Spring/Summer has sprung!

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Heat wave = spending my life watering the vegetable garden. I swear it dries out a couple of seconds after watering…

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But the blossoms are finally out, the broadbeans are growing nicely along with the radishes outside. The tomatoes and cucumbers need potting on. Oh and yeah, I put an axe in my foot so I’m slightly behind in my weeding this year…

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Tomatoes

Tomato – the edible, often red, veg of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The plant belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae (potatoes, auberinges/ eggplants). The species originated in western South America.

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Wild versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans who were suspicious. This was exacerbated by the interaction of the tomato’s acidic juice with pewter plates. The leaves and immature fruit in fact contain trace amounts of solanine which in larger quantity would be toxic, although the ripe fruit does not. Aztecs used the fruit in their cooking. The Nahuatl (Aztec language) word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word “tomate”, from which the English word tomato derived. The exact date of domestication is unknown, but by 500 BC it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in a herbal written in 1544 by an Italian physician and botanist who suggested that a new type of aubergine/ eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant – cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. It was not until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples”. Taken to Europe, the tomato grew easily in Mediterranean climates and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, and was certainly being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain.

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Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on after their arrival in Italy. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they “were to be sought only for their beauty”, and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their habit of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692.

 

Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. However, by the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated the tomato was “in daily use” in soups and broths. They were not part of the average person’s diet, and though by 1820 they were described as “to be seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets” and to be “used by all our best cooks”, reference was made to their cultivation in gardens still “for the singularity of their appearance”, while their use in cooking was associated with exotic Italian cuisine.

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, a berry, consisting of the ovary together with its seeds, of a flowering plant. However, the tomato has a much lower sugar content than other edible fruits, and is therefore not as sweet. Typically served as part of a salad or main course, rather than at dessert, it is considered a culinary vegetable. One exception is that tomatoes are treated as a fruit in home canning practices: they are acidic enough to process in a water bath rather than a pressure cooker as vegetables require.

Tomato plants are vines, initially decumbent, typically growing 180 cm (6 ft) or more above the ground if supported, although erect bush varieties have been bred, generally 100 cm (3 ft) tall or shorter. Tomato plants are dicots and grow as a series of branching stems, with a terminal bud at the tip that does the actual growing. When that tip eventually stops growing, whether because of pruning or flowering, lateral buds take over and grow into other, fully functional, vines. Tomato vines are covered with fine short hairs. These hairs facilitate the vining process, turning into roots wherever the plant is in contact with the ground and moisture.

The poor taste and lack of sugar in modern garden and commercial tomato varieties resulted from breeding tomatoes to ripen uniformly red. This change occurred after discovery of a mutant “u” phenotype in the mid 20th century that ripened “u”niformly. This was widely cross-bred to produce red fruit without the typical green ring around the stem on uncross-bred varieties. Prior to general introduction of this trait, most tomatoes produced more sugar during ripening, and were sweeter and more flavorful.

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Here are some to try growing: 

Garden Pearl (Determinate) – Sweet cherry tomatoes, happiest in large pots outdoors.

Marmande (Semi-determinate) – Large irregular fruits with excellent flavour, happiest grown outdoors.

San Marzano 2 (Semi-determinate) – Classic flashy Italian plum tomato, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Golden Sunrise (Indeterminate) – Distinct sweet flavour, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Red Cherry (Indeterminate) – Prolific crops of sweet ‘cherry toms’ happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Tigerella (Indeterminate) – Good flavour and novel stripes on the skin, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Sungold F1 (Cherry) – Attractive golden fruits with a very high sugar content balanced with some acidity, Indeterminate.

Shirley F1 – A much loved variety famed for its heavy yields of well-flavoured fruits – an outstanding hybrid.  Indeterminate.

Loretto F1 – sweet cherry sized fruits with excellent flavour and a good choice for outdoor containers. Resistance to blight is one of the major benefits of this cascading ‘bush’ tomato. Indeterminate.

Alicante F1 – One of the best for flavour and very reliable yielding a good crop of medium sized tomatoes. Indeterminate.

Ferline F1 – A top quality tomato variety producing high yields of large and tasty fruits. Trials have shown that tomato Ferline F1 has excellent resistant to blight. Indeterminate.

Indeterminate – these varieties of tomatoes are the most common and are grown as cordons (single stemmed plants with side shoots removed). They will grow very tall – sometimes taller than 2.5m in very warm conditions.

Bush/Determinate – these varieties stop growing sooner than indeterminate varieties with the stem ending in a fruit truss. They are referred to as ‘bush’ and ‘dwarf’ types (suitable as hanging basket tomatoes) and don’t require any pruning.

Semi-determinate – these are similar to indeterminate varieties (grown as cordons) only they produce shorter plants.

Types of tomatoes:

  • Beefsteak tomatoes – 10 cm (4 in) or more in diameter. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a lower water /higher solids content for use in tomato sauce for canning and are usually oblong 7–9 cm (3–4 in) long and 4–5 cm (1.6–2.0 in) diameter; like the Roma-type tomatoes.
  • Cherry tomatoes – small and round, often sweet tomatoes, about the same 1–2 cm (0.4–0.8 in) size as the wild tomato. Probably my personal favourite.
  • Grape tomatoes – are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes.
  • Campari – are sweet and noted for their juiciness, low acidity, and lack of mealiness, bigger than cherry tomatoes, and smaller than plum tomatoes.
  • Tomberries –  tiny tomatoes, about 5 mm in diameter.
  • Oxheart tomatoes can range in size up to beefsteaks, and are shaped like large strawberries.
  • Pear tomatoes are pear-shaped and can make a rich gourmet paste.
  • “Slicing” or “globe” tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating. The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in) diameter range.

Heirloom tomatoes are becoming popular amongst home growers as they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops at the cost of disease resistance and productivity. The definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, but unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-fertile varieties that have bred true for 40 years or more.

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How to grow tomatoes

In England, we can be kind-of lucky and get some tomatoes off the vines when we grow them outside, but really it is easier to do it in a greenhouse as they will prefer warmer growing conditions.

Tomato seed is normally sown 6-8 weeks before the last frost date (March/April) although they can be sown earlier for greenhouse cultivation. Sprinkle your tomato seed thinly on the surface of good quality seed compost. Cover the seed with about 1.5mm (1/16in) of compost and water lightly with a fine-rose watering can. If only a few plants are required sow two seeds into a 7.5cm (3in) pot and after germination remove the smaller plant. The seeds generally germinate in about 7 to 14 days at a temperature of around 21C (70F). Keep the compost moist. Pot on the tomato seedlings when large enough to handle, taking care not to touch the stem. Handle the plants by the leaves and transplant them carefully into 7.5cm (3in) pots. Take care not to expose the plants to frost, cold winds and draughts as this may kill them. Tomatoes need a lot of water and feed (high potash) to get the best fruit. Water little and often for the best results. If growing outdoors, plant approximately 45cm (18 in) between the plants and 75cm (30in) between the rows. Regularly pinching out of tomato side shoots will concentrate the plant’s energy into producing fruit.

One of the most common problems when growing tomatoes is tomato blight, which spreads quickly throughout the plant in wet weather, causing the plant to die and the fruits to decay. The symptoms are brown patches on all parts of the plant. It is much more common in tomatoes growing outside than tomatoes growing in a greenhouse.

Start picking your tomatoes as the fruits ripen and gain full colour. When frost threatens at the end of the season, lift any plants with unripe fruit on them and hang them upside down under cover.

Tomatoes contain excellent amounts of fiber, vitamins A, C (to resist infections), and K, potassium (controlling heart rate and blood pressure), and manganese. Good amounts of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper are other resources. In daily value, tomatoes provide 38% of what is needed in vitamin C, 30% in vitamin A, and 18% in vitamin K. Tests suggest tomatoes may be a preventive factor against prostate cancer. Lycopene flavonoid antioxidant has the ability to protect the cells even as it protects the skin from ultraviolet damage, and as a possible result, skin cancer. Lycopene in tomatoes has been proven to decrease oxidative stress and risk of osteoporosis and prevent serum lipid oxidation, thus exerting a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases. The coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid, in tomatoes, fight against nitrosamines, which are the main carcinogens found in cigarettes. The presence of vitamin A in high quantities has been shown to reduce the effects of carcinogens and can protect you against lung cancer. Tomatoes keep the digestive system healthy by preventing both constipation and diarrhoea. They also prevent jaundice and effectively remove toxins from the body.

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There are so many ways of using tomatoes and they are such a valuable crop to grow yourself. You can eat them raw, as part of a salad or cheese sandwich, cheese toasty, stuff them, cook with them to make a sauce for any dish, fry them to go with your English breakfast, sun dry them, bottle or can to make your own tinned tomatoes, always a handy thing to have at hand for a quick meal… 

Here are some recipes that use tomatoes. Plenty more on the site!

Recipe: Mushroom Tomato Risotto

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

 

Recipe: Fried courgette-tomato sauce with spaghetti

Updated recipe: homemade pizza

Quinoa – Chicken Casserole

Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

Salad – Rocket – Pasta and tinned tomatoes and rocket

Keep searching for more recipes! 

Recipe: Microwaved Potato with Mushrooms and Tomatoes – instant dinner

Sometimes you just need a really quick, easy meal to make at the end of the day. Or the middle of the day.

But wouldn’t it be great if it was actually pretty nutritious too? Or even better, using things you could possibly grow yourself?

I love making meals where everything can be grown in my own garden. It is sad, but I get very over-excited about it.

Here is one, really quick and easy idea to try…

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Mushrooms and Tomatoes

Microwaved Potatoe with Mushrooms and Tomatoes 

(Serves 1)

-1 medium/large potato -Knob of salted butter -2 large tomatoes -4 button mushrooms -Salad or green veg, to serve

  1. Poke holes in the potato and put it in the microwave for about 10-20 minutes, depending on the heat of the microwave. Keep checking – when it feels squishy all over, it is done.
  2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan or frying pan. Chop the mushrooms into fine pieces and gently fry in the butter.
  3. Chop the tomatoes up into chunky pieces and add to the frying mushrooms. Stir and leave to fry on a low heat for a few minutes. Once the mushrooms are darkened and the tomatoes are cooked, remove from the heat and serve with the potato and some salad or green veg.

Borlotti Beans

The borlotti bean (singular borlotto in Italian), also known as the cranberry bean, Roman bean or romano bean (not to be confused with the Italian flat bean, a green bean also called “romano bean”), saluggia bean (named after the town Saluggia in Italy where borlotti beans have been grown since the early 1900s), or rosecoco bean, is a variety of  common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) first bred in Colombia as the cargamanto. The bean is a medium to large tan or hazelnut-colored bean splashed or streaked with red. They come in large beige and red pods with colours that resemble the dried beans.

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They originated in Colombia in South America and were one of the crops that found their way into Europe with the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The Italians were the first Europeans to embrace the borlotti bean (as well as the tomato). Now you can eat these beans in Italy in stews with polenta and in salads as well in appetizers along with prosciutto and lots of parsley and olive oil.

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The borlotti bean is a variety of the American cranberry bred in Italy to have a thicker skin. It is used in Italian, Portuguese (Catarino bean), Turkish, and Greek cuisine. When cooked the beans will lose some of their bright markings and turn a light brown colour.

Borlotti beans are potassium rich so are good for the muscles and for the proper functioning of the kidneys, as well as maintaining good blood pressure. They also contain other minerals such as sodium, zinc, selenium, copper (good for stimulating blood cell formation), calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron and phosphorous as well as Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. They contain vitamin A and several of the B-complex vitamins including B1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. Borlotti beans also contain 18 amino acids along with dietary fibre (good for the digestion), folate (good for pregnant women and enhancing the nervous system) and protein. If you are trying to grow your own vegetarian protein, beans are a good place to start…

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Sow indoors for surest results April-May, 2.5cm (1″) deep into individual pots of compost (I use tall yoghurt pots, they give the plant lots of root room). Water well and place in a warm position. A temperature of 15-20°C (60-68°F) is ideal. Gradually accustom plants to outside conditions (avoid frosts), before planting out when 15cm tall, 25cm (10″) apart, during May-June when frosts are over. Allow 45cm (18″) between rows. Like runner beans, insert canes into the ground along with the bean plant to allow them to climb up it. If it is sunny, cold or windy when you first plant them out, rig up some covering (I use left over horticultural fleece) to give them shade or protection from the elements that might damage them before they are fully established. You can harvest borlotti beans from July-October. To harvest, pick the pods before they set seed and slice them up and cook them like you would do to runner beans. Or, leave the pods on the plants and allow them to grow very big and to set seed. The pods will turn a pale straw colour as they start to dry out towards the end of summer or early autumn. Harvest and take them inside to continue drying before you pod the beans. The pods will rattle once they are ready. You can cook them straight away, freeze them or dry them out and store them in glass jars in the cupboard. They can be shelled into trays and placed in a warm place to continue drying. The beans should ultimately be light and hollow-sounding when tapped, at which point they can be decanted into glass jars for storage in a cool, dark place. Discard the pods at this stage, they get too tough to eat.

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Dried beans contain high amounts of lectin, a natural chemical which can cause stomach upsets. Soak the beans overnight or for at least eight hours then place into cool water. Bring the water up to a vigorous boil and boil like this for ten minute before turning down the heat and simmering till soft.

Grow borlotti beans from Mr Fothergills: ‘Climbing Bean Borlotto lingua di fuoco 2 Seeds‘.

Borlotti beans can be added to any dish for vegetarian protein.

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Coconut Borlotti Beans

Serves 4

-450g borlotti beans, pre-cooked -1dsp coconut oil -1 onion, finely sliced -2 generous handfuls of spinach leaves

  1. Warm the coconut oil in a frying pan. Add the sliced onion and fry until golden brown.
  2. Add the spinach leaves. Stir in until wilted before adding the borlotti beans. Combine and leave briefly so that the beans warm up.
  3. Remove from the heat and serve with rice or potatoes, as a side dish, or in a wrap.

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Recipe: Rhubarb and Blackberry Crumble

Never made this before…

We had a sudden influx of rhubarb and blackberries from a friend’s market. It was time to get inventive…

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Rhubarb and Blackberry Crumble

Serves 6

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

 

For the fruit: -250g blackberries, washed -120g granulated sugar – 250g rhubarb, washed and cut into small strips, about 5cm long – 75g granulated sugar

 

  1. Place the blackberries in a small pan with 120g sugar. Bring to the boil and then simmer until the blackberries have broken down and become stewed fruit.
  2. Preheat the oven to 160C. On a baking tray, spread the cut rhubarb out and sprinkle 75g of sugar over the top generously. Put the tray in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes until the rhubarb is just starting to become tender. Remove the tray from the oven and put it to one side.
  3. Prepare the topping: In a large bowl, mix the flour, butter and sugar with your fingertips until it has a breadcrumb consistency. If the mixture is too dry, add a little more butter and a dash of sugar. Likewise, if it is too wet, add a little more flour and sugar to the mixture.
  4. Scrape the rhubarb into a oven-proof dish, followed by the blackberries. Scatter the crumble topping over the fruit, spreading it evenly and thickly.
  5. Bake the crumble in the oven for about 1 hour or until the top is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm.

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Update: what better gift than a pile of… manure?

Ah, happiness is … a whole pile of cow manure.

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Couple of weekends ago, some lovely friends dropped off a whole tractor trailer of cow manure for the veg garden.

I’ve been panicking about how far behind I am this year with the veg patch as I couldn’t plant anything until I had finished uni for the year so I’ve only just started sowing seeds. But as soon as that pile of manure was dropped off, I just thought ‘yes, it is all ok, the garden will be fine’.

We live on VERY sandy soil and this cow manure is our secret ingredient for growing our crops.

To celebrate, we have planted out some trees this week – a crab apple, a cobnut, a nectarine, a peach, and we have the last two plums and gooseberry bushes left to sort out…

Indoors I’ve sown tomatoes that are starting to pop up, a couple of cucumbers, aubergines (eggplants), peppers, rocket and spinach. I’m hoping to move onto courgettes (zucchini) and chickpeas next…

Bring on spring!

 

 

Eating Disorder Awareness Week: The Truth Of It All

I considered writing a post about eating disorders to mark ED awareness week, despite this being a kitchen garden blog, simply because it has been exactly one year since I went to hospital myself.

I considered writing about how hard any eating disorder is, how different, how similar, how corrupting, how painful. I was going to list the physical problems, like the pain of sitting down on the toilet with not bottom for protection, and the mental problems, like the fear of guilt that makes you feel like you are going to explode. I had a long, long, long list written out, but then I realised: you don’t need me to tell you how bad any illness is. I’m not here to frighten anyone, I’m here to offer some light.

What you need to know is that

When you don’t have an eating disorder…

  • you feel happy.
  • you can breath again.
  • you feel warm.
  • you can eat proper meals.
  • you can sit down and watch a movie or read a book.
  • you can smile.
  • you can straighten up again.
  • you can hold a conversation with another human being.
  • you can exercise because you can, not because you have to or ‘want’ to, but because your body is well enough so you can, for fun!
  • is enjoying the little things in life you were ignoring.
  • is buying clothes from the adult section.
  • is being a truthful person no longer lying.
  • is being a good friend, daughter/son, sibling, partner.
  • is being able to join in with Christmas or Easter or birthdays.
  • is feeling alive.
  • is being able to say ‘sod you ED, I beat you!’

 

Many professionals have likened an eating disorder to someone with a broken arm or leg, that you have to give it time to heal. I’ve never quite seen that connection. TO me, the best way to describe an eating disorder is to compare it to an addiction – drugs, alcohol, even smoking. It is accepted that it is really hard to break these addictions, but there is an awful lot of secrecy and words not said. Broken body parts are acceptable to talk about, to be on display. Eating disorders are there to be hidden, to be shameful, embarrassing, a secret. No one goes round advocating that they have one, everyone else goes around staring and whispering, being frightened of this unknown, well, thing. But back to likening ED to addictions: Most of the time it involves intervention, extreme therapy and abstaining from the substance forever. Well, an eating disorder is like these addictions, but the thing we are addicted to is not an external object, but inside us. We become addicted to the feelings we get when we restrict/overeat/purge/exercise and it becomes our safety net. As the world becomes more terrifying, that bond gets stronger. It is so hard to change someone’s mind. For some reason, the pain you get from an eating disorder seems better than the pain you feel when you go against it, then you are stuck in a cycle and it is so hard to break.

Life is hard. I’m sitting here, a year on, and my meal plan has been slightly increased again – not because I’ve lost weight, but because I’m still a couple of kg under what would be the healthiest weight for me to maintain to be safe from anything that might cause me to lose weight in the future. Even now, I have to keep a strict eye on myself at all times.

I still have bad days. Some VERY bad days where everything hurts so much. I sometimes would not get up if it was not to feed my cat and the idea that I could garden or practice yoga, the three things in the world that make me feel at ease and give my life meaning at this point in time.

I am recovered, but I still have an eating disorder – my way of looking at the world is different to everybody else’s. I can’t afford to skip a meal otherwise it means I’m ‘ill’ again. I can’t eat at random times, I have a strict timetable to keep to. I can’t join in with random exercises otherwise hyper-gymnasia takes hold. My whole day is about staying in control and not losing my hold of the steering wheel – because once we are off course, it is hard to get back. Life feels very hard sometimes. If anyone wants to know how an addictive eating disorder feels, listen to Sara Bareilles ‘Gravity’ on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_U6iSAn_fY

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But then I have those beautiful moments. Those moments when I see my broad beans poking up their heads from the soil. When the first blossoms flower on the trees. When I feel the sun on my face. When I’ve cooked a dish I’m proud of. When my dog bounds up to me in the snow. When my sister or brother crack a joke that makes me laugh until my sides hurt.

Eating disorders are like all addictions – they take a very strong hold of you, but they don’t really own you. Despite how you feel, you can always come back. There is always something to come back to.

Everyone: if you know someone who is struggling from an eating disorder, give them a hug and tell them that they are not alone despite what they think, and that you love them. Sometimes that’s all anyone needs to hear to chase a daemon away. Stay safe, stay strong, stay happy.

I’m writing another book, this one is for everyone, to teach us all how to find sunshine in our lives.

If you need some help from an eating disorder, here is my self-published book, available on Amazon: My new book: A Growing Mind: the small book of gardening for eating disorders