Carrots

Homegrown carrots taste delightfully sweeter, fresher, crisper and have a far more pungent smell than ones we buy in supermarkets. If one can grow a carrot successfully and scrape back the soil to reveal a little glint of orange attached to the feathery green leaves (that resemble parsley and dill as distant relations), then they can feel very satisfied and like a proper vegetable grower.

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First carrots harvested June 2016

Carrot, a root vegetable, is usually recognisable to us as that bright orange crop but it can be found in black, purple, white, red and yellow. In fact, the orange colouring was the last to be developed from the list. The cultivated carrot originated from the wild carrot, initially coloured white. There are white rooted carrots still around today, mostly used for animal feed or as a novelty crop.

Carrots have an ancient history. Fossil pollen from the Eocene period, 55 to 34 million years ago, has been identified to belong to the Apiaceae, the original carrot family. It is said that the carrot dates back to about 5,000 years ago, first cultivated in Persia (areas that are now Afghanistan and where the wild carrot is still popularly grown today). From there, carrot seeds were sold by caravans to neighbouring African, Asian and Arabian lands where the cross-breeding began. Historians have been able to show that this particular vegetable was important to our ancestors in Egypt from the evidence of numerous carrots being placed in tombs alongside the dead pharos and drawings of carrot harvests in hieroglyphic paintings. During this time, the carrot was grown purple. This was before a mutant occurred, removing the purple pigmentation and creating a new species of yellow carrots (where our known orange ones eventually derived from and hung around). The orange carrot is thought to have developed in the early Middle Ages, after hybridisation with a central Asian species. The first European author who mentions red and yellow carrots is the Byzantine dietician Simeon Seth during the 11th century.

After its popularity in Egypt, carrots were medicinally used in Ancient Greece and during the Roman period although they do not appear in many scribes where parsnips had a more preferred role for harvesting. For a time, the word parsnip was interchangeable with carrot due to the confusing similarities between the two. Bitter and hard to eat, carrots were used to heal many illnesses and as use of a sexual aphrodisiac. In normal cooking, Romans boiled them and covered them in dressings and various herbs.

By the 13th century, carrots had moved to Japan and were being cultivated in the gardens of France and Germany. In  the 1600s, they were brought to the New World, Jamestown and Virginia in particular. During the Middle Ages, carrots continued to be confused with parsnips and some believed they originated from the same plant, mostly because carrots during this time were still white or purple rooted. It is thought that the orange colouring of carrots was not ‘stabilised’ until around the 17th century in the Netherlands after that mutation rid them of their darker outer-colourings. Yellow carrots had been gifted to the ruling House of Orange. After years of selective breeding, Dutch carrots were designed to no longer be bitter in taste, becoming Daucus Carota.

America were amongst the last to accept carrots in its cuisine. They only became customary after the Great War when soldiers returned home with knowledge of European dishes, French ones in particular, that had helped them survive their ordeals during military combat. The modern popularity of the carrot in cooking can be traced to English meals during World War II where the government actively encouraged the population to grow and cook the hearty vegetable as a way of increasing people’s consumptions of important nutrients during rationing and lack of imports.

Today, the carrot is a traditional vegetable, shared between horses and humans alike and is a customary delight of children’s diets. The average person will consume 10,866 carrots in a lifetime. Currently, China produces the most carrots in the world. In 2010, they produced 15.8 million tons. Purple carrots (still orange on the inside) were first sold commercially in British stores in 2002.

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Carrots have a rich supply of antioxidant nutrient beta- carotene and vitamin C. Different varieties of carrots contain different amounts of antioxidant phytonutrients. For example, red and purple carrots have a rich anthocyanin content and orange carrots have outstanding levels of beta-carotene (which makes them orange in the first place), 65% of their total carotenoid content. Due to the richness of antioxidants, carrots are advertised as being beneficial for our cardiovascular systems that need protection from antioxidant damage, particularly for our arteries that carry highly oxygenated blood. A study in the Netherlands suggested that carrots are the best food for reducing these cardiovascular diseases. Participants in the investigation who ate 25 more grams of carrots than other studies had a significantly lower risk. Those who ate less carrots, had a higher risk or having a cardiovascular disease. Carrots also contain anti-inflammatory and anti-aggregatory properties that prevent excessive clumping together of red blood cells, protecting our bodies from the inside pretty well. Other studies suggest that carrots are beneficial in reducing cancer, especially colon cancer but more research is required in these ares as to how much they help.

The tale that carrots help you see in the dark was in fact a World War II propaganda stunt circulated by the British to mislead their oppositions, suggesting that their RAF pilots ate a diet rich in carrots that helped them to see their enemies at night in order to hide the technology they were using. From this story, the belief that carrots improve our eyesight became ‘an old wife’s tale’ but there is some truth in the myth. Vitamin A, that carrots contain a fair amount of, helps the eye convert light into a signal that can be transmitted to the brain, allowing people to see in low-light conditions. Also, the cornea in the eye can disappear when one is lacking in vitamin A. Therefore, carrots might not give us super-night vision, but they will help to protect our eyesight a fair amount.

The other carrot nutrition story is that eating too many can turn one’s skin orange. This is, oddly enough, true, mostly noticeable in the palms and soles of the feet. This is called carotenemia and is fixed by reducing one’s intake of carrots.

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Carrot seedlings, 2015

Varieties I have grown:

Baby Carrots – Sow: January May

Autumn King 2 – Sow: March-July

Amsterdam – Sow: March – July

Flyaway – Sow: March – July

Eskimo – Sow: March – July

Sugarsnax – Sow: March – July

They can all be harvested from the summer until winter, depending on when they are sown and how kind the weather is for us.

These are all orange varieties. It would be fun to try growing different coloured ones but they do have a reputation for tasting woody. I believe Mark Diacono once wrote that their taste resembled eating a trowel…

Carrots are best sown direct into a finely prepared patch of soil. Most people advise not to plant carrots in manure to prevent forking carrots. However, as we work in such barren, sandy soil, this year I took the risk and dug a small amount of very well-rotted manure, compost and mulch into the soil a while before planting the carrots. It helped enormously for us – last year my carrots were tiny and took forever to germinate and grow to reasonable harvesting size. This year we have already picked a fair few in good shape and they have been delicious. I have only come across one forked carrot so far but to be honest, I am not too fussy. They taste the exact same even if they look comically odd.

Sow carrot seeds in drills, 1cm (1/2 inch) deep, trying to leave about 30 cm (12 inch) apart. Sowing the tiny seeds can be very hard and they do like to ‘bunch’ or ‘clump’ together, giving you patches of carrots rather than an even spread. Water the area well – inconsistent watering can lead to irregular growth and splitting in the carrot root so be wary of droughts.

Carrots should be sown successionally every few weeks for a steady supply throughout the year. Try not to sow them too close together as they are a nightmare to thin and release volatile chemicals that will attract carrot flies.

Carrot flies are the worst pest for carrots. They need to be guarded with a cover all the way around to keep the bugs out. This year we have stuck bamboo canes into the soil and draped fleece over like a tent so as not to crush the carrot heads this year. We then pinned the fleece to the ground to make sure no flies find a way in. Mark Diacono, River Cottage ‘Veg Patch’ book suggests comfrey or seaweed solution discourages carrot flies and improves plant growth. Companion planting of chives (we have done that this year around the edges) or spring onions work well, the strong smells deterring the carrot flies. French Marigolds are also great too and look beautiful. I always pop a few in close by for beauty if not purpose.

Other pests I have had slight problems with previously have been slugs and snails that munch underground. This is likely to happen if you leave your carrots in the earth over the winter months.

Harvest your carrots from May onwards when the tops are orange and the carrots look big enough to gently pull up from the ground. Leave the smaller ones to have the chance of getting bigger.

If you are planning to store them rather than eat them straight away, wash them, dry them and place them in a crate full of slightly damp sand or in paper sacks that exclude the light. Otherwise, you might be able to leave the carrots in the ground for a few months, especially over winter. They will keep better this way than in the fridge.

I like to eat my homegrown carrots raw, freshly pulled up from the earth. They taste best this way, finely sliced into matchsticks and eaten alongside more salad, perhaps with pasta or a baked potato and cheese or put in a dip. Otherwise, of course one can boil them and eat them with other vegetables with perhaps a roast dinner, sausages or fish and potatoes, see my recipe for Chicken Casserole:https://wordpress.com/posts/thekitchengardenblog.wordpress.com , or they can be finely sliced or grated for a stir fry or a Bolognese or Chilli Con Carne, see below. Or roasted in the oven after being sliced and drizzled with olive oil. Another classic is carrot and coriander soup or, for the juicers out there, carrot juice, blitzed in a processor. There is, of course, the popular carrot cakes as well if you ever have enough. The tops of the carrots are edible too for those with an acquired taste. My ducks love them so I share them out instead.

Chilli Con Carne 

Chilli Con Carne is best cooked with lots of grated carrot in it.

The chilli makes this a very warming dish. You can use any beans grown from your patch, podded, like borolotti beans, haricot beans, soy beans, broad beans, or stick to the traditional kidney beans you can buy canned or dried for soaking. Exclude the minced meat if catering for vegetarians. If you leave out the chili, this immediately becomes Bolognese to serve over spaghetti with cheese or a lasagna filling. It freezes well. Serve with lots of other vegetables from your kitchen garden, like peas, runner beans, broad beans, broccoli, kale, cabbage… I also like to add some greens into the actual dish itself, often kale or swiss chard, perhaps pak choi, komatsuna, perpetual leaf spinach or normal spinach. 

(Serves 6)

– 450g prepared and cooked kidney beans/ borlotti beans/ soy beans/ broad beans etc. – Olive oil  – 450g minced meat (omit if vegetarian) – 2 large onions, finely sliced – 2 large cloves of garlic, finely diced – 6 large carrots, finely grated – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g of greens (kale, lettuce, swiss chard, pak choi, spinach etc.), de-stalked and shredded – Dash of soy sauce – Dash of Lea and Perrin’s – Salt and pepper – 1 chili (or more, depending on how hot you like your meal to be), de-seeded and finely diced – 400g basmati rice, to serve – Peas, runner beans, broccoli, kale, to serve

  1. Fry the minced meat in an oiled pan until well cooked and browned.
  2. In a separate frying pan, fry the cut up onion in olive oil over a high heat. When it starts to brown, turn it down to a low heat and leave it to simmer. Add the grated carrot and allow to fry until the carrot is cooked (turn up the heat and stir if you can hang around the stove to speed it up).
  3. Add the tinned tomatoes and diced garlic and stir. Add the greens and stir in to wilt. Add a dash of soy sauce, Lea and Perrin’s and salt and pepper. Stir in.
  4. Add the cooked beans of choice and the mince to the con carne, stirring in well. Leave to combine flavors for at least ten minutes over a low flame. Add the cut chili and stir in well. Leave the ingredients to combine over a low heat, simmering.
  5. Meanwhile, bring a pan of water to the boil and add the rice. Turn the heat down to low and leave it to cook for about 20 minutes until all of the water has been absorbed.
  6. Bring another pan of water to the boil and add peas, runner beans, broccoli, kale, any green vegetables of your choice. Once cooked, drain.
  7. Serve the Chilli Con Carne over rice with the vegetables alongside.

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Weekly Update:26th June 2016

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My favourite rose in our garden under a pear tree flowered this week

What a wet June it has been!

Thank goodness the sun is meant to shine today and I am glad it did so on Friday – it was my brother’s 14th birthday!

It was fitting that we harvested our first carrots during his birthday week as he is our carrot and cucumber monster. We made burgers and chips to have with our salad on Friday and his classic dish – pasta, cheddar cheese, tuna and mayonnaise, pitta bread and salad last night. I made him his requested coffee  walnut cake (nothing to do with garden produce, only the duck eggs I used are home produce, oh dear) and today I will be baking his second favourite, a marble cake as a surprise. It means a busy, wet week but I have managed to get something done in the garden:

  • Weeded and fed one of the runner bean trenches (yup, we have three this year).
  • Weeded and fed purple sprouting broccoli babies, perpetual spinach (which I picked for the first time and used it along with kale and komatsuna on top of a pizza earlier this week, see recipe: https://wordpress.com/posts/thekitchengardenblog.wordpress.com ), Chinese broccoli and Aztec broccoli.
  • Cleared and mulched paths.
  • Weeded and fed young cauliflowers.
  • Ripped old cauliflower leaves infested  with cabbage white caterpillars and tried to coax the poultry into eating the. They unfortunately have never cared for them but the ducks love brassica leaves so I think they might eat a few by mistake when they are on the actual cauliflower leaves…
  • Netted my new cauliflowers.
  • Weeded and fed turnip patch.
  • Mum cleared away a trench of old forget-me-nots and moved some overcrowded raspberries there.
  • Mum planted out more peas I had grown indoors.
  • Mum gave the cucurbits a milk/aspirin anti-powdery mildew spray which they will really need in this weather.
  • Mum netted more strawberries, a blueberry bush and a redcurrant.
  • Mum potted on half the cucumbers into larger containers.

Continuing to pick strawberries, raspberries, salad leaves, radishes, beetroot, peas, broad beans, first carrots, first blackcurrants (just a couple darkening now). I’ve got a couple of courgettes almost ready and a cucumber on the way…

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Produce picked for a supper this week: lettuce, spinach, rocket, carrots, beetroot and radishes

Storing your pickings

So there are plenty of fruits and vegetables in the world and only so many hours to talk about how to store them. Perhaps we should start with what is around right now and work from there?

Salad leavesLettuce, rocket, watercress and other cresses, like land cress or crinkle cress, (watercress wilts quickest) and spinach (wilts second quickest) are best eaten straight away once they have been picked and washed. To store it, I put mine in containers in the fridge mostly because I know I will be using it over the next few days. Other people keep theirs in plastic bags or between kitchen roll. If you have left the salad out for too long and it has wilted, leave it in a bowl of cold water to rejuvenate it before refrigerating it immediately. You can freeze green leaves, like spinach or lettuce but they will be incredibly soggy and are only useful for cooking. You might as well stick to fresh leaves rather than freezing them.

Carrots – If you are using them over a couple of days then they can be again kept in the fridge in a plastic bag or a container. Otherwise, the traditional way of storing them is in a cool, dark place in a box filled with dry sand. This can also be done to swedes, celeriac, sweet chestnuts, parsnips, celery and beetroot (celery will keep in the fridge for ages. Swedes and celeriac can be left in the ground for months at a time).

Peas – Best eaten as soon as they have been podded if consumed raw. If they are slightly too old to be delicate enough to eat raw, pop them into a pan of boiling water for 2 minutes, drain and serve. To freeze them, once you have boiled them, place them in freezing ice-cold water for a few minutes until cool. Place them in plastic bags ideal for the freezer, make sure no air has been caught inside. Freeze them and use over the next few months. This is the same technique for runner beans, broad beans or sweetcorn (by the way, sweetcorn loses its taste rapidly after being picked. It needs to be cooked and eaten or frozen asap).

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Pod and eat peas and broad beans boiled straight away or freeze after boiling and cooling briefly

Onions – Once pulled out of the ground, lay them out on newspaper to dry out, turning them over so that both sides are dealt with. Then, suspend them from the ceiling in a cool room or inside hessian/netted sacks. We use our utility room as it is very cool and is not too light.

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Dry onions out on newspaper before hanging up

Garlic – harvest the bulbs whole from the ground and place in a cool, dark place. We keep ours on a low-down shelf in out kitchen. When using, take one segment from the  entire garlic bulb at a time, peel and use. From my experience, homegrown garlic tends not to keep as long as shop bought garlic so only pull them up from the ground a little at a time, don’t be tempted to harvest them all at once.

Potatoes – I worked out last year that potatoes can be left in the ground for a long time and you do not need to rush to dig them up unless you have a wire worm or slug problem. Even if they have blight, they will keep better in the ground rather than out of it. However, to store them once they have been harvested, copy the same technique used for drying onions, laying them out on newspaper and turning them over. Then put them inside hessian sacks in a dark place, like a cupboard under the stairs to prevent them from turning green and becoming unusable.

Berries – If you can’t eat them all fresh at once because you have a glut or want to spread them out for later in the year, freeze them in plastic bags or containers once they have been washed and slightly dried. To use them, defrost well and drain the excess liquids that will taste a little to fridgey. Some berries like raspberries, blueberries or grapes should taste fine uncooked once they have been frozen. Other berries, like strawberries, have such a high water content that they will taste strange once defrosted raw. I prefer to use my frozen fruit for jam or inside cooked puddings, like muffins, cakes, stewed fruit dishes, crumbles or pies. I save the fresh fruit for eating uncooked.

Summer squashes: Courgettes – You might have been starting to pick some already. These are best sliced from the plant, washed and cooked straight away but can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, depending on the variety and the ripeness of the vegetable. Best stored in an air-tight container or a plastic bag. Boil, fry, grill or roast them. Courgettes cannot be frozen because of their high water content, much like strawberries. Winter squashes (e.g. Butternut squashes and pumpkins can be frozen once they have been roasted – Slice, into small pieces, lay out on a baking tray and drizzle generously in olive oil. Roast in a preheated oven of 180C for about 40 minutes or until they are browned. Allow to cool. Place in plastic bags and freeze straight away). Courgettes and cucumbers will only become sloppy mush when frozen so do store them only in the fridge or eat straight away.

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Courgettes are best eaten straight away or stored in a fridge – do not freeze them or cucumbers (below)

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Cabbages: Can be stored whole in the fridge for a few days. If the outer leaves start to brown, wilt too much or go mushy, peel them off and discard them and use the rest if unaffected. If cooked, cabbages can last in a container for about three days. This is the same for cauliflower and broccoli (broccoli seems to brown slightly quicker out of the two when stored in the fridge).

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Romanesco cauliflower prepared for boiling

Spring Onions – Can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days. If the outside skin starts to dry up or the stem wilts too much, cut and peel the outside coating off and use what is underneath if it is unaffected.

Radishes – Likewise, they can be stored whole in the fridge or cut up and kept raw in a container for about two or three days before they will start to brown and become un-appetising.

Kale – Store in an air-tight container, raw, for up to a week maximum inside the fridge. Once cooked, store in a container for two or three days in the fridge.

Oriental greens – Think Pak Choi, Tatsoi, Komatsuna, Chinese Cabbage, Mibuna, Mitzuna, Mizpoona… Once cooked, they can be stored for about two days. Raw, they might be able to last a little longer in the fridge before they wilt or turn to liquid. Treat them more like spinach, liable to becoming soggy after some time being picked.

Tomatoes – It might be slightly early to write about tomatoes but it is getting close enough. I did not know until last year that tomatoes keep their looks and taste longer if stored outside the fridge. Gardner James Wong (‘Grow for Flavour’) suggests keeping them in a fruit bowl. We tried this last year and it does work well. It also allows some of the slightly under-developed ones to ripen. If freezing the tomatoes, dunk them briefly into a pan of boiling water to shed their skins before placing them into cold water, likewise for the beans and peas. Store in plastic bags in the freezer and use in dishes where you would use cooked/tinned tomatoes or make tomato chutney.

 

That is it for now. More coming soon…

Strawberries

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First garden and wild strawberries picked this year, 2016
The garden strawberry or Fragaria has been cultivated worldwide for its delicious red fruit. The first garden strawberries are believed to have been bred in Brittany in the 1750s through a cross of Fragaria virginiana from eastern North America and Fragaria chiloensis that was brought from Chile in 1714. This new production of strawberry as replaced the woodland strawberry, Fragaria vesca which was the first strawberry species cultivated in the 17th century.
The strawberry fruit was mentioned in ancient Roman literature, referring to its use in medicine. The entire strawberry plant was used for medicating depressive illnesses.
The French started taking the woodland strawberry into their gardens to harvest during the 14th century; King Charles V had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden. During the early 15th century, French monks used strawberries to illuminate manuscripts.
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Netted strawberry bed
During the 16th century the strawberry plant became more of an interest in the world of medicine and botany as more scientists began to name the various species of the plant. In England, the demand for strawberries had increased by mid-century. Thomas Wolsey invented the combination of strawberries and cream in the court of Henry VIII. By 1578 instructions for growing and harvesting strawberries were written.
In the 17th century, the species Fragaria virginiana was introduced to Europe from North America, an important part in the history of the strawberry as it produced the fruit we recognise on our supermarket shelves today. It gradually spread through Europe but it was not until it was introduced to the Chilean strawberry in France that it produced the modern strawberry. Strawberry cultivators vary. On average, a strawberry plant has about 200 seeds on its external membrane.
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Garden Strawberry
The time to plant strawberry plants is late summer and early autumn to allow the roots to establish into the soil that will still be warm.
Choose a spot in the full sun for the best harvest, a plot where you have not grown any of the Solanaceae family or chrysanthemums, susceptible to verticillium wilt of the leaves. Prepare the ground well with well-rotted manure dug in along with some Blood, Fish and Bone and dig in some mulch for good measure before sprinkling a generous amount over the surface to suppress the weeds. Dig a trench or holes and spread the roots of the plant widely, making sure that the crown is level with the surface. Allow 50cm between your plants, ideally but strawberries are not too fussy when it comes to space. Water and firm in. Keep the plant well watered over the next few weeks as they become established.
I have to admit, I have been amazed at the hardiness of wild strawberries. They spread like wild-fire in the garden. We have so many, I can afford to lose a few when weeding every now and then (they grow everywhere: vegetable beds, under trees, flower beds, in the middle of the paths, even in the grass). Over the last year when I was clearing and extending the vegetable plot, I dug up large collections of wild strawberries and shamefully and lazily abandoned them in piles. They all survived, even those dug up in boiling hot sun and left with their roots not planted in and no watering offered. If anyone ever wants something easy to look after (and spreadable), wild strawberries are the way to go.
To prevent the strawberries from spreading too much, snip off the runners. After the fruiting season is over, Mark Diacono, ‘River Cottage Handbook: Fruit’, recommends that you ‘snip off all old fruiting stems, runners and leaves, give your strawberry bed a good comfrey feed and add more well-rotted manure’ to encourage a healthy growth for the next season. Diacono also suggests that strawberry plants should be replaced after four years.
When the strawberries start to grow fruit, place straw underneath them to prevent them from rotting from contact with the ground.
Depending on the varieties of the strawberries you have, you can be harvesting the fruit from May until October. I certainly have earlier varieties in my garden. A tip I learnt from my online gardening course (MyGardenSchool : www.my-garden-school.com, ‘Advanced Vegetable Growing and Self-Sufficiency with Sally Nex) was to pot some strawberries inside the greenhouse over winter. Following this advice, I got a slightly earlier harvest of strawberries than the ones developing outdoors. It is a good trick if there is a late spring or summer.
Pick the berries when they are coloured or give slightly under the pressure of your fingertips if they are still a little white. Wash and eat straight away (I give the green tops of the strawberries to the poultry or pigs) or freeze.
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My biggest pest pain with strawberries are birds. They leave most other things alone, I still get a good crop of raspberries and blackcurrants but they seem to adore strawberries and redcurrants so these are the two things for me to net straight away. They will always manage to get through the netting (you need large enough holes for the pollinating bees to get through over strawberry beds) but netting does drastically reduce the amount of fruit stolen. I am all for sharing and being kind to nature, I love having my little robin friend in my garden and the blackbirds and thrushes but if they have the opportunity they will eat the whole harvest immediately – which is what happened last year. Determined not to be defeated again, I have been less fussy about how red they are, they taste just as delicious pink or with a little dash of white if they are not completely ruby-red, and we have been netting patches as much as possible. By the way, turning one of those hanging garden baskets people grow flowers in upside down is great protection for a single strawberry or small collection.
Other pests for strawberries are of course slugs and snails.
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Wild Strawberries, netted this year
Strawberries are not too fussy about companion planting. Plants that are beneficial to strawberries themselves are: Borage (makes fruit taste nicer and attracts beneficial insects), Bush Beans (acts as a fertiliser, nitrogen-fixer. It also repels some beetles), Caraway (attracts parasitic wasps and flies that get rid of strawberry pests) and Lupin (fixes nitrogen in the soil like Bush Beans and attracts honey bees).
Plants that do not agree with being planted alongside strawberries are members of the cabbage family (cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, etc.) as they stunt their growth and as I mentioned previously, the members of the Solanaceae family (potatoes, aubergine, tomatoes, peppers) as these are members of the same family as strawberries and diseases will be spread. Strawberries should be left to the same patch to establish themselves unless it is necessary to move them. Planting them in a bed alongside, say potatoes, will build up the risk of infecting your strawberry plants with a disease and that would be a shame. Strawberry plants are an investment for a number of years, after all.
To save space, as well as strawberry beds, we plant them around fruit trees and bushes where they can be left to stay along with bee friendly flowers to attract the pollinators to the strawberries and trees themselves.
Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, a good source of manganese and other nutrients in less significant amounts. They contain modest amounts of unsaturated fatty acids in their seed oil. Research suggests that strawberry consumption may be linked with lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases and that the phytochemical found in the fruit have anti-inflammatory or anticancer properties. Strawberries could possibly lower rates of hypertension and inflammation as well as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Certain studies suggest that strawberries lower LDL cholesterol levels too.
As well as being eaten fresh, strawberries freeze well (I would recommend washing and storing them in a plastic bag or an old yoghurt or ice cream container after removing the stalks and any mouldy/bird pecked parts from the fruit to make it easier to use later). They make excellent preserves but are low in pectin to be wary when making jam to use some other source to make the solution set. Some people dry strawberries and include them in cereal bars. In the industry world, strawberries are used in milkshakes, ice creams, yoghurts, smoothies, as artificial colourings and flavours as well as many other things. The famous Wimbledon Tennis Tournament’s popular summer time pudding is strawberries and cream. In Sweden, strawberries are traditionally served as dessert of Midsummer Night’s Eve (so it is perfect to post the following recipe now). In Greece, strawberries are usually sprinkled with sugar and dipped in Metaxa, a brandy. In Italy, strawberries are used in a number of desserts and are popular in gelato alla fragora. 
Childhood favourites of mine were mashed bananas and strawberries, the fruit dipped in cream and sugar, or a chocolate fondue, mixed into FAGE Total Greek yoghurt or cut up on top of Green and Black’s chocolate ice cream. Strawberries go marvellously with any chocolate dessert like volcano cakes or in particular alongside a Victoria Sponge cake.
The recipe I offer you is a Swedish one I came across that revels in both garden and wild strawberries as well as elderflower. The cake itself is easy to make and assemble as long as you provide time for allowing it to cool before preparing it. I decided it tasted at its best the day after it was made after being kept in the fridge overnight – the whole assemble tasted so much cooler and fresher, but it can of course be eaten straight away! It is a lovely summer time pudding that will look lovely and impress your family and friends.
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Strawberry and Elderflower Cake
Strawberry and Elderflower Cake 
(Serves 10)
For the cake: – 4 large eggs – 200g caster sugar – 50g plain flour – 80g self-raising flour – 2tbsp baking powder
For the filling: – 4tbsp elderflower cordial – 1 heaped tbsp icing sugar – 150ml double cream – Strawberries, in quarters, about 250g is ideal but it can be more or less
For the topping: – 100ml double cream – 4tbsp elderflower cordial – Wild strawberries, to decorate
  1. Preheat the oven to 175C. Line a 20cm/9inch deep cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the sugar on a high speed until the mixture is thick, creamy and airy.
  3. Mix in the flours and the baking powder until thoroughly combined.
  4. Place in the oven and bake for about 50 minutes – 60 minutes until a skewer inserted leaves clean. Leave the cake to cool completely.
  5. To make the filling: in a small bowl, whisk the elderflower cordial and the icing sugar together. In a separate large bowl, whisk the double cream until soft peaks form. Mix in the elderflower mixture until combined.
  6. Cut the completely cooled cake in half using a large knife with care. Spread the cream over the surface of the bottom half of the cake. Sprinkle generously the cut up strawberries over the top. Place the other half of the cake on top.
  7. To make the topping: whisk the remaining double cream until it forms soft peaks and then mix in the elderflower cordial. Spread the cream over the top of the cake and dot wild strawberries on the surface. Serve in slices. Store in an airtight container inside the fridge (I think it tastes better once chilled but try it straight away too). Serve with more fruit if you have plenty to spare.

 

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Foraging: Elderflowers

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Elderflower – image from internet
One of the perks of foraging outdoors is the tiny window during the year when one can harvest elderflowers. They bloom for a very short season, from sometime in May or June for only a couple of weeks. Last year we failed to pick any, the year before we did not do anything with them and left them to shamefully rot. This year, encouraged by my sister’s fete, my mum got on with making elderflower cordial the same day we picked them. To me, elderflower cordial reminds me of birthday parties from my childhood. We would serve elderflower cordial with sparkling water in plastic champagne glass shaped cups with our picnic spread out in the dining room. Once you have gotten over the wafting smell of cat pee when you pick your fresh elderflowers and they quickly start to brown, the elderflower cordial itself smells and tastes refreshingly delightful.
Elders are common, low growing shrub trees. The flowers grow in stalked umbrella sprays, five petalled, cream coloured with yellow stamens whilst the berries that grow from August to September are a dark purple or black with three small pips. Their habitat is ideal for nitrogen-rich areas (e.g. near rabbit warrens) which I suppose is why our favourite elder tree is found in a horse field densely populated by rabbits.
Elder trees have some interesting legends associated with them. To fell and elder tree is unlucky as it is home to the unforgiving Elder Mother. Burning the timber in the house will release the devil (despite deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire). Referred to as ‘The Witch’s Tree’, hanging a cradle from its boughs would encourage the wrath of the witch. However, planting an elder tree near your house is supposed to protect the occupants from evils, it will never be struck by lightening and will therefore protect you from a thunderstorm, warts and sorrows can be moved to an elder’s stick and buried.
Judas hanged himself from the elder and the Cross of Christ was supposed to be made from its timber.
Despite these fears, the elder tree has been used for plenty of medicinal cures over the centuries. Every part of the tree can be found to have been used for some cure.
The tree can be easy to recognise but you must be cautious as a few others can lead you stray – the Wayfaring Tree (earlier-flowering), the Rowan (which I have almost done before, that really does smell of cat wee) can be confusing as can the later Hogweed. The elderflowers will have a sweet smell, faintly of cat pee when the sun is too strong on it. You want to pick the white, opening blossoms and not the ones already turning slightly brown and falling easily from the stem as these will be inferior in your cordials.

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Rowan – image from internet
If you cannot deal with all of your bounty straight away, you can leave them to dry in the oven with the door left open or in a dry place not in the sun. Otherwise, you can wrap them up in bags and freeze them. They will go brown but it will taste just the same in your cordials, according to online discussions and our own experimentation.
Once you have made the elderflower cordial, use as a drink, make into elderflower ice cream or syrup or use it in my latest discovery, Strawberry and Elderflower Cake, coming soon.

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Elderflower Cordial
(Makes 2 litres)
– 25 Elderflower heads, de-stalked – Finely grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (used separately) – 1kg granulated sugar – 1tsp citric acid
1. Place the harvested flower heads in a large bowl with the stems removed. Add the lemon zest.
2. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and pour it over the elderflowers and zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
3. Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag/piece of muslin over a large saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon juice and the citric acid. Heat the ingredients gently to dissolve the sugar then turn it down to simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.
4. In an oven preheated to 120C, sterilise glass bottles. Remove them from the oven once they are hot and leave to cool.
5. Using a funnel, pour the hot syrup into the sterilised bottles. Seal with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks. Leave them to cool and then keep in the fridge for 4 weeks or put it in the freezer to keep for a few months. Alternatively, you can sterilise plastic bottles or ice cream containers using hot water and keep the cordial frozen in these – leave a small gap between the top of the plastic bottle/container and the cordial itself to prevent them from exploding in the freezer.
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Jumbleberry Jam

My sister is currently raising money for her trip to Tanzania next summer. One event she had to do lately was set up a stall at a fete. As chief jam maker of the house, it was way of contributing. Problem was there were no berries for picking and the jams I had from last year were gooseberry, bramble jelly and apple jelly, all packaged in Bonne Mamen jars (you can’t sell it in a branded jar) and quite old with goodness knows what growing under the lids… It was the perfect time to dig out all of the plastic bags and yoghurt pots containing mixtures of fruit that had been shoved inside the freezer as they were ‘too much effort’ to go picking through. A mixture of raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries, jostaberries and tayberries went in the pot together and ended up with something pretty edible and with a wonderful name I found online – ‘Jumbleberry Jam’. I only made 15 jars and my sister sold 11 (15 and a half, I got to keep and eat the half jar as a cook’s perk). The blackcurrants dominated the mixture along with the raspberries – just as well as those are two of the best jams in the world!

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I am a jam enthusiast. First it was raspberry obsession, then I discovered blackcurrant, homemade plum (shop ones are always disappointing), bramble jelly, apple jelly, gooseberry, boysenberry and of course strawberry. I would love to try making strawberry jam one year but there is no way I will manage to harvest enough this year. We have been eating them fresh every evening and I need at least 1kg for a couple of jars worth – I will have to shelve that fantasy for the time being and stick to making raspberry and allowing myself the occasional indulgence of buying strawberry jam from Sainsbury’s.

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I must admit, I am famous for making runny jam that doesn’t set, even when I add bottled pectin from the shops. However, I think I have worked out how to do it now: do not be impatient about boiling (get on with another job in the kitchen and keep an eye on it rather than standing around waiting), do not be afraid of using lots of lemon juice and use bottle pectin, especially when making jam with berries low in pectin or fruit that has been frozen (they lose some pectin that makes the jam set). The Jumbleberry jam set very well – too well, it was solid and only just spreadable, but after experience I would say most people prefer very set jam to the kind of jam that runs off your toast and goes everywhere but inside your mouth.

This is the perfect recipe for anyone who has old fruit hanging around in the freezer to clear out to make way for this year’s pickings. Enjoy!

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Jumbleberry Jam

(Makes enough for 4 medium sized jars)

  • 1 kg mixed berries and currants – 1 kg granulated sugar – Juice of at least 1 lemon, three is best or more – Half a bottle of — pectin
  1. In a large plan, place the fruit and turn it on to high flame. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir in until the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring now and then.
  2. Place a china plate in the freezer in advance for the pectin test.
  3. Allow the fruit to boil furiously for more than ten minutes, stirring occasionally to see how it is going. When the mixture starts to feel slightly gloopy and sticks more to the spoon without looking as runny as it did before when it drips off, remove the plate from the freezer and add a dollop onto the surface. Place it back in the freezer for a couple of minutes then take it out and run your index finger through the middle. If the jam is set and wrinkles where you push your finger through, it is ready. If it does not, continue to boil until it does so.
  4. Once done, turn off the heat and pour in the pectin, stirring it in. Leave the jam to cool.
  5. Preheat the oven to 150C and sterilise the jam jars and the lids inside – they are done when they feel hot to the touch. Remove these from the oven and allow them to cool.
  6. Once the jam has cooled slightly and so have the jars, ladle the jam into the jars, place a wax disk over the top if you have any and put the lid on top, using a damp cloth to clean up any spillage running down the sides. Place the jars overnight in a cool place. They will be ready for eating the following day and should last for months.

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Rhubarb

We finally got round to harvesting some of our rhubarb, a vegetable masquerading as a fruit, a couple of weeks ago. We have quite a lot ready for picking this year…

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Rhubarb contains a good amount of fibre, hence why it was used in ancient Chinese medicine for soothing stomach ailments and constipation. 122g of rhubarb provides 45% of your daily amount of vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and limits neuronal damage in the brain. It contains vitamin C,  A (the red stalks provide more of this than the green ones, good for vision, protection against cancers, good skin and mucus membranes), B vitamins, as well as other nutritional benefits such as iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese and folate. A serving of cooked rhubarb provides us with as much calcium as a cup of milk would and is on the short list alongside salmon and spinach for food that provides us with the most calcium.
Rhubarb was a native of Siberia, found growing on the banks of the river Volga. The earliest recordings of rhubarb date back to 2700BC in China although it is believed that it was used as a drug even before this date. The plant was cultivated for medicinal purposes, particularly as an ailment for gut, liver and lung conditions. Marco Polo is attributed with bringing rhubarb, or ‘Rhacoma’ root, as a drug to Europe during the thirteenth century. The plant was so popular that in England during 1657, its asking price was three times that of Opium. The rise of modern medicine after the sixteenth century and the failure of the British trying to introduce the wrong strain of rhubarb to use as a drug replaced the root’s use for healing.

The first recorded planting of rhubarb in Europe was in Italy in 1608. It was not until 1778 that the plant was recorded as being grown for food in Europe. It was not until the Chelsea Physics Garden discovered forcing rhubarb in 1817, when some roots were accidentally covered with soil during the winter, that the vegetable became a British favourite. When the gardeners removed the soil, they discovered some tender shoots growing. These were found to have a superior taste, gaining favour with the public as commercial growers began to adopt the technique. The earliest cooking method of eating rhubarb was in tarts and pies.

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The forcing of rhubarb began in 1877 in Yorkshire, where the famous Yorkshire Rhubarb of course sprouts from. The Whitwell family are acknowledged as being the first family to produce enough rhubarb to out-sell the London markets. Special sheds were built for growing rhubarb in, prolonging the season. Yorkshire is an ideal place for growing rhubarb as it possesses the ideal requirements for growing the crop: cold, wet and a good deal of nitrogen in the soil. The quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned and other markets could no longer compete and ceased altogether. The production of rhubarb centralised between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, becoming ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’, the centre for the world’s production of forced rhubarb.

During the Second World War, rhubarb became diet staple as the government charged a shilling per pound of Yorkshire rhubarb to keep it financially available. The rhubarb industry became one of the largest providers of employment during these years. Despite this, sugar was difficult to get hold of and the sharp taste of rhubarb needs to be softened by this particular ingredient. After being a nutritious part of the human diet during the 1940s, rhubarb’s popularity dropped due to the undesirable memories of war-time children who had to suffer the strong taste of rhubarb for too long. When the war was over and overseas refrigerators became available along with the chance to purchase and store exotic, tropical fruits, rhubarb was abandoned in the garden and the producers began to suffer huge losses, some going bankrupt, some selling their businesses.

Despite the decline, rhubarb is starting to raise itself up again. More and more chefs are advertising new recipes to include rhubarb in – one does not have to restrict themselves to using it in a crumble, although that can be one of the most yummy, traditional ways of using it, as long as you remove the fuzzy feeling you can get on your teeth by not sweetening it enough. All of my latest cookery finds have some ingenious ideas for using this beautiful pink and green vegetable masquerading as a fruit: cakes, fools, pies, tarts, steamed puddings, stewed on its own and served with another pudding like a cheesecake, soufflés, grunts, muffins, jams, jelly, yoghurt, ice cream, raw rhubarb sorbet… The list goes on.

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We were given various rhubarb plants by friends last year so I do not know the names of all of them. However, I am pretty sure we have bought ourselves ‘Champagne’, ‘Victoria’ (fruits later) and ‘Timperley Early’ (produces earlier than most varieties and does have a fairly high chilling requirement so it is suitable for cold areas).

You can buy young crowns of rhubarb or established ones. When buying young crowns, allow the plant to establish for a year in the soil before harvesting from them. Rhubarb likes to be planted in rich, well-manured soil in the full sun and water through dry periods. Allow 90cm between plants.

Forcing rhubarb: In Yorkshire, the plants are grown in a field for  two years before being brought indoors each winter after a cold period to induce dormancy. The warm sheds encourage the plants to awaken but light is excluded, making the plant resort to its own glucose reserves in its base to feed the early growth of the new stalks. Without the light, the rhubarb grows a livid pink colour and is more sweeter and succulent than the versions not forced. It is romantically harvested by candlelight as strong light halts growth. We can replicate Yorkshire’s forcing techniques simply at home. Place a rhubarb forcer or, in our case, a large bucket over the small crowns in late winter after piling fresh manure around it (this raises the temperature and the speed of growth). Forcing rhubarb will give you hopefully a harvest four or five weeks ahead of the main harvest time.

Depending on the variety of the plant and the weather, one can start harvesting rhubarb in March until the end of July. You need to stop picking as the plant growth slows down to allow it to store reserves of energy for growth the following year. Choose tender stalks. These are stems with good colour, where the leaves have just unfolded fully. Do not cut the stems. Instead, grasp the chosen stem low on the plant, give a sharp pull and twist in order to remove it cleanly. Rip  the leaves off and discard into the compost heap – don’t give them to the animals as they are poisonous, despite what my pigs might say after breaking out and rampaging the neighbour’s crops of rhubarb and our own, they love it!

As far as pests and diseases go, there are not too many threats for this vegetable. If you notice limp foliage, weak steams nad new buds dying during the growing season your plant could have fungal disease, crown rot. You just have to be brave and discard the plant and purchase new crowns for planting.

If flowers appear on your plants (they did on a couple of ours last year), cut them off as they reduce the vigour of the part of the rhubarb you want to eat. In the autumnal months, remove the withering leaves and add well-rotted manure and mulch to encourage them for the next season.

So now I can finally offer you pudding recipes. I love puddings, especially homemade ones. I eat one after supper without fail every night for ultimate comfort and although it is often a cake, or something covered in chocolate, that I have made, I do love a good fruity pudding and I have recently purchased the ‘Puddings’ cookbook by Johnny Shepherd. He is obviously a fan of rhubarb and includes a fair number of interesting recipes involving it. Instead of launching straight into crumbles or rhubarb cakes, I played around with his recipe for rhubarb fool  first of all before going for the crumble. I have had the best rhubarb crumbles at school. I was never too keen on the dishes they served but their chocolate sponge and custard (of course), jam roly poly, macaroni cheese, baked potatoes, apple crumble and, finally, rhubarb crumble with custard were all delicious. The thing I never liked about rhubarb crumble was the fuzzy texture you get on your teeth after eating it. There is little you can do about this other than to use a good amount of sugar, to cook it well or to peel off the outsides and to serve it with something like custard to combat the texture. When making the crumble this year, I decided to try roasting it first of all using Shepherd’s technique to see if this would help. It did reduce it quite a lot and it was delicious and went down a treat with the family.

By the way, we just picked some strawberries and ate them with homemade chocolate cake with some pouring yoghurt last night – delicious! I am going through a real strawberry phase at the moment. My favourite breakfast is strawberry and rhubarb yoghurt and if I get enough strawberries (those pesky birds ate most of them  last year), then I would love to try making strawberry and rhubarb conserve, just to try. They making a surprisingly delicious match.

Here is my adaption of Johnny Shepherd’s fool recipe and my rhubarb crumble. I never took an photographs of my fool as it tasted amazing and looked revolting so I have included his photo instead to inspire rather than put you off. The crumble is my own though.

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Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool – Picture from Johnny Shepherd’s cookbook ‘Puddings’

Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool

(Serves 6)

For the rhubarb: – 500g rhubarb, washed and cut into 5cm batons – 175g caster or granulated sugar – 10 cardamom pods, cracked

For the custard: – 315ml double cream – 3-4 large egg yolks – 48g caster sugar

– 300ml double cream

  1. Preheat the oven to 160C. On a non-stick baking tray, lay out the rhubarb and cardamom seeds, sprinkling 75g of the sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the rhubarb is soft and tender.
  2. Meanwhile, make the custard: Put the cream into a non-stick saucepan over a medium flame and bring to the boil. Take the pan off the heat.
  3. Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together in a bowl. Pour the hot cream over the top, whisking all the time. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and place over a medium flame, whisking, until the custard is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Leave the pan to cool slightly before putting it in the fridge to chill completely.
  4. Return to the baked rhubarb once it is done in the oven. Pour the excess liquid from the tray through a sieve into a saucepan. Discard the cardamom pods. Heat the saucepan of liquid on the stove over a high flame to reduce it to a thick syrup. Remove from the heat and stir in the rhubarb along with the remaining 100g of sugar. Place to one side and allow to cool before keeping it in the fridge until fully chilled.
  5. In a large bowl, whisk the 300ml of double cream to soft peaks.
  6. Once you are ready to serve, remove the custard and the rhubarb from the fridge and combine. Carefully fold the cream into the rhubarb and custard to create a rippled effect. Serve in bowls.

 

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Homemade Rhubarb Crumble

Rhubarb 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: – 400-500g rhubarb, washed and cut into small strips, about 5cm long              – About 75g caster or granulated sugar – 100g caster or granulated sugar

  1. 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 15 minutes until the rhubarb is just starting to become tender. Remove the tray from the oven and put it to one side. Turn the oven up to 180C.
  2. Pour the juice of the rhubarb into a small saucepan. Place over a medium heat and allow it to bubble until it has turned into a thick syrup. Turn down the heat to simmer and stir in 100g sugar and the rhubarb. Remove from heat.
  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. Scatter the crumble topping over the fruit, spreading it evenly and thickly.
  5. Bake the crumble in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm with custard.

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