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! 

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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Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

I am going through a bit of an aubergine (eggplant) phase.

This curry is quick, simple and delicious with some rice and parsley and most of the ingredients can be sourced from your own veg patch.

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Aubergine Curry

Serves 2

-1 large aubergine, de-stalked and cut into medium sized pieces -Coconut oil, for frying -1 large onion, finely sliced -2 cloves of garlic, diced -1 1/2tsp mustard seeds -1tsp nigella seeds – 1tsp coriander seeds -1/2 tsp ground turmeric -1 1/2 tsp garam masala -4 large tomatoes/ 8 cherry tomatoes, cut into pieces -2 handfuls of parsley, to serve -Rice, to serve

  1. Preheat the grill to high. Place the aubergine under the grill and toast until lightly charred on each side. Set aside.
  2. Put the coconut oil in a frying pan and add the onion. Fry until turning golden, then turn the heat down to simmer.
  3. Add the mustard, nigella and coriander seeds. Mix and simmer for a couple of minutes before adding the ground turmeric and garam masala, followed by the garlic. Mix.
  4. Add the chopped tomato and turn the heat up. Keep stirring. The aim is to get the tomatoes to break down as much as possible before serving.
  5. Cut the aubergine into small pieces and mix into the curry. Keep stirring for a few minutes until the tomatoes have released their juices and broken down so that the ingredients look combined.
  6. Serve with fresh parsley scattered on top alongside rice (or I have had it with potatoes, to make it extra home-grown magic).

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Stuffed Aubergines (Vegetarian)

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These are surprisingly easy, nutritious and delicious to make.

Stuffed Aubergines (Vegetarian)

(Serves 1)

– 1 aubergine -Olive oil, for greasing -1 large tomato -1 handful of parsley leaves -2 generous handfuls of cheddar/parmesan cheese -Salad, to serve

  1. Preheat the grill to high.
  2. Cut the aubergine in half after removing the stem. Cut and scrape the insides out and set them aside. Grease the aubergine halves in olive oil and place under the grill, turning them over as the brown.
  3. Meanwhile, cut the insides into small cubes. Also cube the tomato and tear up the parsley leaves. Mix together.
  4. Once the aubergine halves are cooked, remove from the grill. Stuff the insides with the cubes and press down the cheese on top. Place back under the grill and leave for about five minutes until brown and bubbling. Serve with salad.

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Peppers

Peppers (Sweet Peppers, Bell Peppers, Capsicum) are from the species Capsicum annuum. Cultivars of the plant produce fruits in different colors, including red, yellow, orange, green, chocolate/brown, vanilla/white, and purple. Green and purple peppers have a slightly bitter flavor, while the red, orange and yellows are sweeter and almost fruity.  The whitish ribs and seeds inside bell peppers may be consumed, but some people find the taste to be bitter. They are members of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant, are sweet and plump vegetables featuring either three or four lobes.

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Peppers are native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. Pepper seeds were imported to Spain in 1493, and from there spread to other European, African, and Asian countries. Today China is the world’s largest pepper producer, followed by Mexico and Indonesia. The earliest fossil traces so far are from southwestern Ecuador, where families grew their own peppers about 6,100 years ago.

The word pepper comes from the Greek word pipari which means the black spice. The misleading name “pepper” was given by Europeans when Christopher Columbus brought the plant back to Europe. At that time, black pepper (peppercorns), from the unrelated plant Piper nigrum originating from India was a highly prized condiment. “Pepper” was at that time applied in Europe to all known spices with a hot and pungent taste and was therefore naturally extended to the newly discovered vegetable (botanically a fruit but referred to as a vegetable in culinary use). Peppers were not hot but still looked a lot like the other hot peppers, chilli peppers. The pepper is the only variety of its genus that doesn’t produce any capsaicin which is the compound that is the heat in chili peppers. The lack of capsaicin in bell peppers is due to a recessive form of a gene that eliminates capsaicin and, consequently, the “hot” taste,

All of the bell pepper varieies start green and turn to red or yellow or orange etc. It is the same variety but each of the colors (besides green) is a different cultivar.

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Now, I haven’t been too successful with growing peppers but that was mostly due to being a bad mummy to them. I have known a neighbour to grow lots of delicious peppers. Because I’m in England, I have to grow then indoors, but I’ve included the outside instructions as well, below.

For greenhouse crops, sow indoors, February-April. A warm kitchen windowsill is all you need for starting these seeds. Sow thinly, 0.5cm (¼”) deep, in a tray of compost. Water well and place in a warm position. A temperature of 15-20°C (60-68°F) is ideal. Keep moist. Seedlings usually appear in 7-21 days. Transplant to individual pots when large enough to handle. Grow on in cooler, but not cold conditions. Plant out May-June, to large pots, growing bags or into warm, well-drained soil in the greenhouse border. For outdoor crops: delay indoor sowing until March or April. Gradually accustom plants to outside conditions (avoid frosts), before planting out 40cm (16″) apart, when frosts are over. Choose a warm, sunny, sheltered spot. Outdoor crops will be smaller and later than those in a greenhouse. Harvest: July-October.

Peppers are often harvested when the fruit is still green, but full sized. Allowing the pepper to remain on the plant and continue to ripen, changing colors from yellow, orange to red before picking pepper fruit, will result in sweeter peppers. Harvest with scissors to not break the branches of the plant. Peppers do not keep very long so try to use as soon as you have harvested them.

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I have tried ‘Californian Wonder’ from Mr Fothergills as well as ‘Northern Lights’, but there are plenty more varieties available. When you are buying pepper seeds, just look for ‘sweet peppers’ as other ones will be hot ones, that you might not want to get confused with!

Capsicum peppers are rich sources of antioxidants and vitamin C. The level of carotene is nine times higher in red peppers. Red peppers have twice the vitamin C content of green peppers. Red and green bell peppers are high in para-coumaric acid. The characteristic aroma of green peppers is caused by 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine (IBMP).

There are lost of delicious ways to have peppers. Stir fries are great, especially for the green peppers. I like the red ones raw as part of any salad as well as with melted Brie cheese on toast. Stuffed peppers are delicious with rice. But today I am sharing with you another way of fancying up my homemade pizza:

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Follow this pizza recipe Updated recipe: homemade pizza and after sprinkling the cheese on top, slice the de-seeded pepper/s into small segments and scatter over the surface before putting it in the oven and following the usual steps.

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Enjoy!

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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