Bananas

Now, I don’t grow bananas. England isn’t that kind, even in the south. But I do love bananas. I do eat bananas, a lot. And I would love to grow bananas. But because I can hardly keep citrus trees alive and I’ve already half killed to plums and a pear in my short gardening life-time, best not to go there…

But I’ve done my research and I present to whoever can grow bananas an ‘all you need to know page’, I hope!

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From internet – bananas 

Banana, an edible fruit, botanically a berry, produced by several kinds of herbaceous plants in the genus Musa. In some countries, bananas used for cooking may be called plantains. The fruit is variable in size and colour and firmness, but usually elongated-ly curved with soft, rich flesh in starch covered in the middle by a rind that can be green, yellow (yay), red, purple or brown. The fruit grows from the top of the plant, hanging in clusters. Almost all bananas come from the wild species Musa acuminate and Musa balbisiana. 

Worldwide, there is no sharp distinction between “bananas” and “plantains”. Especially in the Americas and Europe, “banana” usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas, particularly those of the Cavendish group which are the main exports from banana-growing countries. By contrast, cultivators with firmer, starchier fruit are called “plantains”. In other regions, such as South East Asia, many more kinds of banana are grown and eaten, so the binary distinction is not useful and is not made in local languages.

The word banana is thought to be of West African origin, possibly from the Wolof word banaana, and passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese

All the above-ground parts of a banana plant grow from a structure usually called a corm. Plants are normally tall and fairly sturdy, and are often mistaken for trees but what appears to be a trunk is actually a “false stem” or pseudostem. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils, as long as the soil is at least 60 cm deep, has good drainage and is not compacted. The leaves of banana plants are composed of a “stalk”, petiole, and a blade, lamina. The base of the petiole widens to form a sheath – the tightly packed sheaths make up the pseudostem, which is all that supports the plant. The edges of the sheath meet when it is first produced, making it tubular. As new growth occurs in the centre of the pseudostem the edges are forced apart. Cultivated banana plants vary in height, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Most are around 5 m (16 ft) tall, with a range from ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ plants at around 3 m (10 ft) to ‘Gros Michel’ at 7 m (23 ft) or more. Leaves are spirally arranged and may grow 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) long and 60 cm (2.0 ft) wide. They are easily torn by the wind, resulting in the familiar frond look. When a banana plant is mature, the corm stops producing new leaves and begins to form a flower spike or an inflorescence. A stem develops which grows up inside the pseudostem, carrying the immature inflorescence until eventually it emerges at the top. Each pseudostem normally produces a single inflorescence, also known as the “banana heart”. After fruiting, the pseudostem dies, but offshoots will normally have developed from the base, so that the plant as a whole is perennial. In the plantation system of cultivation, only one of the offshoots will be allowed to develop in order to maintain spacing. The inflorescence contains many bracts between rows of flowers. The female flowers, which can develop into fruit, appear in rows further up the stem, closer to the leaves, from the rows of male flowers. The banana fruits develop from the banana heart, in a large hanging cluster, made up of tiers (called “hands”), with up to 20 fruit to a tier. The hanging cluster is known as a bunch, comprising 3–20 tiers or commercially as a “banana stem”, and can weigh 30–50 kilograms (66–110 lb). Individual banana fruits (commonly known as a banana or “finger”) average 125 grams (0.276 lb), of which approximately 75% is water and 25% dry matter (nutrient table, lower right). The fruit has been described as a “leathery berry”. There is a protective outer layer (a peel or skin) with numerous long, thin strings (the phloem bundles), which run lengthwise between the skin and the edible inside. In cultivated varieties, the seeds are diminished nearly to non-existence; their remnants are tiny black specks in the interior of the fruit.

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From internet – banana tree

Farmers in SE Asia and Papua New Guinea first domesticated bananas. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence at Kuk Swamp in the Western Highland Province of Papua New Guinea suggests that banana cultivation there goes back to at least 5000BC and possibly to 8000 BC. It is likely that other species were later and independently domesticated elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is the region of primary diversity of the banana. Areas of secondary diversity are found in Africa, indicating a long history of banana cultivation in the region. There are numerous references to the banana in Islamic texts beginning in the 9th century. By the 10th century the banana appears in texts from Palestine and Egypt. From there it diffused into North Africa and Muslim Iberia. During the medieval ages, bananas from Granada were considered among the best in the Arab world. Bananas were certainly grown in the Cyprus by the late medieval period. Writing in 1458, an Italian traveller and writer wrote favourably of the extensive farm produce of the estates at Episkopi, near modern-day Limassol, including the region’s banana plantations. Bananas were introduced to the Americas by Portuguese sailors who brought the fruits from West Africa in the 16th century. Portuguese colonists started banana plantations in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa. North Americans began consuming bananas on a small scale at very high prices shortly after the Civil War, though it was only in the 1880s that the food became more widespread. As late as the Victorian era, bananas were not widely known in Europe, although they were available. Verne introduces bananas to his readers with detailed descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days in 1872. The earliest modern banana plantations originated in the Western Caribbean zone, involving the combination of modern transportation networks of steamships and railroads with the development of refrigeration that allowed more time between harvesting and ripening. Their political manoeuvres gave rise to the term Banana Republic for states like Honduras and Guatemala. The vast majority of the world’s bananas today are cultivated for family consumption or for sale on local markets. India is the world leader in this sort of production, but many other Asian and African countries where climate and soil conditions allow cultivation also host large populations of banana growers who sell at least some of their crop.

While in no danger of outright extinction, the most common edible banana cultivar Cavendish (extremely popular in Europe and the Americas) could become unviable for large-scale cultivation in the next 10–20 years. Its predecessor, Gros Michel discovered in the 1820s, suffered this fate. Like almost all bananas, Cavendish lacks genetic diversity, which makes it vulnerable to diseases, threatening both commercial cultivation and small-scale subsistence farming.

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From internet – banana tree

Bananas are a great dietary source of potassium. One medium-sized banana (118 grams) contains 9% of the RDI. Potassium is good for protecting your heart from disease, by lowering your blood pressure. Eating a good amount of potassium can decrease your chance of heart disease by 27%. Also, potassium is good for you hair and nail growth, keeping them strong and un-brittle. Dietary fiber has been linked to many health benefits, including improved digestion. A medium-sized banana contains about 3 grams of fibre. Bananas contain mainly two types of fiber:

  • Pectin: Decreases as the banana ripens.
  • Resistant starch: Found in unripe bananas.

Resistant starch escapes digestion and ends up in our large intestine, where it becomes food for the beneficial gut bacteria. Additionally, some cell studies propose that pectin may help protect against colon cancer. Bananas are often referred to as the perfect food for athletes, largely due to their mineral content and easily digested carbs. Eating bananas may help reduce exercise-related muscle cramps and soreness. The reason for the cramps is unknown, but a popular theory blames a mixture of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

So what do you do when you (are lucky) and grow a large number of bananas or have a large bunch sitting in your kitchen, quickly turning brown?

Well, here are some ideas to incorporate bananas into your daily diet:

  • Sliced up on cereal or porridge with milk for breakfast is great.
  • Mashed with strawberries makes a good light pudding or snack.
  • Sliced with greek yoghurt is delicious.
  • Banana and peanut butter/Nutella on toast anyone…?
  • Sliced or mashed banana with milk and a dash of sugar.
  • Banana smoothie/ milkshake

But the best recipe for browning/very brown that they are past edible, is banana cake.

My favourite is Chocolate Banana Loaf (what a surprise), but to begin with, I offer you this plain version. Never toss your brown bananas away, just shove them in this delicious cake, or if you have too many, bananas freeze very well. To defrost, put them in the microwave and mix them into another cake batter later on.

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Banana Cake

Serves 10, 1.5kg loaf tin

-300g self-raising flour -150g salted butter -150g granulated sugar -3 eggs -4 large bananas -75ml full-fat milk

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line the loaf tin with baking parchment.
  2. Mix the flour and butter together until they resemble a bread crumb consistency. Mix in the sugar.
  3. Add the eggs and combine. Peel the bananas from their skins and mix in thoroughly. Add the milk, to loosen the mixture. Mix well.
  4. Scrape the smooth cake batter into the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for approximately 45 minutes. When a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, the cake is done.
  5. Leave the cake in the tin to cool before transferring to a wire rack. Serve in square slices. Keep in an airtight container and consume within three days.

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Pepper Pasta

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Anyone have too many peppers? Any one at a loss of what to do with them? Try my new recipe…

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Pepper Pasta

(Serves 2)

-2 servings spoons of pasta -Olive oil -1 red, 1 yellow and 1 green bell peppers -2 handfuls of cheddar cheese, grated

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the pasta and then leave it to simmer for about ten minutes, or until the pasta has cooked. Drain and set aside.
  2. Add a generous splash of olive oil to a frying pan.
  3. De-stalk, de-seed and slice the three peppers into long, thin strips. Scrape  them into the frying pan and bring to a high heat, stirring. Once they start to char slightly, turn down to a simmer.
  4. Scrape the pasta into the frying pan and mix into the peppers. Bring the heat up briefly for a minute or two and then remove the frying pan from the flame.
  5. Divide the mixture in half and serve onto two plates. Sprinkle a handful of cheddar cheese over the top of each helping. Serve.

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Okra

Okra (okro, ladies’ fingers, ochro or gumba) is from the mallow family (includes cotton and cacao). The flowering plant has edible green seed pods.

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Okra’s origins are disputed – it is generally believed that it originated from Ethiopia. The routes by which okra was taken from Ethiopia to North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, Arabia, and India, and when, are by no means certain. The Egyptians and Moors of the 12th and 13th centuries used the Arabic word for the plant, bamya, suggesting it had come into Egypt from Arabia, but earlier it was probably taken from Ethiopia to Arabia. The plant may have entered southwest Asia across the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Manded straight to the Arabian Peninsula, rather than north across the Sahara, or from India. One of the earliest accounts of okra use is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216 and described the plant under cultivation by the locals who ate the pods with meal.

From Arabia okra was spread over North Africa, completely around the Mediterranean, and eastward.The absence of any ancient Indian names for it suggests that it reached India after the beginning of the Christian Era. Although the plant has been well known in India for a long time, it is not found wild there. Modern travelers have found okra growing truly wild, however, along the White Nile and elsewhere in the upper Nile country as well as in Ethiopia.

The plant was introduced to the Americas by ships plying the Atlantic Slave Trade by 1658, when its presence was recorded in Brazil. In Louisiana, the Créoles learned from slaves the use of okra (gumbo) to thicken soups and it is now an essential in Créole Gumbo. Okra may have been introduced to southeastern North America from Africa in the early 18th century. By 1748, it was being grown as far north as Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson noted it was well established in Virginia by 1781. It was commonplace throughout the South by 1800, and the first mention of different cultivars was in 1806.

Today okra is popular in Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, the Caribbean, South America and the Southern U.S. It is not a very common vegetable in most European countries, except for Greece and parts of Turkey. Okra is commonly associated in Southern, Creole, and Cajun cooking since it was initially introduced into the United States in its southern region. It grows well in these warm climates.

The species is a perennial, often cultivated as an annual in temperate climates, and often grows to around 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall. The leaves are 10–20 centimetres (3.9–7.9 in) long and broad, palmately lobed with 5–7 lobes. The flowers are 4–8 centimetres (1.6–3.1 in) in diameter, with five white to yellow petals, often with a red or purple spot at the base of each petal. The fruit is a capsule up to 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long with pentagonal cross-section, containing numerous seeds. Okra is cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world for its fibrous fruits or pods containing round, white seeds. It is among the most heat- and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and will tolerate soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture, but frost can damage the pods.

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Sow okra seeds indoors as early as February, about an inch in pots of compost. Leave in a warm room to germinate and keep well watered. Once a good height, plant on into large pots and keep in a greenhouse. They like humid conditions so keep well watered.

The seed pods rapidly become fibrous and woody and, to be edible, must be harvested when immature, usually within a week after pollination. They can be frozen easy-peasy in a bag or kept in the fridge for a few days before use.

Okra is available in two varieties, green and red. Red okra carries the same flavor as the more popular green okra and differs only in color. When cooked, the red okra pods turn green.

The most common disease afflicting the okra plant is verticillium wilt often causing a yellowing and wilting of the leaves. Other diseases include powdery mildew in dry tropical regions, leaf spots, and root-knot-nematodes.

Okra is a good source of vitamin C and A, also B complex vitamins, iron and calcium. It is a good source of dietary fibre.

Ridged along its length, the green, fuzzy pod contains rows of edible seeds that release a mucilaginous (sticky) liquid when chopped and cooked, which has led to it being used to thicken soup and stew recipes but it can also served whole as a side dish. Its flavour is quite subtle, so it benefits from being cooked with strong, spicy ingredients. Stir-fry, chopped or whole (6-12 minutes); steam whole (5 minutes); grill whole (2-3 minutes each side); chop and add to soups, stews and casseroles.

This is an Indian curried version of okra – a simple recipe for using it. You just slice the okra up into pieces and fry it in the spice mix until cooked. Serve it as a side dish alongside another curry, some rice and some naan bread for extra yummy-ness.

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Curried Okra

(Serves 6)

– 1 large onion, finely sliced – Ghee or oil, for frying – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1/2 tbsp fenegreek seeds – 1 handful curry leaves (optional) – 1 tsp cumin – 1 tsp ground coriander – 1 tsp ground turmeric – 1 1/4  tsp ground garam masala -2 large garlic cloves, diced -250g okra, cut into chunks

  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. Add the garlic. Stir in the cut up chunks of okra and leave to simmer until fried and combined with the spices.
  3. Remove from the heat and serve alongside more curry, rice or Indian breads, such as naan or chapatis. Store any left overs in the fridge or freeze.

Sweet Potatoes

It will never work… but I bought two Sweet Potatoes to ‘chit’… then we used one for supper because we decided a) it won’t work, they are too difficult to chit and then keep alive in England and b) if it DID work, we didn’t want that many! They were giant… 

Sweet Potatoes are famously difficult to grow in England because of our bad weather in comparison to South America or Africa where they thrive. We should really stick to our normal potatoes, which is fine by me because I think they go with more meals, but it is fun to try out these new vegetables. Despite its name and look, sweet potatoes are nothing like potatoes. They taste different, are from a different family etc. They are a completely different vegetable hence why we decided we might as well give it a go and try growing one despite the odds being pretty much stacked against us! If you buy your sweet potatoes to grow properly online (which is probably better than me getting one from the market, this process has a very poor succession report) then they will arrive often as plug-plants to make things easier. Read on to find out some interesting history, nutrition and how to grow facts about sweet potatoes, as well as a yummy recipe at the bottom… 

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Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the morning glory family Convolvulaceae. Its large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous root are a root vegetable. They are also known as yams (although the soft, orange sweet potato is often called a “yam” in parts of North America, the sweet potato is botanically very distinct from a genuine yam (Dioscorea), which is native to Africa and Asia and belongs to the monocot family Dioscoreaceae), or kumara. Sweet potatoes are only distantly related to potatoes, they aren’t from the same ‘family’ but that family is part of the same taxonomic order as sweet potatoes, the Solanales. Although the sweet potato is not closely related botanically to the common potato, they have a shared etymology. The first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes were members of Christopher Columbus’ expedition in 1492. Later explorers found many cultivars under an assortment of local names, but the name which stayed was the indigenous Taino name of batata. The Spanish combined this with the Quechua word for potato, papa, to create the word patata for the common potato. The first record of the name “sweet potato” is found in the Oxford English Dictionary, 1775.

The plant is a herbaceous perennial vine. It bears alternate heart-shaped or palmately lobed leaves (sometimes eaten as a green) and medium-sized flowers. The edible tuberous root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin. The colour ranges between yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, and beige. Its flesh ranges from beige through white, red, pink, violet, yellow, orange, and purple. Sweet potato cultivars with white or pale yellow flesh are less sweet and moist than those with red, pink or orange flesh.

The origin and domestication of sweet potato is thought to be in either Central America or South America. In Central America, sweet potatoes were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. In South America, Peruvian sweet potato remnants dating as far back as 8000 BC have been found. The sweet potato was grown in Polynesia before western exploration. Sweet potato has been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 AD, and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia around 700 AD, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back, and spread across Polynesia to Hawaii and New Zealand from there. Sweet potatoes are cultivated throughout tropical and warm temperate regions wherever there is sufficient water to support their growth. Due to a major crop failure, sweet potatoes were introduced to China in about 1594. The growing of sweet potatoes was encouraged by the Governor Chin Hsüeh-tseng (Jin Xuezeng). Sweet potatoes were introduced as a food crop in Japan, and by 1735 was planted in Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s private garden. It was also introduced to Korea in 1764. Sweet potatoes became popular very early in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, spreading from Polynesia to Japan and the Philippines. They are featured in many favorite dishes in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other island nations. Uganda (the second largest grower after China), Rwanda, and some other African countries also grow a large crop which is an important part of their peoples’ diets. The New World, the original home of the sweet potato, grows less than three percent (3%) of the world’s supply. Europe has only a very small sweet potato production, mainly in Portugal.

The plant does not tolerate frost. It grows best at an average temperature of 24 °C, abundant sunshine and warm nights. Not really suited to the UK. Annual rainfalls of 750–1,000 mm (30–39 in) are considered most suitable, with a minimum of 500 mm (20 in) in the growing season. The crop is sensitive to drought at the tuber initiation stage 50–60 days after planting, and it is not tolerant to water-logging, as it may cause tuber rots and reduce growth of storage roots if aeration is poor.

Unlike normal potatoes, sweet potatoes are grown from ‘slips’. These are the long shoots that have been removed from ‘chitted’ sweet potato tubers. ‘Slips’ don’t have roots, although sometimes there are signs of small roots beginning to appear. The roots will grow once the ‘slip’ has been planted. Whilst it is possible to grow your own ‘slips’ from supermarket sweet potatoes, most supermarket varieties are not sufficiently hardy to grow well in the UK so crops are likely to be disappointing.

When they arrive the ‘Slips’ will look withered, but place them in a glass of water overnight and they will quickly recover. The next day you can plant them up individually into small pots of multi-purpose compost. When planting sweet potato slips, it’s important to cover the whole length of the stem, so that it is covered right up to the base of the leaves. Sweet potato plants are not hardy so you will need to grow them on in warm, frost free conditions for 3 weeks or more until they are established. Warm, humid conditions will quickly encourage the slips to produce roots. They will most likely need to be grown completely inside a greenhouse in the UK climate in large pots filled with good compost and lots of feeding. Sweet potatoes have a vigorous growth habit and long sprawling stems. In the greenhouse it may be useful to train the stems onto strings or trellis to keep them tidier.

Varieties to consider:

‘Georgia Jet’ – considered to be particularly reliable.

‘T65’ – its red skins contrast nicely with the creamy, white flesh.

‘Beauregard Improved’ – a best selling variety, producing smaller tubers with a lovely salmon-orange flesh.

‘O Henry’ – richly flavoured, has a slightly different, bushier habit than other varieties and produces it’s tubers in a cluster which makes for easier harvesting.

Sweet potatoes can be used soon after harvesting, but they will store well for several months if the skins are cured properly. Lay them out in the sun for a few hours immediately after harvesting and then move them to a warm, humid place for 10 days – a greenhouse is ideal. Once the skins have cured they can be stored in cooler conditions provided that they are kept dry. In late summer, approximately 12 to 16 weeks after planting, the foliage and stems start to turn yellow and die back. Now is the time to start harvesting sweet potatoes, although they can be left longer if you prefer larger tubers. If outdoor grown, lift them before the frosts or they will be damaged.

Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene). They are also a very good source of vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. Additionally, they are a good source of potassium, dietary fiber, niacin, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and phosphorus.

Sweet potatoes can replace a normal potato in any recipe, but they do have a slightly sweeter taste so some things might not go with it as much (I can’t quite picture my all-time favourite baked potato and baked beans being quite the same with the sweet potato). I’ve had sweet potato stews that were yummy, curried sweet potato recipes are out there, sweet potato salads, baked and stuffed with humous, tofu, lentils, coronation chicken, ham, bacon, eggs. We’ve seen the sweet potato brownies and muffins and breads (have not tried any of these, I must admit). I like them boiled with greens and cheddar cheese – they go very well with cheese. In fact, the best meal that includes sweet potato that I have had is Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Cheese. Now that is a good combination. And here is a recipe:

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Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Broccoli-Cheese

(Serves 6) 

  • 1 large cauliflower
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 large broccoli

For the cheese sauce: 

  • 7g butter
  • 1/2-1tbsp plain flour
  • 300g-400g grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 pint of milk
  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Rinse and cut up the cauliflower into pieces. Peel and cut up the sweet potato into small chunks. Put both in the pan of water and reduce the heat to low. Boil for 5 minutes before rinsing and cutting up the broccoli and adding it. Boil for about another 5 minutes or until all the vegetables are cooked.
  2. To make the cheese sauce: Put the butter in a saucepan over a high heat to melt. Add the flour, stirring. Take off the heat and stir until combined. Add the milk, a little at a time, stirring. Warm it up over a high flame, stirring. Wait until it bubbles, then turn it down and let it simmer, so it is a thick sauce. Turn of the heat and stir in the cheese a little at a time until dissolved.
  3. Turn the grill onto high or the oven to about 180C.
  4. In a large ovenproof dish, scrape the drained vegetables into the bottom and scrape the cheese sauce over the top. Scatter extra grated cheddar on top, if you would like to have a crispy topping. Place under the grill or in the oven and cook until it is brown on top (it will be a few minutes under the grill, longer in the oven).
  5. Serve hot, with more vegetables like peas or runner beans if you would like.

My other favourite variation is Cauliflower-Potato-Courgette-Broccoli-Cheese. Yum. 

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