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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Salad – Spinach

 

 

 

 

IMG_2085.JPGI better admit it now: I am a big fan of spinach. I eat it pretty much daily, it is my favourite green leaf. I tried it once with houmous slathered thickly on a crust of warm, homemade whole-wheat bread. It became a lunch time favourite and I have not looked back since. It goes very well with lots of meals, raw or cooked (I prefer it raw). Luckily, spinach is easy and quick to grow once you have got it going.

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Last year I planted under the cover of fleece in March the varieties ‘Barbados’ and ‘Emilia’ (February-August sowing times). I did likewise this year with this variety as well as planting in March ‘Samish’ spinach (March-August) which germinated pretty well too.  These are really tasty varieties that I would recommend and should be ready to harvest within a matter of weeks once sown. The sudden heat has made a lot of mine bolt but they are still pickable and edible. I have just sown some more in my runner-bean trenches. When the leaves rot down, they are supposed to provide the beans with nitrogen and the beans in turn provide them with shade. They can be bought at Mr Fothergills, at least but you can find lots of popular spinach varieties everywhere.

Also, at the end of last year, in October we sowed some ‘Turaco’ (August-October) spinach indoors before planting it under the cover of fleece in a trench alongside some winter sown peas. This is a hardier type of spinach ideal for winter sowings. It has been ready to harvest since some time in April but have now bolted quite a lot now (still picking them, though). The leaves are big and dark green and deliciously prolific. It has been a joy to be able to harvest my own spinach again this spring and summer and not to pick up the guilty plastic bag of soggy green mush I usually slip into the trolley at the supermarket.

Sow spinach direct (or indoors before planting out), 2.5 cm / 1″ deep into prepared, fertile soil, allowing 30 cm / 1′ between rows. Keep  well watered and fed as they continue to grow and sow some more every couple of weeks, like you would do for radishes or spring onions, to ensure a continuous crop. If you are sowing outdoors, early sowings will need the protection of a cloche, fleece or a cold-frame. Harvest the leaves when they are around 3cm or so above ground level, to encourage more growth and when each plant has at least four leaves growing.

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Like lettuce, spinach can bolt but it does not taste as strong as poor lettuce does. However, when it bolts, the leaves become tiny and you have to pick quite a few to get a good bunch. Therefore, I would recommend adopting the successional sowing attitude and sowing perhaps a new bunch once a month or every couple of months, depending on how the weather is and what your needs are for fresh salad.

Other ‘spinach type leaves’ I have sown in the past include Swiss chard, a member of the same family, as well as most recently ‘Perpetual Leaf Beet Spinach’ purchased from the Real Seeds Company. I sowed these indoors and have recently planted them out between some purple sprouting broccoli with some radishes for extra companion planting points! They are doing quite well. I have not bothered sowing Swiss chard since I first planted it two years ago in August, I think. It has grown back every summer after dying off over winter and self-sown some babies every year. We have a lot this year, despite my mum digging some up for my sister’s fete this weekend. Swiss chard should only be eaten cooked otherwise it tastes gross. Treat it like you would kale or any other oriental green – rip of  the chunky stem that tastes quite strong and rip the leaves into little pieces before chucking them in a stew, stir fry or on top of a pizza or wilting it down for a side dish.

Spinach is considered to have originated from the Persia, or Iran. It found its way to China during the 7th century when the king of Nepal sent is abroad as a gift. It was brought to Spain by the Moors around the 11th century and was known in England as the ‘Spanish vegetable’ for some time. Compared to most vegetables, spinach is rather new. A sweet historical story is that spinach was the favourite vegetable of Catherine de Medici, alive in the 16th century who left her home in Florence to marry the king of France. She brought her own cooks with her so that they could prepare her spinach dishes just the way she liked them. Now, if a dish is prepared on a bed of spinach, it is called ‘a la Florentine’.

Nutritionally, spinach is high in vitamin K, A, manganese, folate, magnesium, high levels of iron, copper vitamins B1, B2, B6, E, C, calcium, zinc and potassium. Additionally, it is a good source of dietary fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. This mixture of nutrients gives spinach superb status in the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory department. However, due to the high oxalate content found in spinach, people are often concerned about consuming too much of this leafy green raw. Oxalates are naturally occurring organic acids found in a wide selection of foods that can interfere with our absorbing of calcium or, ironically, iron, the major nutrient spinach is famous for (thin Popeye). Oxalic acid binds with calcium, making it unusable in our bodies. However, oxalic acids are broken down when heated so steamed or sautéed spinach and when spinach is cooked, nutrients like vitamins A and E, the protein found in the green vegetable and other nutritional benefits are easier for our bodies to absorb. Some of the other nutrients, like vitamin C, folate, potassium, and others, are more plentiful for our bodies when we eat the spinach raw. The iron content does not change whether you decide to eat it cooked or raw. You will absorb the iron if you eat something rich in vitamin C alongside it so consider pairing it with other vegetables and fruits. To conclude, varying the way we eat spinach, sometimes raw, sometimes cooked will give us the full range of nutritional benefits.

 

 

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Try eating spinach raw with any salad or as a green in your humble lunch time sandwich. Another lunch time favourite of mine is to make a rice salad with spinach, lettuce and rocket, perhaps some avocado (which I hasten to add, I do not grow) or sauerkraut (which I have yet to try making myself). It is also delicious on top of a bowl of chili con carne, raw or cooked.

To cook it, add it in any dish like casserole, stew, curry etc. To cook it on its own, wilt the leaves of the spinach in a little butter over a medium heat in a frying pan. Serve with some additional falvourings if you would like: salt and pepper, chilli, ginger, soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce… Serve it alongside a baked potato with butter and cheese or swirl it in some rice with some cooked chickpeas.

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Salad – Radish

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‘Cherry Bella’, ‘Esmerelda’, ‘Polenza’

These little, colorfully red vegetables are quick and easy to grow, attributed as the ideal starting point for encouraging children to garden so that they do not get impatient!

Radishes are assumed to have first been grown wild in Southeast Asia, thousands of years ago. Ancient writings in Egypt suggest that they were cultivated before the pyramids were even constructed, suggesting that this little red vegetable has been around a pretty long time, developing over the years to become the little red vegetable we love today. In Ancient Greece, radishes were revered so much that gold replicas were made to impersonate them as an offering to the god Apollo. Radishes first appeared in England during the 16th century and are actually referred to in Shakespeare’s work in ‘King Henry IV’.

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Radish patch in April after being sown in February 2016

Radishes are a fast germinating and growing crop that can be sown in soils averaging 10C-18C. During the winter months, one must allow 6-7 weeks for the crop to mature but as the temperatures rise and the sun (hopefully) shines, you can pick your radishes less than a month after sowing. As the cycle of growing and harvesting is so quick, to have a continuous supply of radishes throughout the year they should be sown successionally every fortnight.

Radishes grow best in full sun with a soil PH 6.5-7.0, making it an ideal vegetable for my sandy soil. From my own experience, I have discovered that radishes become plumper and redder when sown in well-fed soil. I have planted them this year in ground that was used for potatoes last year that has been freshly fed with well-rotted manure and mulch and they have done marvelously. I am now sowing them between other vegetables as a catch-crop as they are an ideal companion plant (they have few pests, are small and quickly harvested and moved out-of-the-way from the other crops. This saves space in the garden rather than dedicating one large patch to them that they do not need. The only plant I have heard of that disagrees with radishes is hyssop).

Daikon or Mooli radish are winter oilseed radishes from Asia. These are long, white radishes instead of the small red ones we are used to buying in our local supermarkets. These varieties are important parts of East, Southeast and South Asian cuisine that are steadily becoming more popular in England as we branch out on our exotic vegetables with funny names.

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‘Mooli’ or ‘Daikon’ Radishes (Image from Mr Fothergills website)

This year, I sowed my first lot of radishes in February under the cover of fleece. They were ready for picking by early April. Seed packets recommend sowing radishes from February to September, early and perhaps late sowings made under cover to optimise the health of the plant in case of frost damage preventing the growth.

The types I have grown recently are: ‘Cherry Bella’, ‘Esmerelda’ and ‘Polenza’. All of these have had the same taste, appearance and success in growing.

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Plant radishes 1/2 inch deep, 2 inches apart. Keep them well watered and fed to get a great harvest. If you do not water them regularly, the roots you want to eat will split and if they are not fed very well, they will not grow to a reasonable size. They can be stored in the ground and picked and used fresh from the garden but the longer they are left, the ‘woodier’ the texture of their skin will be. If this happens, cut them very finely or peel them, otherwise experiment with cooking them in a dish.

Radish roots are most often used in salads though the tops can be eaten too. They can be sautéed as a side dish or thrown in a stir fry to wilt. They are also often included in soups. Raw radish has a peppery taste (caused by glucoseinolates and the enzyme myrosinase combining when chewed) and a crisp texture, adding flavor and seasoning to your salads. ‘Veg Patch’, ‘River Cottage’, suggests using the peppery radishes in a raita alongside a curry: slice 200g radishes into a bowl. Combine 100g goats cheese with 300g natural yoghurt, a little at a time. Fold in the radishes and a couple or tsp of mint, if you would like, and season with a little salt and pepper. Eat it alongside a curry or use as a dip for naan bread, poppadoms or chappatis.

Radishes are a good source of fibre, vitamins C and B6, folic acid, potassium, iron (not so much, but a little), calcium, magnesium, copper and riboflavin.

 

 

Salad – Rocket

 

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‘Buzz’ Rocket

Rocket, or Arugula has a sharp, peppery taste. It is high in vitamins A and C. Rocket is popular in Italian cuisine because of its aromatic flavour. In Roman times, this green was grown for both its leaves and seeds. The seeds were used for flavouring oils which is still practiced today.

Rocket is quite easy to grow: it germinates efficiently and quickly. It can be sown all year round if you start them off in containers indoors during the colder months and plant them out under the cover of horticultural fleece, cloches or cold frames. Their only real pest concern are slugs and snails.

However, rocket does tend to bolt and flower before you are ready for it to do so. Once this happens the delicate, tender leaves you were once eating become a bit stronger and the tougher. This is fine for some people but displeasing for others. When this happens, you can included these leaves in cooking instead of eating them raw if you do not like the taste – the leaves will just be a little hotter than the new, younger ones.

To avoid this, sow little and often, successional sowings. I am on my third sowing this year since February. I started the first batch off indoors and they germinated really quickly, in a couple of days. I am still picking them but they are starting to flower (you can eat these flowers, include them in salads or a stir fry). My second sowing I made outdoors under the cover of fleece when temperatures were still low in March. These took about a week or two to germinate because of the cold. My third sowing I did a couple of weeks ago indoors just before the temperatures rocketed to 20C daytime and an average 12C at night. These I will plant out shortly when they are big enough, perhaps in a couple of weeks.

Types of rocket I am growing this year are ‘Buzz’, ‘Monza’ and ‘Tirizia’. These can be grown indoors nearly all year round and then sown outdoors from March until the end of August, perhaps under the cover of a cold frame or fleece in the early months when frost is still about. These have all been delicious and easy to grow and transplant.

Rocket, spinach and watercress is a green salad made in heaven. Try adding this mix to your sandwich at lunch.

Another way I love eating rocket is with one of our ‘lazy family suppers’ when the idea of cooking anything extravagant is just exhausting: Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes. The rocket adds an extra classy flavour and makes it oh-so Italian – and it could take you no longer than half an hour to prepare on your own, tops.

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Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes

(Serves 6)

– 250g pasta – Olive oil – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g cheddar cheese – 400g peas – 80g pine nuts – 6 large handfuls of rocket

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the pasta and turn the heat down to simmer for ten minutes or until the pasta is cooked. Drain and drizzle olive oil over the top, stirring it in. Set aside.
  2. Put the tinned tomatoes in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove when hot. Meanwhile, grate the cheddar cheese.
  3. Bring another pan of water to the boil. Add the peas and leave to cook until heated and ready.
  4. Place a frying pan over a high heat. Add the pine nuts and stir in the dry dish. Once they start to brown, remove from the heat immediately and continue to stir the nuts over the very hot dish for a couple of minutes.
  5. Serve: place pasta on a plate, scrape tinned tomatoes over the top, scatter cheddar cheese on top followed by the toasted pine nuts and fresh rocket before adding lots of peas on the side.

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Salad – Lettuce

With the (partly) sunny weather and hopefully a good approaching summer, it is time to write about the salad to be harvested from the plot. Currently, I have lettuce, rocket, spinach and radishes ready for picking. We will be starting with lettuce.

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Lettuce

We planted some lettuce under the cover of fleece and in our falling apart cold frames last autumn, mostly ‘Vailan’, a light green winter gem that is hardy and currently thriving right now. It looks beautiful and tastes delicious. It can be sown from January until March and then again from September to December, germinating in the cooler months and then growing steadily for the next season. We planted some in November last year and I started again in February this year, starting these off indoors before planting them out under the cover of fleece. I have been harvesting them all month and they are delicious.

I still have so many lettuces sown indoors that need planting out and I am avoiding looking at the windowsills they are sitting on because they make me feel guilty. The problem with sowing lettuce seeds is that they are tiny and grow close together, making planting out a nightmare with delicate roots snapping in all places. It is more than likely I will have a good sob when planting them out. I planted some out the other day between my cabbages (that are netted so I will probably never be bothered to harvest them) and mum has been planting some out in our baby asparagus bed that we just started this year.

Since March, I have sown the following types of lettuces that are all looking pretty good, they just need planting out to give them some room and nutrition.

Little gems: ‘Amaze’ (March-June sowing), Winter gem ‘Vailan’

Cos lettuce: ‘Romaine Ballon’ (March-July)

‘Grandpa Admire’s Butterhead Lettuce’ (from ‘Real Seeds Company’, March-August sowing)

‘Reine  des Glaces Toothed Crisphead Lettuce’ (“)

‘Red Iceburg Lettuce’ (“)

‘Really Red Lettuce’ (“)

Other recommended varieties are:

Hardy hearting lettuce, ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons’ (February-April and August-September), ‘Black seeded Simpson’ (February-September) and the most popular loose leaf variety out there, ‘Lollo Rossa’ (March-August) which I have tried, tested and liked and have some around right now from last year’s planting. The other two I could not buy this year but they are a popular and reliable variety recommended to me and I will be looking out for them.

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Lettuces are not too fussy but do love nutritious soil. Plant them into a patch that has been weeded and fed with Blood, Fish and Bone and well-rotted manure before applying a good layer of mulch on top to hold those nutrients in. They can be grown as catch-crops between other larger vegetables that need a lot of spacing out, such as cabbages, sweetcorn, cucurbits etc. They do not mind shade or sun but many often plant them in the shadiest patches because they will still thrive there. Most of mine are in full sun and they are still great so it really does not matter. Lettuce go wherever you can fit them!

The worst thing about lettuces is that they can bolt very quickly when you turn a blind eye for five seconds. Bolting is when the lettuce goes to seed and flowers when it is too hot, the watering conditions are unstable and the sun is offering too much light (unbelievable in England, yes?). The problem with bolting lettuce is that it tastes, well, vile. The only use people can find for bolting lettuce I am afraid is perhaps lettuce soup or perhaps cooking it in some other way, perhaps as an oriental vegetable in a stir fry or a stew? Chickens love some bolted lettuce though so don’t be afraid to share if you own livestock. Waste not, want not.

The other major problem with growing lettuce is that a patch of it is the garden of Eden for slugs and snails. I think salad is their favourite, as well as perhaps peas? If you can deter the slugs with any means you can and manage to successfully grow and harvest the lettuce for yourself, it is worth the time and trouble. Everyone likes lettuce and it goes so well with everything and it is so good for you!  The aim this year is to successfully sow and grow crops like lettuce so that we have a steady supply all year round for ourselves and our neighbors. This means sowing some every few months throughout the year during the sowing times.

The nutrition of lettuce varies in each variety. The most beneficial nutrients are vitamin A and potassium. The vitamin A comes from the beta-carotene in the leaves (the yellowing orange colour is hidden in lettuce by the green chlorophyll pigments in the lettuce). Our bodies convert the beta-carotene into vitamin A. The darker the green colouring of the lettuce, the more beta-carotene there will be. The stems and spines of the lettuce leaves provide us with dietary fiber while the minerals and vitamins are concentrated in the leaves themselves. Most lettuces, excluding iceberg varieties, included moderate levels of vitamin C, calcium, iron and copper, too.

Lettuce is one of the oldest vegetables around and a statement in the patch. It is a member of the daisy and thistle family, Asteraceae. Lettuce was first cultivated in Egypt for the production of oil from its seeds. Evidence of its cultivation has been dated back as early as 2680BC. Ancient Greeks believed it contained sleep inducing properties and served it at the end of a meal. 12,500 hectares in the UK are used to grow salad crops and lettuce accounts for 50% of it. Apparently, half of all UK households eat lettuce three times a fortnight. Growing your own in your own veg patch and you can beat this figure hands down: it is so prolific and easy to grow and eat that it will become an everyday green staple in your diet.

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This is the Quiche recipe that my mum taught me to make, with bacon, cheese and cream in it. Serve with a freshly picked salad from the garden, whatever is in season. Right now, that could mean lettuce, spinach, rocket and radishes. Later on try pairing it with some crisp carrots, cucumber, watercress, beetroot, anything that you have growing to make a light summer supper.

Quiche

(Serves 10, 20cm tart case required)

Pastry: – 170g/ 6oz plain flour – 110g/ 4oz salted butter – A little cold water to mix in

Filling: – 2 eggs and 1 yolk – 2-4 strips of pre-fried or grilled bacon – 60-100ml double cream – 100g grated cheddar cheese – 1 small onion, finely sliced – A little butter or olive oil, for frying – Salt and pepper for seasoning

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
  2. To make the pastry, put the flour into a large bowl with the butter. Using your fingertips, rub the ingredients together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre and add cold water, a little at a time and mix in to form a dough. Knead lightly until smooth and set to one side or if you are making it in advance, wrap it in cling-film and store it in the fridge.
  3. To make the filling, melt the butter or oil in a frying pan and fry the onions until golden brown. In a new bowl, beat the whole eggs and yolk with 80g of the grated cheddar cheese. Beat in enough double cream so that the mixture thickens and looks creamy. Break the pre-cooked bacon into tiny pieces and stir them in along with the fried onions, followed by the salt and pepper for seasoning.
  4. Press the pastry into a 20cm tart case. Scrape the filling on top of the pastry and smooth it over the base evenly. Scatter the remaining grated cheese over the top.
  5. Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes until the Quiche is firm and golden brown. Serve hot or cold with salad.

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The last of the Kale

I am currently picking the last ‘burst’ of small kale leaves from the curly kale I sowed last summer as they flower.

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Kale has had a lot of publicity over the last few years as a member of the dreaded team ‘superfood’. I’m a little snobbish of the phrase ‘superfood’ as it is basically ‘trendy food’ or ‘fad food’, ‘faze food’. It is the in-group in the culinary world, when leggings and purple hair are the height of fashion before jeans and original colours return, a superfood, like coconut which I think is the latest addition to the group, joins the Mean Girl cliche before being cast aside for the next fad that everyone has to join in with – to be cool. Since when did food need to be cool? I suppose it was always the case. Nevertheless, kale needs to be adored for it’s usefulness for the vegetable grower instead of the publicity it gets in the press. I was surprised when I ate it as I was expecting it to, honestly, be vile. It certainly does not look pretty on its own but it tastes, well, great.

Kale is high in iron, beta-carotene and folic acid. It is a source of vitamins A, C (more than in carrots, apparently) and K, manganese and copper. 80g contains 120mg of calcium, great for dairy-free dieters over the world. It is rich in lutein, an anti-oxidant that keeps our eyes healthy, 76mg lutein per kg while broccoli only contains 17mg. So far, so good.

It is thought to have descended from the ‘wild cabbage’, like broccoli, cauliflowers and other brassicas that came to Europe around 600BC by Celtic wanderers, being cultivated for over 2,000 years. Apparently it was a significant crop during the Roman times (but they are famous for not being very fussy eaters) and it was a crop for peasants in the Middle Ages until the popular cabbage found its way to our hearts. Kale is known for being grown in colder climates because of its resistance to frost – our garden was hit by severe frost earlier in January reaching a -3C  but I did not need to fleece them once, and they are still alive and pickable. It was so hardy, in the old days kitchens in Scotland used to have a special kale pot to cook the leafy green. Towards the end of the 20th century, kale was grown specifically as winter feed for livestock, such as sheep and cattle, on farms and consumed more by animals than humans. Now though, it has risen in our esteem more than ever as a nutritious vegetable and a valuable crop for the ‘hunger gap’ for home growers.

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Kale ‘Nero De Toscana’

Kale is a wonderful vegetable for the kitchen gardener. It is tough and prolific. Start sowing under cover or indoors from March, the last sowing being in October, and you will have enough kale to harvest over winter and then the following spring. They are a brassica so remember that they do need a lot of feeding and it is a good idea to net them in the dreaded cabbage white season as the caterpillars go nuts for them. I found that out last year but do not despair and rip the plants up, squash the caterpillars and leave the plants that will heal themselves and grow a new, fresh batch of leaves if given a little time. All of my ravaged kale grew lots of new leaves over the months. My favourite types are the green ‘Dwarf Curly Kale – Starbor’ and ‘Nero de Toscana’ kale with smoother leaves (more of a favourite with pests I have noticed and flowers quicker than curly kale). Another popular variety is ‘Red Russian kale’, a deep purple colour which tastes the exact same, think of it being like the purple version of green lettuce.

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Newly transplanted kale earlier this year in bottles for protection from wind and change in temperature
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Curly Kale baby

Over the last winter, kale was the one vegetable I could always rely on to pick in the ‘hungry gap’ when nothing else was growing. When my beloved spinach had ended or was too small to pick, when the last batch of frozen beans had gone and we had run out of peas and were on strike and refusing to go shopping, kale was the answer to our need for cooked greens. We harvest the leaves by picking them from the plant – one is supposed to pick the tallest ones further up the plants – before washing and stripping them off their slightly tough stalks and dumping them in boiling hot water to simmer for a few minutes until cooked. It is surprisingly yummy just plain boiled (I am not a fan for eating it raw but if you like it then that is brilliant as it is another way of enjoying this green). As well as eating it just boiled alongside the main dish, we also put the leaves in casseroles, Bolognese, lasagna, curries, stir fries etc. My brother doesn’t like kale on its own but is fine when it is mixed in a gloop as you can’t tell it is in there. I have tried making kale pesto – awful, I think only my mum and perhaps my sister liked it and I am sure they were just being polite, there are still two jars hidden at the back of the fridge. We also invented a kale version of Crispy Seaweed that you can get in Chinese restaurants or take aways and it is a very good version which I will share with you one day as well as a Kale Rice Bake which is delicious. However, today I thought it was a good idea to share with you one of the best dishes known to mankind where you can slip some kale in subtly: homemade pizza.

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Cooked homemade pizza

Making your own pizza is way better than ordering Dominos and it really is not that hard. In the winter add kale to the sauce, in the summer you could very between swiss chard or spinach or even some oriental komatsuna or pak choi. Feel free to add cut up ham, pineapple, pepperoni, olives or even some sweet peppers on top. We sometimes do half a pizza with these extra toppings and leave the other half just plain cheese for fussy me. The brilliant thin about making your own pizza is that you can play and add whatever you like. By the way, for those of you that have not heard of Italian passata, it is basically thickened tinned tomatoes, a sort of tomato puree but I would recommend splashing out on the passata rather than a puree from the bottle, it will taste far better. You can buy them in any normal supermarket or of course, try making some yourself if you get a glut of tomatoes in the summer?

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Pizza being assembled: the kale tomato paste is spread on top, followed by the cheese – the dark green in the topping is the sautéed kale
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Pizza just before cooking

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Unfortunately, for the most recent pizzas I have made lately,  I was out of mozzarella which I love on top of a pizza – it makes it so gooey and cheesy and I would recommend trying it. I often use a mixture of any cheese in the house, always chedder, mozzarella if I available, parmesan if any is grated already… This time I used a lot of cheddar cheese and some gruye, a cheese made from raw milk as well as some shavings of left-over parmesan from a previous meal. There are plenty of cheeses in the world, plenty of greens to try on top so get going and experiment.

I have included two versions: one uses a bread machine (the cheats way I use to ensure I get a good dough) but I have also added a hands-on method to try. Many chefs will advise you to use Italian 00 pasta flour or strong white bread flour. I use a majority of one of these, depending on what I have available, and I add about 10% of Khoresan flour, an old-fashioned flour you can buy from Doves in large supermarkets or online now (it is really good to use in homemade naan or pitta breads) and I add a little wholemeal bread flour into the mixture too. If you are a little daunted by the idea of mixing flours, then just stick to the safe strong white bread flour, it is more likely to rise, especially is using the hands-on method.

Enjoy!

Recipe:

Cheese and Kale Topped Pizza

(Serves 6, two or three slices per person)

Base: – 250g bread flour: I use mostly white flour, either ‘Strong White Bread Flour’, ’00 Pasta Flour’ with about 30g Khoresan flour with perhaps 50g-100g ‘Strong Wholemeal Bread Flour’. It is up to you, I would just advise using more white flour than any other to make sure the dough rises.

–  1 tsp (5g) fast-action dried yeast – 1tsp (5g) salt – 20 ml (2tbsp) olive oil – 160ml water

Topping: – 1 large onion, finely sliced – Olive oil, to fry in – 1-2 large garlic cloves – 500g packet of Italian Passata – About 200g kale, washed and de-stalked – A small handful of oregano leaves (I use anywhere from 8 – 14 small leaves), torn into fine pieces – A dash of maple syrup – Salt and pepper – 500g cheese of choice: I would advise about 300g cheddar cheese, one packet of mozzarella and the rest another cheese, like parmesan or gruye. Again, this is up to you – Any other additional toppings of your choice: e.g. ham and pineapple, olives, pepperoni etc.

  1. If you have a breadmaker, use this process for quickness and ease: Put the tsp of yeast into the bread pan followed by the flour, salt, olive oil and water. Put the bread pan inside the breadmaker and set it to your DOUGH setting, the timer should say 45 minutes. It is going to knead the ingredients together and help it rise.
  2. If you do not have a breadmaker: Put the yeast inside a large bowl followed by the flour and salt. Stir in the ingredients. Start to pour in the water, slowly as you mix to incorporate into a sticky dough, adding in the olive oil too. Once the mixture is completely combined, tip the dough out onto a floured surface and knead into a large ball so that it is not so sticky and more springy to the touch. Put inside a bowl or basket with a tea-towel and a plastic bag cover it and put it in a warm place, an airing cupboard is best, and leave to rise for about an hour.
  3. Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to the highest temperature your oven can offer you, mine reaches 325C.
  4. Make the topping: in a large frying pan, fry the onion in the olive oil over a a medium flame until starting to brown. Add the passata and the diced garlic, turning the flame up to high and stirring – the aim is to boil off some of the passata liquid so it looks more like a thick gloop, not a runny paste that will slide off the pizza base in the cooking process. Add the kale and leave the mixture to boil for a couple of minutes, still stirring it occasionally. Add the torn oregano, a good dash of maple syrup and a grind of salt and then pepper. Stir in and leave to continue boiling off. Turn it down to simmer and grate the cheeses (cutting the mozzarella into thick pieces instead).
  5. Place a large silicone sheet on the floor, or baking paper, and dust with semolina. Dust the dough with semolina to prevent it from sticking to your hands and dump it on the sheet. Now, I cheat here for ease. I coat a rolling-pin in semolina and use to flatten out the dough, rolling it into a huge pizza shape to that it covers nearly all of the sheet (homemade pizzas are rarely a perfect circle, I call them ‘rustic’). Once it is large and flat, remove the topping from the low flame and scrape onto the pizza base. I like to use a spatula to do this. Spread the topping evenly all over the base.
  6. Put a layer of mozzarella cheese all over the base and then sprinkle the rest of the cheeses on top thickly. Add any other toppings now.
  7. Pull out a shelf in the oven and carefully lift and slide the large pizza onto it, be careful not to burn yourself. Cook in the oven for 10 minutes, keeping an eye on it towards the end to make sure it does not burn. Carefully remove from the oven and slide the sheet with the pizza still on top onto a large tray to carry. Cut using a large pair of scissors into slices and serve with a lovely salad picked straight from the garden. When we have a glut of runner-beans or peas, we serve these alongside it instead and it is as equally delicious. Any left-overs can be kept in a container in the fridge and eaten cold the next day or put inside a preheated oven to warm up.
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Serve with a fresh salad picked from the veg patch

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