Onion

The onion (Allium cepa L., from Latin cepa “onion”), the most widely cultivated vegetable of the genus Allium. Its close relatives include the garlic, shallot, leek, chive and Chinese onion. The word onion comes from the Latin word ‘unio’ meaning unity, because it grows as a single bulb.

IMG_1595.JPG

The onion is most frequently a biennial or a perennial plant but is usually treated as an annual and harvested in its first growing season. Onions are cultivated and used around the world. As a food item, they are usually served cooked, as a vegetable or part of a prepared savoury dish, but can also be eaten raw or used to make pickles or chutneys.

The onion plant has a fan of hollow green leaves and its bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell when a certain day-length is reached. The bulbs are composed of shortened, compressed, underground stems surrounded by fleshy modified scale (leaves) that envelop a central bud at the tip of the stem. In the autumn (or in spring, in the case of overwintering onions), the foliage dies down and the outer layers of the bulb become dry and brittle. The crop is harvested and dried and the onions are ready for use or storage.

IMG_2047.jpg

The geographic origin of the onion is uncertain because the wild onion is extinct and ancient records of using onions span all over Asia. The first cultivated onions are the subject of much debate, but the two regions that many archaeologists, botanists, and food historians point to are central Asia or Persia. They were probably almost simultaneously domesticated by peoples all over the globe, as there are species of the onion found the world over. Food uses of onions date back thousands of years in China, Egypt and Persia. Traces of onions recovered from Bronze Age settlements in China suggest onions were used as far back as 5000 BC, not only for their flavour, but the bulb’s durability in storage and transport. Ancient Egyptians revered the onion bulb, viewing its spherical shape and concentric rings as symbols of eternal life. Onions were used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces found in the eye sockets of Ramessess IV. The fourth book of the Hebrew Bible composed around the 5th century BC mentions onions when recounting scarce foodstuffs available: 11:5 — We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. In the 6th century BCE, the Charake Samhita, one of the primary works in the Ayurvedic tradition, documents the onion’s use as a medicinal plant, a ‘diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes, and the joints’. Pliny the Elder wrote about the use of onions and cabbage in Pompeii. He documented Roman beliefs about the onion’s ability to improve ocular ailments, aid in sleep, and heal everything from oral sores and toothaches to dog bites, lumbago and dysentery. Archaeologists unearthing Pompeii long after its 79 CE volcanic burial have found gardens resembling those in Pliny’s detailed narratives where the onions would have been grown. Onions were taken to North America by the first European settlers only to discover the plant readily available, and in wide use in Native American cooking. According to diaries kept by certain of the first English colonists, the bulb onion was one of the first crops planted by the Pilgrims.

Shallots are a type of onion, but  was formerly classified as a separate species, A. ascalonicum. Like garlic, shallots are formed in clusters of offsets with a head composed of multiple cloves. The skin colour of shallots can vary from golden brown to gray to rose red, and their off-white flesh is usually tinged with green or magenta. You can use shallots in the place of onions when cooking, but they do make smaller harvests.

In the gardening world, we are used to three different colours of onions. We grow the brown/yellow/golden, the red/purple and then the white, which I must admit, I have never tried. Across the world the brown is often used in everyday cooking, the red is often served raw as it is sweeter, and the white are often used in Mexican styled cuisine as they are very sweet once sautéed.

IMG_1604.jpg

Here are some varieties to try:

Brown: Radar (one of my favourites), Alisa Craig, Stuttgarter, Centurion, Hercules, Sturon, Hytech

Red: Red Baron, Electric (another favourite)

White: Snowball

Shallot: Griselle (good), Jermor, Bistro, Golden Gourmet, Picasso, Mikor, Yellow Moon, Vigarmor

Onions are best cultivated in fertile soils that are well-drained. Sandy loams are good as they are low in sulphur, while clayey soils usually have a high sulphur content and produce pungent bulbs. Onions require a high level of nutrients in the soil. Phosphorous is often present in sufficient quantities, but may be applied before planting because of its low level of availability in cold soils. Nitrogen and potash can be applied at regular intervals during the growing season, the last application of nitrogen being at least four weeks before harvesting. Or try planting them in your crop rotation after the runner beans. Bulbing onions are day-length sensitive; their bulbs begin growing only after the number of daylight hours has surpassed some minimal quantity. Most traditional European onions produce bulbs only after 14 hours or more of daylight. Southern European and North African varieties are often known as “intermediate-day” types, requiring only 12–13 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. “Short-day” onions, which have been developed in more recent times, are planted in mild-winter areas in the autumn and form bulbs in the early spring, and require only 11–12 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. Onions are a cool-weather crop. Hot temperatures or other stressful conditions cause them to bolt, meaning that a flower stem begins to grow.

IMG_2481.jpg

Onions may be grown from seeds or from sets. We often use sets (I’ve tried shallot seeds and grown a total of two miniature shallots that were the size of my pinkie’s fingernail…) Onion seeds are short-lived and fresh seeds germinate better. The seeds are sown thinly in shallow drills, thinning the plants in stages. In suitable climates, certain cultivars can be sown in late summer and autumn to overwinter in the ground and produce early crops the following year. Onion sets are produced by sowing seed thickly in early summer in poor soil and the small bulbs produced are harvested in the autumn. These bulbs are planted the following spring and grow into mature bulbs later in the year. Certain cultivars are used for this purpose and these may not have such good storage characteristics as those grown directly from seed.

If growing from seed, sow 1cm (½in) deep in rows 20cm (8in) apart from late February through to early April. Thin by removing weaker seedlings, first to 5cm (2in) apart and then later to 10cm (4in) apart. Plant spring sets March – April and harvest August – September. Plant winter sets in September and harvest May – June. Plant onion sets 10cm (4in) apart in rows 30cm (12in) apart. Gently push the sets into soft, well-worked soil so that the tip is just showing, and firm the soil around them.

IMG_1594.JPG

Routine care during the growing season involves keeping the rows free of competing weeds, especially when the plants are young. The plants are shallow-rooted and do not need a great deal of water when established. Bulbing usually takes place after 12 to 18 weeks. The bulbs can be gathered when needed to eat fresh, but if they will be kept in storage, they should be harvested after the leaves have died back naturally. In dry weather, they can be left on the surface of the soil for a few days to dry out properly, then they can be placed in nets, roped into strings, or laid in layers in shallow boxes. They should be stored in a well-ventilated, cool place such as a shed.

Freshly cut onions often cause a stinging sensation in the eyes of people nearby, and often uncontrollable tears. This is caused by the release of a volatile gas, syn-propanethial-S-oxide, which stimulates nerves in the eye creating a stinging sensation. This gas is produced by a chain of reactions which serve as a defence mechanism. Chopping an onion causes damage to cells which releases enzymes called alliinases, generating sulfenic acids. Lacrimal glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant.

Onions are rich in carbohydrates, sugar, soluble and insoluble fiber, sodium. They are a very good source of vitamin C and so good for building your immunity. They are also a good source of enzyme-activating manganese and molybdenum as well as heart-healthy vitamin B6, fiber, folate, and potassium. Onions are surprisingly high in flavenoids, one of the top ten vegetables with Quercetin content. If you want to retain the flavonoid, peel off only the outer dry skin as the outer layers are more concentrated with flavenoids. Onions have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and help in problems like rheumatoid arthritis or allergic airway inflammation. Studies show that onions help balance blood sugar levels. Onions also have anti bacterial properties. There are many stories and folklore. It is supposed to have saved families from plague and other infections. The anti bacterial effects of the onions act against the streptococcus mutants that cause various dental cavities and gum diseases. Studies suggest that the consumption of onions enhances the anti clotting capacity of blood. Onions have been known to increase bone density, reducing the risk of fractures. The sulphur content in onions is excellent for the connective tissues as well.

Natural treatments that use onion:

-Onions are also used in the treatment of piles or haemorrhoids. The juice of 30g of onion mixed with water and sugar is administered to the patient twice a day.

-In alopecia (hair loss), a topical application of onion juice has been said to initiate the re-growth of hair.

Cough, cold and asthma is often treated with a serving of onions, as it is known to decrease bronchial spasms. Onion juice mixed with honey helps cure bronchitis and influenza.

-Onions are also known to stimulate the growth of good bacteria while suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria in the colon, reducing the risk of colon cancer.

-The juice of Tulsi leaves (holy basil) with equal quantities of lemon juice and onion extract applied on the skin takes care of many skin diseases.

-A slice of cut onion rubbed over acne is supposed to clear up the skin quickly by taking off the bacterial infections.

-Naturopaths recommend eating onion and jaggery to increase body weight.

-Eating one raw onion a day reduces cholesterol in the blood.

-A remedy for warts is the application of the juice of one finely chopped onion sprinkled with salt and left for a few hours. This needs to be repeated 3 to 4 times a day until the wart dries up.

-The cure for cholera in Indian households is one onion pounded with 7 black peppers. It lessens vomiting and diarrhoea immediately. A little sugar could be added to the mixture to increase its effectiveness.

-A tea made of onions boiled in water, cooled, strained, and given to patients suffering from urinary infections gives immediate relief.

-Slice an onion and rub it over the sting of a bee, wasp or a mosquito to ease the discomfort.

-In the treatment for chicken pox, Indian women would serve the afflicted person a bowl of curd rice with chopped onions.

 

Onions can be added to anything. They are the base of all sauces, add flavour to a salad when served raw, and are just fundamental in the kitchen for pizza toppings, curries, stir fries, pies…

Here are some wonderful recipes using onions:

Pasta salad with fried onions and tomatoes : Autumn planting … and a recipe!

IMG_6753

Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

IMG_6459

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

IMG_6933

 

And lots more – just type onion into the search bar on the home page. 

 

Pumpkin Coconut Curry

IMG_7203

Pumpkin Coconut Curry

(Serves 6)

-1/2 large pumpkin -Olive oil, for greasing -Coconut oil, for frying -1 onion, finely sliced -1 tbsp mustard seeds -1tbsp nigella seeds -1tsp coriander seeds -Pinch of curry leaves -1tsp ground coriander -1tsp ground turmeric -1 1/4tsp ground garam masala -1/2tsp ground cumin -1 can of coconut milk -Rice, naan, popadoms, chapatis tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber raita etc. for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
  2. Cut the pumpkin into segments. Place on a baking tray and grease with olive oil. Roast in the oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked. When ready, remove the pumpkin from the oven and using a knife and fork, cut the segments into chunky cubes.
  3. Heat the coconut oil in a large frying pan. Add the onion and fry until starting to turn golden brown. Add the mustard, nigella and coriander seeds, followed by the curry leaves. Mix together and reduce the heat to a simmer. Leave for a few minutes to blend.
  4. Add the ground spices with the garlic. Stir well. Leave for a few more minutes.
  5. Add the pumpkin and mix in well together. Leave for a couple of minutes before stirring in the coconut milk. Combine the contents of the pan and leave to simmer for a few more minutes.
  6. Remove from the heat and serve with rice, a flatbread, salad etc. Store left-overs in the fridge or freezer in containers.

IMG_7197.jpg

IMG_7201
Pumpkin curry with rice, chopped tomatoes, lettuce and naan bread – recipe link below…

IMG_7198

Recipes for other Indian curries: Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan BreadAubergine curry, OkraCourgettes and carrot dal, Cucumbers raita and matte paneer curry…

What to do with left over pumpkin?

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

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

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

IMG_6924.JPG

IMG_6927.JPG

IMG_6933.JPG

Aubergine Curry

Serves 2

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

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

IMG_6937.JPG

IMG_7087.JPG

Collecting Mustard Seeds

I was making curry for my birthday on Saturday (hello 22!) when I realised, to my horror I had forgotten to buy more mustard seeds from Sainsbury’s and we were all out 😦 But heh, never mind. Then mum got really excited and vanished off to the garden to pick some lettuce and returned with a bowl of mustard seeds she had harvested from the vegetable patch, aka the weeds I am always trying to get rid of.

Now, the two irritating weeds that flourish in my garden despite my best efforts (apart from nettles that just pop up everywhere from the manure we use, that I am at war with constantly after one stung me on the face last week and made me feel like a fool!), the most common to find are a) goosegrass, and b) mustard.

This year it has been even harder to keep the weeds under control after being absent for only a couple of months and it is harder to pull up the mustard when it starts flowering and your mum wants to keep it because the bees like it…

But we tried frying the mustard seeds in the curry, and I tried a fried one on its own, and it was really good! So I’ve started putting the unwanted weeds to good use and I am harvesting mustard seeds to store. I felt like a bit of an idiot for buying them for so long when they have been flourishing in my garden for years!

IMG_6464.JPG

It is really easy to harvest them. When the seed pods have formed and are dried out so that they are brown and crispy, like paper bags, get a pair of scissors and snip off the pods (or stems with the pods on, the pods are very delicate and will break easily and spill the seeds everywhere) into a container. Open each pod and empty the little mustard seeds into a container for storing, it is that simple!

We bought brown coloured mustard seeds from the shops, but our homegrown ones are black which are the variety my mum has tried to buy for so long to make curries. Apparently, they come from one of three different plants: black mustard (Brassica nigra), brown Indian mustard (Brassica junga), or white mustard (Brassica hirta/Sinapis alba).

IMG_6465.JPG

Grinding and mixing the seeds with water and vinegar creates the yellow condiment of prepared mustard.

An archaic name for the seed is eye of newt. Often misunderstood for an actual eye of a newt this name has been popularly associated with witchcraft ever since it was mentioned as an ingredient to a witch’s brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

These mustard seeds are known in Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi as sarson. They are also planted to grow saag (greens) which are stir-fried and eaten as a vegetable preparation, called sarson ka saag in Urdu and Hindi. Sarson ka tel (mustard oil) is used for body massage during extreme winters, as it is assumed to keep the body warm.

Mustard seeds generally take eight to ten days to germinate. They can handle a cold atmosphere and relatively moist soil. Mature mustard plants grow into shrubs.

Mustard grows well in temperate regions. Major producers of mustard seeds include India, Pakistan, Canada, Nepal, Hungary, Great Britain and the United States. Brown and black mustard seeds return higher yields than their yellow counterparts.

In Pakistan, rapeseed-mustard is the second most important source of oil, after cotton. It is cultivated over an area of 307,000 hectares with annual production of 233,000 tonnes and contributes about 17% to the domestic production of edible oil. Mustard seeds are a rich source of oil and protein. The seed has oil as high as 46-48%, and whole seed meal has 43.6% protein.

Use mustard seeds in these Indian curries:

Courgettes – Red Lentil Dahl

Okra – Curried Okra

Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread

Cucumbers – Paneer Curry

Okra

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

IMG_3554.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3557.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4138.JPG

Curried Okra

(Serves 6)

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

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Add the garlic. Stir in the cut up chunks of okra and leave to simmer until fried and combined with the spices.
  3. Remove from the heat and serve alongside more curry, rice or Indian breads, such as naan or chapatis. Store any left overs in the fridge or freeze.

Cucumbers

IMG_2859
‘Passandra’

Cucumbers (Cucurbitaceae family, or gourd) originated from Asia where it spread over its borders around 4000 years ago, becoming eventually the fourth most widely cultivated vegetable in the world. Long, green cylinders that are on every shop shelf around the country, the cucumber is a strangely popular vegetable – strange because it is more fruit-like in its appearance and watery, cooling taste. It is the ultimate ingredient for a summer salad or a glass of pimms.

IMG_1724
‘Marketmore’

They originated in the wild in India. Around 2-3 millennia BC they started to be cultivated and infused into the rich Indian cuisine. It spread through trading with Middle Eastern and European countries.

The Romans embraced cucumbers heartily. Their ease at producing them made them popular amongst the nobility and lower classes alike – Emperor Tiberius declared he would eat a cucumber every day and during the summer months his gardens were tended just for vegetables and in the winter cucumbers were grown in moveable bed frames that were moved to expose the sun or illuminated with mirror-stones. In Rome, cucumbers were also used in the medical profession, over 40 various remedies included them. They were used to treat everything, from bad eyesight, scorpion bites, infertile women who wished for children were encouraged to carry them around their waists.

After the end of the Roman Empire, cucumbers decreased in popularity and it was not until the court of Charlemagne in the 8th or 9th century that cucumbers resurfaced. Cucumbers arrived in England during the 14th century where they were not popular until the mid-17th century. During the 18th century, the expansion of cucumbers across North America halted when several medicinal journals claimed that uncooked cucumbers and similar vegetables produced serious health risks. Discouraged by this theory, cucumbers were abandoned on the continent until the 19th century when their safety and nutrition was confirmed. In 2010, worldwide production of cucumbers was 57.5 million tonnes.

IMG_1599
‘Crystal Apple’

The cucumber is a creeping vine that bears cylindrical fruits. There are three types of cucumber: slicing, pickling and burpless. Cucumbers enclose seeds and develop from a flower and are botanically speaking classified as pepoes (a type of botanical berry, like courgettes I posted about previously). In this way they are very much like tomatoes and squashes (same family) as they are often also treated as vegetables.

Cucumbers are usually more than 90% water. This high water content means that they are low in most essential nutrients, the only notable one really being vitamin K, 16% of our daily recommended value.

IMG_2862
Cucumber sandwich means summer

Cucumbers can be difficult to keep healthy. They are fussy about temperature changes and like to be kept in a humid environment, watered well but not too much and they really do hate being potted on, they don’t like to be disturbed. They are also quite hungry little plants so remember to feed them every fortnight if possible. Common diseases include powdery mildew and cucumber mosaic virus (see Courgettes for more information about these two diseases). The worst pest is the sap-sucking red spider mite that attacks the foilage on the cucumber plants (and other greenhouse plants) which eventually causes a mottled look followed by death of the plant. Biological control is the only remedy as the mite is immune to most pesticides.

Cucumbers have been bred to remove their natural bitterness and most supermarket varieties have a watery, diluted taste and consistency. They can be pickled, cooked and eaten raw. They are perfect for salads or as side dishes, such as combining them with yoghurt alongside curries where their cooling taste takes the heat off spicy dishes. Once pickled they can be kept in the fridge for a few days but are recommended best eaten fresh (‘Letith’s Vegetable Bible’). You cannot freeze cucumbers successfully due to the high water content. If you have a glut and cannot eat them all, pickling or including them in a chutney is your best way of using them up and preserving them that little bit longer. If you ever do produce a bitter cucumber, try peeling the skin off, the inside should be fine.

IMG_3111
‘Crystal Apple’

Varieties I have tried: ‘Marketmore’ – Sow: February-April. Traditional, cylinder shaped, dark green produce with bumpy skin that smooths during growing. The skin has a stronger taste than shop bought ones but I quite like it; I find it more flavoursome. The taste is not bitter unless the watering is inconsistent. Do not remove the male flowers on this plant. Suitable for outdoor and indoor growing.

‘Crystal Apple’ – Sow: April-June. Suitable for indoor and outdoor growing, this plant produces yellow coloured balls – literally apple-shaped cucumbers. They have a lighter, crisper taste than ‘Marketmore’. They are gorgeous and quite small too if you want to eat a whole cucumber in one meal.

‘Passandra’ – Sow: February-April. A new type I am trying out this year. Cylinder shaped, light green, smooth skin. They are advertised as being disease resistant. They taste delicious and are my little brother’s favourite. They look a little more like the ones we have bought from Sainsbury’s and are a safe option for starting to grow your own cucumbers, especially if you are growing for a family. The ‘Passandra’ variety have been our most productive so far this year.

Sow indoors, 0.5cm (1/4 inch) deep, on edge, in pots of compost. I like to sow mine in tall yoghurt pots (think Yeo Valley yoghurt styled containers, tall ones that give the roots lots of space to grow). Puncture a hole in the bottom to let the water drip out so that the plant is not drowning). Water the plant well and place in a temperature of 21-24C (70-75F). When mine have germinated, I like to place them on a warm, sunny windowsill during the day time and keeping them on the floor at night-time when the temperatures dip. When the plants have grown 3-4 leaves, harden them off in slightly cooler conditions (I move mine to a cooler room in the house to begin with). Some varieties can be planted outside by the brave (I have tried and failed with ‘Marketmore’ last year, never again, I will stick to indoor growing after losing 11 plants over various months…) at 60cm (2 inches) apart. Otherwise, pot them on inside a greenhouse in large containers up to their lower leaves. Water well and stake them with canes to give the tendrils something to cling onto as they grow and climb. Give them a weak, liquid comfrey feed every couple of weeks to encourage the growth of new flowers and to keep them healthy. Once they start producing, don’t be tempted to leave all of the cucumbers on the plants to become ginormous. Keep picking them at a medium size and they will be encouraged to produce more fruit so that you get a constant supply over the harvest season. With any luck, you may be picking them from July to October.

IMG_3322

 

There are plenty of ways to use a cucumber: add to any dish that requires a salad in circular discs, make cucumber sandwiches, cucumber and tuna and mayonnaise sandwiches, cheese and cucumber sandwiches, shred them and serve it in Chinese pancakes along with crispy duck and plum sauce, shred them and put them in a stir fry, the classic Greek salad, or as, I said earlier, add to yoghurt and eat alongside a curry – cucumber raita.

IMG_3330
Matte Paneer Curry
IMG_3323
Cucumber Raita

IMG_3324

 

IMG_3333

Matte Paneer Curry with Cucumber Raita

Paneer is an Indian cheese with a sort of rubbery texture that can be bought it most supermarkets. Do not be put of by its look, it tastes amazing and is my favourite curry. ‘Matte’ translates as ‘peas’. To make ‘Saage Paneer curry’, replace the peas with spinach (‘saage’ means ‘spinach’). For meat eaters, replace the paneer with some freid chicken and for a vegan replace with some cooked chickpeas. You can also replace the coconut cream or milk with about 100-200g ground cashew nuts – it just thickens the curry a little.

(Serves 6)

For the curry: – 1 large onion, finely sliced – Olive oil or ghee, to fry in – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1 tsp fenugreek seeds – Handful of curry leaves (if available) – 2 large garlic cloves, finely diced – 1/4 tsp ground cumin – 1/4 tsp ground coriander – 1/2 tsp Garam masala – 1tsp ground turmeric – 2x 400g can of tinned tomatoes  – 225g paneer cheese – 250ml can/packet coconut milk or cream – 100g peas

For the cucumber raita: -1/2 cucumber – 200g Greek or natural plain yoghurt

To serve: – 300g brown or white basmati rice – Popadoms, chapatis, naan bread, or a mixture of all three – Mango, lime or tomato chutney – Shredded lettuce and other salad like chopped up tomatoes or plain cucumber, optional

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Stir in and leave to simmer for a few minutes to combine flavours.
  3. Add the tinned tomatoes, stir in and turn the heat up to high. Add the coconut milk or cream and stir in again – this thickens the curry a little.
  4. Cut the paneer cheese into small cubes. Add to the curry followed by the peas.
  5. Once the curry has thickened slightly and the peas have cooked, turn it down to a simmer until you are ready to serve.
  6. To make the cucumber raita: cut the cucumber into discs and then cut crosses through those discs to make 4 triangles. Put them into a large bowl and stir in the yoghurt until it is combined. Set aside until ready to serve.
  7. Serve the Matte Paneer curry along with the cucumber raita and rice, any Indian bread, chutney, side curries and salad you like. Try my Red Lentil, Carrot and Courgette Dahl Courgettes and my Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread.

Happy Indian banquet!

IMG_3340
Mix the Matte Paneer curry with other side dishes
IMG_3350
Top with the cucumber raita for a crispy, cooling accompaniment for the spicy curry

 

Courgettes

IMG_2916.JPG

Courgettes or zucchini are small, immature marrows, also known as summer squashes from the Cucurbita pepo family. Most have dark green, shiny skins but they can also be yellow or lime green, depending on the variety sown. The flowers are edible and can be thrown on top of a salad, soup or shredded into corn fritters. In a culinary context, courgettes are described as a vegetable but botanically speaking they are fruits, a type of botanical berry, being the swollen ovary of a courgette flower. Courgettes are known as zucchini in the US, Australia and Germany. ‘Courgette’ is a French loan word commonly used in Belgium, UK, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and South Africa. A huge courgette is called a marrow in the UK and small harvested courgettes are referred to as ‘baby marrows’ in South Africa.

The courgettes ancestors originated from the Americas, perhaps Mexico, about 7000 years ago. Archaeologists traced the development of this fruit from the giant pumpkin between 7000 to 5500 BCE.  It is also believed to have been a part of the ancient pre-Columbian food trio: beans, maize and squat – the ‘Three Sisters’. It is believed that it was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus about 500 years ago. The variety of squash that became the courgette we know today was developed in Italy during perhaps the 19th century near Milan (early varieties included the names of nearby cities in their titles). The first records of zucchini in the United States date to the early 1920s. It was brought over by Italian immigrants and probably first cultivated in California. A 1928 report on vegetables grown in New York State treats ‘Zucchini’ as one among 60 cultivated varieties of cucurbits. Today, the courgette is a recognisable crop across the world, appearing in salads, pasta dishes, a secret ingredient for cakes and bread and plenty more.

Courgettes are the perfect summer crop to feed a hungry family. The fruit grows quickly and abundantly. You can harvest them as babies or leave them to make huge marrows (I prefer to harvest them small as they are less tough and the encourages production and reduces the risk of rotting). It is very trendy to pick them with the flowers still intact and to eat those too. I must admit, I have not tried that. Apparently they have a peppery taste.

IMG_1401.JPG

Last year I grew ‘Best of British’. It was a lovely dark green, small and delicate, produced well and most importantly was delicious. This year I have tried out ‘Defender’, highly recommended in the gardening world, mostly because I did struggle with powdery mildew towards the end of the harvest season and it ruined the last of them. So far ‘Defender’ has lived up to all expectations. It has produced very well, even better than last year’s harvest, and I have not had a bitter skin yet. They are delicious and look gorgeous and I am very proud of them, even if I have a few too many to stand.

To get ahead of the season, I like to start my courgettes off under cover in March in tall yoghurt pots filled with potting compost indoors in a warm bedroom (averaging around 20C). Plant the seed 1.5cm (1/2 inch) in the compost. Keep it well watered and when germination begins, make sure it gets plenty of light during the day. Once the third leaves have grown, I move them onto a slightly cooler room to start hardening them off. It is best to wait until the frosts are over before attempting to plant them out. It was very difficult for me this year as the courgettes were desperate to go in the ground and we were still getting frost attacks in May. I therefore started to plant them out under double fleece. Even if you plant them out and there are no more frosts, I would still recommend investing in some fleece to use as shade from the sun and protection from the wind – courgette plants may thrive later on but they are delicate to change like all cucurbits. Plant them out about 60cm apart in soil that has been fed with Blood, Fish and Bone, well-rotted manure and mulch. Courgettes are very hungry plants. I update my feeding and mulch every couple of weeks if I can manage it to give them a boost. A fortnightly comfrey feed is the alternative. Make sure they are well-watered to prevent a bitter skin developing on the fruit but try not to soak the leaves, go straight for the stem and roots. Sprinkling the leaves with water increases the likelihood of powdery mildew. Courgettes can be harvested from perhaps late June or early July through to October if you keep picking, survive disease and the frosts keep away. As far as storing is concerned, unfortunately if you have a glut you can’t freeze them due to the high water content. Giving excess away and looking out for recipes that use a lot of courgettes in them is your only saviour, as well as perhaps a chutney recipe?

IMG_1318.JPG
Young courgettes plant

There are not many pests that should attack courgette plants. If you start them off indoors and them protect them when they are first planted out them slugs and snails should be kept off them – they will not be interested in them or the fruit once they have grown to a good, large size. The most problematic thing with courgettes is the variety of viruses and mildews that can strike them, the same as any cucurbit plant. My gran’s courgettes always seem to get Cucumber Mosaic Virus which is pretty nasty. It is a common plant virus that causes a wide range of symptoms, especially yellow mottling, distortion and stunting. Apart from cucumbers and other cucurbits, it also attacks spinach, lettuce and celery and many flowers, especially lilies, delphiniums, primulas and daphnes. You may see the following symptoms: yellowish patches or green and yellow mottling on leaves, leaves curl downwards and are distorted and reduced in size, plants become stunted due to a shortening of the internodes (lengths of stem between leaves), there is a reduction in yields and distorted fruit and in the flowers white streaks known as ‘breaks’ appear.

Ours got powdery mildew last year which I understand is difficult to avoid completely. Just like potatoes and blight, it always seems to come around, you just want to put it off for as long as possible. Powdery mildew is a common disease of cucurbits under field and greenhouse conditions in most areas of the world.  Although all cucurbits are susceptible, symptoms are less common on cucumber and melon because many commercial cultivars have resistance. Premature senescence of infected leaves can result in reduced quality because fruit become sunburnt or ripen prematurely or incompletely. White, powdery fungal growth develops on both leaf surfaces, petioles, and stems. This growth is primarily asexual spores called conidia that usually develops first on crown leaves, on shaded lower leaves and on leaf under surfaces. Yellow spots may form on upper leaf surfaces opposite powdery mildew colonies. The infected leaves usually wither and die and the fruit itself will eventually become deformed or production will cease completely.

Courgettes contain significant levels of potassium that control blood pressure and vitamin C to support the immune system. They are also rich in vitamin A and moderate levels of B vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc, magnesium and phosphorous. Courgette skins are high in soluble fibre. They are rich in poly-phenolic antioxidants like carotenes, lutein and zea-xanthin, reducing oxygen-derived free radicals.

You can boil, roast, grill, grate, turn into ‘courgettie’ instead of ‘spaghetti’ and use in breads and cakes as it has little flavour and a great texture for blending unnoticeably into dishes. I think that it goes marvellously boiled or grilled with cheddar or brie cheese, something strong and salty. I also think it pairs well with rice and potato dishes. It is also a great accompaniment to a curry with spicy flavours. I offer you a Dahl recipe to use at home. My mum first made it for me a couple of years ago because we had been given some by a neighbour that needed using up. I remembered it this week and tried it out again and loved it. It made my usual Dahl taste sweeter and lighter. When my mum first made it, she grated the vegetables by hand. This time I used my fancy food processor that sped things up but use whatever appliances you like. It is nice and simple and can be served alongside other curries, with just rice, naan, chapatis or on its own. See: cucumber raita with matte paneer curry (Cucumbers) and Curried Potatoes and Bread maker Naan Bread.

IMG_3328.JPG
Red Lentil, Courgette and Carrot Dahl

IMG_3329.JPG

Red Lentil, Courgette and Carrot Dahl 

(Serves 4)

– 1 large onion, finely sliced – Ghee or oil, for frying – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1/2 tbsp fenegreek seeds – 1 handful curry leaves (optional) – 1 tsp cumin – 1 tsp ground coriander – 1 tsp ground turmeric – 1 1/4  tsp ground garam masala – 4 medium sized courgettes, finely grated – 4 medium sized carrots, finely grated – 2 large garlic cloves, diced – 250g Red Split lentils – About 400 ml boiling water from the kettle – Rice, chapatti, popadom, naan, or a mixture, to serve (optional) – Freshly cut coriander and parsley, to serve (optional)

  1. Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
  2. Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala.
  3. Grate or chop in a food processor the carrots and courgettes. Stir them into the mixture and turn the heat up to a medium heat, continuing to stir now and then until the courgettes are carrots have been slightly cooked. Add the diced garlic clove, stir in.
  4. Meanwhile, boil a kettle of water, about 400 ml. Put the red lentils into a glass (or other microwaveable) dish, large enough to hold all of the contents of the Dahl. Scrape the contents of the frying pan into the dish along with the lentils, followed by the boiling water, enough so that it covers all of the ingredients. Stir to combine.
  5. Place a lid or glass plate over the top of the Dahl and microwave for 10 minutes before checking and stirring. If the lentils are starting to absorb the water, place back int the microwave for another 5 minutes and check again. If it has dried up, add more boiling water and return to the microwave for another five minutes. Continue to heat in the microwave until the water has been absorbed by the lentils but the mixture is not dry and ‘flaky’ looking.
  6. Serve hot on its own or with rice, an Indian bread, chutneys and freshly picked herbs from your garden, like parsley or coriander, torn and sprinkled over the top and other types of curries. Any left overs can be kept in a container in the fridge and eaten within 3 days or frozen.
IMG_3340.JPG
More curry recipes coming soon – Matte Paneer Curry, Cucumber Raita, Potato Curry and Naan bread