I get plenty of information about gardening and cooking from the internet, other people and clippings from my grandma’s Telegraph subscription but there is something very traditional and homey about owning a cookery or gardening book. The worn out covers and smeared pages mark your favourites and photos are always pretty, making the gardens or the produce look alluring.
There are plenty of books I would like to share with you but I will restrict my self and start of small to make it easier to follow. I will begin with books that focus on cooking, followed by more gardening related ones and finally some wonderful novels I would recommend reading that make the outdoor life sound wonderful.
These cookery books are not garden focused but include so many great recipes for the home-grower that they come highly recommended from me.
‘Puddings’ – Johnny Shepherd. This is a great book for anyone who loves baking or puddings but it is also surprisingly useful for the fruit-grower. Johnny Shepherd chooses fresh, seasonal fruits and offers lots of traditional and exciting recipes with optional twists that could help you use up any gluts in a tasty way, offering inspiration when you are stumped. His recipes include fools, jellies, pies, crumbles, tarts, cakes, sundaes, steamed puddings… The fruit he includes are rhubarb, strawberries, peaches, raspberries, gooseberries, plums, pears, nectarines, bilberries, apples… Think blackcurrant fool, rhubarb cake, peaches with raspberry coulee, nectarine tart, lemon meringue pie, steamed apple pudding, gooseberry suet pudding, blood orange jelly, poached pears, bilberry pie… It is a lovely book and well worth buying, for the puddings and the delicious ways of eating your fruit. I have already raved about his rhubarb fool:
His way of roasting rhubarb is the best way of cooking it I have found yet.
‘Leith’s Vegetable Bible’ – Polly Tyrer. An excellent book for vegetarians or people needing inspiration to make vegetables a central dish when they have grown a little too many courgettes, celery, potatoes etc. The book is divided into sections, some describe lentils and pulses or rice or pasta, others focus on the vegetable group, such as onions, roots, squashes. The entire book is vegetable focused and there will be plenty of options that you would not have considered before but they make them sound delicious. In each section they provide more information about the vegetables, including nutrition at the start of the book, and ways to cook them before launching into the recipes themselves. Recipes include parmender salad, Thai vegetable cakes, spiced black-eyes beans and potatoes, brown rice pilaff with Cajun vegetables, garden leaves with tomato and olives, pasta with cauliflower, saffron and tomato cream sauce, red potato bake, chickpeas and spinach curry, and plenty more.
My favourite Leith’s book by far.
‘Learning to Cook Vegetarian’ – Rose Elliot. I bought this book initially because of the title but meat-eaters should not be put off from using it too. There are lots of easy recipes using plenty of vegetables that will be tasty for all. Elliot offers nutritional information at the beginning before dividing the book into sections, like salad, vegetables, pasta, eggs, baking, rice, sauces. She includes alternatives for different needs and tastes in recipes (e.g. soya products for vegans or different ingredients in a dish, such as in her recipe pasta with courgettes, she suggests swapping the courgettes for asparagus or peas and mint). Some of my favourite recipes are pumpkin risotto, Mediterranean pasta, red bean and potato moussaka, tabbouleh, spicy chickpea ragout, her ideas for toppings on top of bruschetta are great too). Most of the dishes indulge in lots of different vegetables to inspire you when you are stumped with a new harvest from your veg patch and all are simple to prepare on a late evening.
The other collection of books I admire and use a lot for the garden as well as ideas for using the harvests is the collection of River Cottage handbooks. They are small and fit on your shelf or book pile cutely and include a stack of useful hints and tips. I am quite curious in purchasing the bread one…
‘River Cottage Handbook: Veg Patch’ – Mark Diacono. The man who owns Otters Farm once worked for River Cottage and he wrote this hand book. It is small, to the point, divided into clear sections with good information about growing and harvesting the vegetables before offering some recipes (think vegetable tempura, feta and beetroot salad, leek and cleriac soup, glutney (glut chutney), turnip ‘risotto’, tomato on bruschetta…). He also wrote ‘River Cottage Handbook: Fruit’ which is another one I would recommend (recipes for those interested include gooseberry tart, medlar jelly, apricots on toast, orchard ice cream with caramelised walnuts, pear and rocket salad, strawberry trifle and plum and hazelnut cake). He does make gardening sound easy with his positive attitude but they are books I go straight to if I need some brief information on a certain plant, such as recommended varieties, where to plant them, when to plant them and how far apart and cooking advice. The other two River Cottage Handbooks I would recommend for the kitchen gardner are ‘Preserves’ – Pam Corbin and ‘Hedgerow’- John Wright. ‘Preserves’ contains a lot of recipes and tricks to preserve your harvests. It contains the usual jams and jellies as well as pesto, bottled fruits or vegetables, vinegar, pickles, drinks… Their blackcurrant jam, gooseberry jam, Hedgerow jelly, Seville orange marmalade and redcurrant jelly recipes I have tried and are excellent. I also tried their chestnut jam – very long and slightly too sweet for my liking but I am not a fan of chestnuts in the first place so that is unsurprising and I would still recommend giving it a go if you ever forage a lot of sweet chestnuts in the autumn. Other interesting recipes include family ‘Beena’ drinks, nasturtium ‘capers’, pickled garlic, Harissa paste or apple and blackberry leather. ‘Hedgerow’ offers advice for foraging and identifying the larder growing in the hedge beyond your garden. If you care for foraging blackberries, why not try stretching yourself to try something unusual? There are lots of edible weeds out there that we tend to forget about now, same as the flowers growing in our garden (like primroses and nasturtiums). Wright splits up the book into useful sections and includes a poisonous section too. He provides information on seasons, descriptions, how to harvest and a little history too before providing a selection of recipes at the back for those with brave hearts (dandelion jelly marmalade, nettle soup, wild garlic parcels or chickweed pakoras, anyone?).
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!
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.
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!
(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
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.
Place a china plate in the freezer in advance for the pectin test.
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.
Once done, turn off the heat and pour in the pectin, stirring it in. Leave the jam to cool.
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.
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.
The weather this week was a great improvement. It was the sort of weather you wanted to be outside in all day long; half the time playing in the garden, the other half lying in a cooling swimming pool! It was my sister’s fete today, raising money for her school trip to Tanzania next year so we got little done in the garden this week as we donated a fair chunk of time to preparing for it. It involved mum preparing a lot of plants (digging them up, potting them on, etc.), picking elderflowers and making elderflower cordial (more shortly), lemon verbena sugar (again, more coming soon) and for me making fifteen jars of ‘Jumbleberry’ jam (more next week). Well, fifteen and a half – I got to keep the half from one of the batches to eat on my toast myself and it was delicious, I just finished up the pot this afternoon.
This week we managed to:
Net some strawberries from the birds that have found them already. We have started picking them (some wild strawberries, some posher ones) which we have eaten with chocolate cake and pouring yoghurt for pudding at night.
Mum netted a redcurrant bush today. I netted a blueberry whose flowers have finished.
Weeded hamburg parsley, beetroot and turnip broccoli and fed them.
Planted out last three courgettes from indoors and the only pumpkin (I only had three seeds left as I never bought anymore this year and only one germinated so it might be pumpkin-free harvest this year. Fortunately, I have LOTS in the freezer left over from last year…). I also fed the other courgettes and winter squashes.
I’ve started weeding the garlic patches.
Mum fed the potatoes with liquid feed.
I planted out Nigella flowers, lupins, cosmos flowers.
I planted out two new runner-beans today and sowed indoors more peas and soy beans. The soy beans are just refusing to germinate this year.
We harvested more salad, including the first beetroot of the year and some more peas and new kale (I’m giving the old flowered kale to the chickens and pigs now along with two lettuces that bolted. There are plenty left to make lettuce soup from and sharing is caring). The broad beans are ready to start harvesting next week.
On a sadder note, I did see my first cabbage white caterpillars crawling all over a flowered broccoli. There was a mixture of feelings, something like being close-to-tears. I haven’t seen anymore, yet…
Next week I will be posting more information about making Jumbleberry jam to use up any left over fruit in the freezer to make space for this year’s harvests. I will be writing about how to store your harvests shortly and recommend some reading material, for practical and enjoyment purposes!
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…
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.
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.
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.
Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a large bowl, whisk the 300ml of double cream to soft peaks.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Scrape the rhubarb into a oven-proof dish. Scatter the crumble topping over the fruit, spreading it evenly and thickly.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes
– 250g pasta – Olive oil – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g cheddar cheese – 400g peas – 80g pine nuts – 6 large handfuls of rocket
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.
Put the tinned tomatoes in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove when hot. Meanwhile, grate the cheddar cheese.
Bring another pan of water to the boil. Add the peas and leave to cook until heated and ready.
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.
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.