ (March-July)
‘Grandpa Admire’s Butterhead Lettuce’ (from ‘Real Seeds Company’, March-August sowing)
‘Reine des Glaces Toothed Crisphead Lettuce’ (“)
‘Red Iceburg Lettuce’ (“)
‘Really Red Lettuce’ (“)
Other recommended varieties are:
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.