Tomatoes

Tomato – the edible, often red, veg of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The plant belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae (potatoes, auberinges/ eggplants). The species originated in western South America.

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Wild versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans who were suspicious. This was exacerbated by the interaction of the tomato’s acidic juice with pewter plates. The leaves and immature fruit in fact contain trace amounts of solanine which in larger quantity would be toxic, although the ripe fruit does not. Aztecs used the fruit in their cooking. The Nahuatl (Aztec language) word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word “tomate”, from which the English word tomato derived. The exact date of domestication is unknown, but by 500 BC it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in a herbal written in 1544 by an Italian physician and botanist who suggested that a new type of aubergine/ eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant – cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. It was not until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples”. Taken to Europe, the tomato grew easily in Mediterranean climates and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, and was certainly being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain.

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Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on after their arrival in Italy. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they “were to be sought only for their beauty”, and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their habit of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692.

 

Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. However, by the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated the tomato was “in daily use” in soups and broths. They were not part of the average person’s diet, and though by 1820 they were described as “to be seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets” and to be “used by all our best cooks”, reference was made to their cultivation in gardens still “for the singularity of their appearance”, while their use in cooking was associated with exotic Italian cuisine.

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, a berry, consisting of the ovary together with its seeds, of a flowering plant. However, the tomato has a much lower sugar content than other edible fruits, and is therefore not as sweet. Typically served as part of a salad or main course, rather than at dessert, it is considered a culinary vegetable. One exception is that tomatoes are treated as a fruit in home canning practices: they are acidic enough to process in a water bath rather than a pressure cooker as vegetables require.

Tomato plants are vines, initially decumbent, typically growing 180 cm (6 ft) or more above the ground if supported, although erect bush varieties have been bred, generally 100 cm (3 ft) tall or shorter. Tomato plants are dicots and grow as a series of branching stems, with a terminal bud at the tip that does the actual growing. When that tip eventually stops growing, whether because of pruning or flowering, lateral buds take over and grow into other, fully functional, vines. Tomato vines are covered with fine short hairs. These hairs facilitate the vining process, turning into roots wherever the plant is in contact with the ground and moisture.

The poor taste and lack of sugar in modern garden and commercial tomato varieties resulted from breeding tomatoes to ripen uniformly red. This change occurred after discovery of a mutant “u” phenotype in the mid 20th century that ripened “u”niformly. This was widely cross-bred to produce red fruit without the typical green ring around the stem on uncross-bred varieties. Prior to general introduction of this trait, most tomatoes produced more sugar during ripening, and were sweeter and more flavorful.

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Here are some to try growing: 

Garden Pearl (Determinate) – Sweet cherry tomatoes, happiest in large pots outdoors.

Marmande (Semi-determinate) – Large irregular fruits with excellent flavour, happiest grown outdoors.

San Marzano 2 (Semi-determinate) – Classic flashy Italian plum tomato, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Golden Sunrise (Indeterminate) – Distinct sweet flavour, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Red Cherry (Indeterminate) – Prolific crops of sweet ‘cherry toms’ happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Tigerella (Indeterminate) – Good flavour and novel stripes on the skin, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Sungold F1 (Cherry) – Attractive golden fruits with a very high sugar content balanced with some acidity, Indeterminate.

Shirley F1 – A much loved variety famed for its heavy yields of well-flavoured fruits – an outstanding hybrid.  Indeterminate.

Loretto F1 – sweet cherry sized fruits with excellent flavour and a good choice for outdoor containers. Resistance to blight is one of the major benefits of this cascading ‘bush’ tomato. Indeterminate.

Alicante F1 – One of the best for flavour and very reliable yielding a good crop of medium sized tomatoes. Indeterminate.

Ferline F1 – A top quality tomato variety producing high yields of large and tasty fruits. Trials have shown that tomato Ferline F1 has excellent resistant to blight. Indeterminate.

Indeterminate – these varieties of tomatoes are the most common and are grown as cordons (single stemmed plants with side shoots removed). They will grow very tall – sometimes taller than 2.5m in very warm conditions.

Bush/Determinate – these varieties stop growing sooner than indeterminate varieties with the stem ending in a fruit truss. They are referred to as ‘bush’ and ‘dwarf’ types (suitable as hanging basket tomatoes) and don’t require any pruning.

Semi-determinate – these are similar to indeterminate varieties (grown as cordons) only they produce shorter plants.

Types of tomatoes:

  • Beefsteak tomatoes – 10 cm (4 in) or more in diameter. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a lower water /higher solids content for use in tomato sauce for canning and are usually oblong 7–9 cm (3–4 in) long and 4–5 cm (1.6–2.0 in) diameter; like the Roma-type tomatoes.
  • Cherry tomatoes – small and round, often sweet tomatoes, about the same 1–2 cm (0.4–0.8 in) size as the wild tomato. Probably my personal favourite.
  • Grape tomatoes – are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes.
  • Campari – are sweet and noted for their juiciness, low acidity, and lack of mealiness, bigger than cherry tomatoes, and smaller than plum tomatoes.
  • Tomberries –  tiny tomatoes, about 5 mm in diameter.
  • Oxheart tomatoes can range in size up to beefsteaks, and are shaped like large strawberries.
  • Pear tomatoes are pear-shaped and can make a rich gourmet paste.
  • “Slicing” or “globe” tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating. The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in) diameter range.

Heirloom tomatoes are becoming popular amongst home growers as they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops at the cost of disease resistance and productivity. The definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, but unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-fertile varieties that have bred true for 40 years or more.

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How to grow tomatoes

In England, we can be kind-of lucky and get some tomatoes off the vines when we grow them outside, but really it is easier to do it in a greenhouse as they will prefer warmer growing conditions.

Tomato seed is normally sown 6-8 weeks before the last frost date (March/April) although they can be sown earlier for greenhouse cultivation. Sprinkle your tomato seed thinly on the surface of good quality seed compost. Cover the seed with about 1.5mm (1/16in) of compost and water lightly with a fine-rose watering can. If only a few plants are required sow two seeds into a 7.5cm (3in) pot and after germination remove the smaller plant. The seeds generally germinate in about 7 to 14 days at a temperature of around 21C (70F). Keep the compost moist. Pot on the tomato seedlings when large enough to handle, taking care not to touch the stem. Handle the plants by the leaves and transplant them carefully into 7.5cm (3in) pots. Take care not to expose the plants to frost, cold winds and draughts as this may kill them. Tomatoes need a lot of water and feed (high potash) to get the best fruit. Water little and often for the best results. If growing outdoors, plant approximately 45cm (18 in) between the plants and 75cm (30in) between the rows. Regularly pinching out of tomato side shoots will concentrate the plant’s energy into producing fruit.

One of the most common problems when growing tomatoes is tomato blight, which spreads quickly throughout the plant in wet weather, causing the plant to die and the fruits to decay. The symptoms are brown patches on all parts of the plant. It is much more common in tomatoes growing outside than tomatoes growing in a greenhouse.

Start picking your tomatoes as the fruits ripen and gain full colour. When frost threatens at the end of the season, lift any plants with unripe fruit on them and hang them upside down under cover.

Tomatoes contain excellent amounts of fiber, vitamins A, C (to resist infections), and K, potassium (controlling heart rate and blood pressure), and manganese. Good amounts of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper are other resources. In daily value, tomatoes provide 38% of what is needed in vitamin C, 30% in vitamin A, and 18% in vitamin K. Tests suggest tomatoes may be a preventive factor against prostate cancer. Lycopene flavonoid antioxidant has the ability to protect the cells even as it protects the skin from ultraviolet damage, and as a possible result, skin cancer. Lycopene in tomatoes has been proven to decrease oxidative stress and risk of osteoporosis and prevent serum lipid oxidation, thus exerting a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases. The coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid, in tomatoes, fight against nitrosamines, which are the main carcinogens found in cigarettes. The presence of vitamin A in high quantities has been shown to reduce the effects of carcinogens and can protect you against lung cancer. Tomatoes keep the digestive system healthy by preventing both constipation and diarrhoea. They also prevent jaundice and effectively remove toxins from the body.

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There are so many ways of using tomatoes and they are such a valuable crop to grow yourself. You can eat them raw, as part of a salad or cheese sandwich, cheese toasty, stuff them, cook with them to make a sauce for any dish, fry them to go with your English breakfast, sun dry them, bottle or can to make your own tinned tomatoes, always a handy thing to have at hand for a quick meal… 

Here are some recipes that use tomatoes. Plenty more on the site!

Recipe: Mushroom Tomato Risotto

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

 

Recipe: Fried courgette-tomato sauce with spaghetti

Updated recipe: homemade pizza

Quinoa – Chicken Casserole

Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

Salad – Rocket – Pasta and tinned tomatoes and rocket

Keep searching for more recipes! 

Borlotti Beans

The borlotti bean (singular borlotto in Italian), also known as the cranberry bean, Roman bean or romano bean (not to be confused with the Italian flat bean, a green bean also called “romano bean”), saluggia bean (named after the town Saluggia in Italy where borlotti beans have been grown since the early 1900s), or rosecoco bean, is a variety of  common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) first bred in Colombia as the cargamanto. The bean is a medium to large tan or hazelnut-colored bean splashed or streaked with red. They come in large beige and red pods with colours that resemble the dried beans.

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They originated in Colombia in South America and were one of the crops that found their way into Europe with the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The Italians were the first Europeans to embrace the borlotti bean (as well as the tomato). Now you can eat these beans in Italy in stews with polenta and in salads as well in appetizers along with prosciutto and lots of parsley and olive oil.

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The borlotti bean is a variety of the American cranberry bred in Italy to have a thicker skin. It is used in Italian, Portuguese (Catarino bean), Turkish, and Greek cuisine. When cooked the beans will lose some of their bright markings and turn a light brown colour.

Borlotti beans are potassium rich so are good for the muscles and for the proper functioning of the kidneys, as well as maintaining good blood pressure. They also contain other minerals such as sodium, zinc, selenium, copper (good for stimulating blood cell formation), calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron and phosphorous as well as Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. They contain vitamin A and several of the B-complex vitamins including B1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. Borlotti beans also contain 18 amino acids along with dietary fibre (good for the digestion), folate (good for pregnant women and enhancing the nervous system) and protein. If you are trying to grow your own vegetarian protein, beans are a good place to start…

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Sow indoors for surest results April-May, 2.5cm (1″) deep into individual pots of compost (I use tall yoghurt pots, they give the plant lots of root room). Water well and place in a warm position. A temperature of 15-20°C (60-68°F) is ideal. Gradually accustom plants to outside conditions (avoid frosts), before planting out when 15cm tall, 25cm (10″) apart, during May-June when frosts are over. Allow 45cm (18″) between rows. Like runner beans, insert canes into the ground along with the bean plant to allow them to climb up it. If it is sunny, cold or windy when you first plant them out, rig up some covering (I use left over horticultural fleece) to give them shade or protection from the elements that might damage them before they are fully established. You can harvest borlotti beans from July-October. To harvest, pick the pods before they set seed and slice them up and cook them like you would do to runner beans. Or, leave the pods on the plants and allow them to grow very big and to set seed. The pods will turn a pale straw colour as they start to dry out towards the end of summer or early autumn. Harvest and take them inside to continue drying before you pod the beans. The pods will rattle once they are ready. You can cook them straight away, freeze them or dry them out and store them in glass jars in the cupboard. They can be shelled into trays and placed in a warm place to continue drying. The beans should ultimately be light and hollow-sounding when tapped, at which point they can be decanted into glass jars for storage in a cool, dark place. Discard the pods at this stage, they get too tough to eat.

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Dried beans contain high amounts of lectin, a natural chemical which can cause stomach upsets. Soak the beans overnight or for at least eight hours then place into cool water. Bring the water up to a vigorous boil and boil like this for ten minute before turning down the heat and simmering till soft.

Grow borlotti beans from Mr Fothergills: ‘Climbing Bean Borlotto lingua di fuoco 2 Seeds‘.

Borlotti beans can be added to any dish for vegetarian protein.

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Coconut Borlotti Beans

Serves 4

-450g borlotti beans, pre-cooked -1dsp coconut oil -1 onion, finely sliced -2 generous handfuls of spinach leaves

  1. Warm the coconut oil in a frying pan. Add the sliced onion and fry until golden brown.
  2. Add the spinach leaves. Stir in until wilted before adding the borlotti beans. Combine and leave briefly so that the beans warm up.
  3. Remove from the heat and serve with rice or potatoes, as a side dish, or in a wrap.

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Aubergine

January is the month to keenly get ahead and start sowing your aubergine seeds indoors!

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Aubergine (Eggplant, American and Australian or brinjal, Asian and African), Solanum melongena, is a member of the nightshade family, grown for its edible fruit. A Solanum, it is related to the tomato, pepper and potato. Like its cousin, the Tomato, the Aubergine’s popularity was stifled in Europe and North America until relatively recent years due to its association to nightshade. Where as the Tomato was believed to be poisonous, the Aubergine was believed by superstitious Europeans to induce insanity and was unaffectionately known as the “Mad Apple” until only a few centuries ago.

It is a delicate, tropical plant that is only half-hardy – meaning it stays put indoors in rainy England. The stem is often spiny, the flower whitens to a pretty light purple. Botanically classified as a berry, the fruit contains numerous small, soft seeds that, though edible, taste bitter because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids like the related tobacco.

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Aubergines have been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory. The Aubergine’s scientific name “Melongena” is an ancient name for Aubergine in Sanskrit. About 500 B.C. Aubergine spread into neighbouring China and became a culinary favourite to generations of Chinese emperors. The Chinese saw the Aubergine differently than the Indians did and soon developed their own unique varieties. In particular, they preferred smaller fruited Aubergine, as well as differing shapes and colours. The first known written record of the plant is found in Qimin Yaoshu, an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544.

From India and Pakistan, the Aubergine soon spread West into the Middle East and the far west as Egypt and northward into Turkey. The Turks alone are believed to have over 1000 native recipes calling for the use of Aubergine in many different ways. The Moors introduced the Aubergine to Spain were it received its Catalonian name “Alberginia”. The numerous Arabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by Arabs in the early Middle Ages. The vegetable soon spread throughout Europe. The 16th century Spaniards had great respect for the Aubergine and believed its fruit to be a powerful aphrodisiac, an “Apple of Love”. The Italians too, held the Aubergine in very regard and called them “Melanzana”. The English were responsible for coining the name “Eggplant” in regards to a variety with egg shaped, white fruit that they became familiar with, yet strangely, they refer to them today by the French name of Aubergine, which is a corruption of the Catalonian name “Alberginia”. A book on agriculture published in 12th century Arabic Spain described how to grow aubergines. There are records from later medieval Catalan and Spanish. The aubergine is unrecorded in England until the 16th century.

Because of the plant’s relationship with other nightshades, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous. The flowers and leaves can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities. It has a special place in folklore. In 13th century Italian traditional folklore, the Aubergine can cause insanity. In 19th century Egypt it was said that insanity was “more common and more violent” when the Aubergine is in season during the summer months.

In 2013, global production of Aubergines was 49.4 million tonnes. More than 1,600,000 hectares (4,000,000 acres) are devoted to the cultivation of Aubergines in the world. 57% of output comes from China alone, followed by India, Iran, Egypt and Turkey as the following top producers.

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Aubergines require a little attention when grown at home. They like sun and are easily knocked off their steady course to maturity so they should be grown under cover.

I start mine off under cover in January otherwise they never seem to grow/develop fruit during the year. February-March is kind of the final deadline.  I start them off in compost in old tall yoghurt containers with holes punctured in the bottom to release water. I place them in a seed tray in the warmest room in our house (my dad’s bedroom is my propagator) and when they have germinated, I put them on the windowsill to get lots lot light during the day before putting them on the floor by the radiator again at night to keep them warm. Once they are big enough and the weather has improved, I pot them on in very large pots of compost in our greenhouse. As the plant grows, it must be supported by sturdy canes. Fortnightly comfrey or seaweed feeds will help to encourage the flowers to fruit. Mr Fothergills recommends spraying the flowers to encourage fruit to set. Be careful- those pretty purple petals are easily damaged.

I have tried growing ‘Black Beauty’, a popular breed. I was given some long, thin, purple-marbled styled ones (that I don’t know the name of) by a friend to grow last year. They unfortunately were not very delicious – they just would not ripen or swell properly. Other recommendations by research suggests: Moneymaker, Rosa Bianca and Slim Jim (especially if you live in the chillier North).

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You will hopefully be able to harvest from August-October. Don’t wait for the aubergines to reach supermarket size, just like courgettes or cucumbers. Snip them off whenever they reach 8cm in length and up to 18cm or so. Mark Diacono, Otters Farm, suggests salting aubergine slices for half an hour, rinsing them, patting them dry, before using as this can get rid of bitterness.

It will mostly be the weather/growing conditions that injure your crop. Otherwise known pests are aphids and red spider mites. Companion planting with basil is one human approach or parasitic controls.

Aubergines are an excellent source of dietary fibre. They are also a good source of vitamins B1, B6 and potassium. It is high in minerals copper, magnesium and manganese. Aubergines are rich in antioxidants, specifically nasunin found in aubergine skin – which gives it its purple colour. A potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger, nasunin has been found to protect the lipids (fats) in brain cell membranes. Cell membranes are almost entirely composed of lipids and are responsible for protecting the cell and helping it to function. The lipid layer is crucial for letting nutrients in, wastes out and receiving instructions from messenger molecules that tell the cell what to do. Research indicates that phenolic-enriched extracts of Aubergines may help in controlling glucose absorption, beneficial for managing type 2 diabetes and reducing associated high blood pressure (hypertension). Aubergines may also help to lower LDL cholesterol levels, likely to due to nasunin and other phytochemical in the fruit.

Aubergines come in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colours. The varieties range from dark purple to pale mauve and from yellow to white. The longer purple variety is the most commonly eaten. Aubergines have a very neutral taste, which allows them to be combined with many other ingredients. They are especially good when prepared with garlic (think Baba Ganoush dip) and herbs such as marjoram and basil.

A fresh aubergine is firm and has a smooth, very glossy, dark purple skin and white, spongy flesh. A ripe aubergine has a matte gloss and yields slightly under finger pressure. Its weight must be in proportion to its size: excessively light aubergines can be limp and dehydrated.

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Aubergine is used in plenty of cuisines worldwide. They are curried in India; they are also roasted, skinned, mashed, mixed with onions, tomatoes and spices and then slow cooked gives the South Asian dish gojju. Another version of the dish, begun-pora (charred or burnt), is very popular in Bangladesh where the pulp of the vegetable is mixed with raw chopped shallot, green chilies, salt, fresh coriander and mustard oil. Sometimes fried tomatoes and deep-fried potatoes are also added, creating a dish called begun bhorta. In a dish called bharli vangi, brinjal is stuffed with ground coconut, peanuts and masala and then cooked in oil. Aubergines are also deep fried as in the Italian parmigiana di melanzane, the Turkish karniyarik of the Turkish and Greek moussaka (yum).  It can be sliced and deep fried, then served with plain yoghurt (optionally topped with a tomato and garlic sauce), such as in the Turkish patlıcan kızartması (meaning fried aubergines), or without yoghurt, as in patlıcan şakşuka. Perhaps the best-known Turkish aubergine dishes are imam bayildi (vegetarian) and karniyarik (with minced meat). There are PLENTY of recipes from different cuisines worldwide to choose from, take a look on they internet to be inspired! One of my favourites of all time is the dip baba ganoush: roasted aubergine, blended in a food processor along with tahini paste, lemon juice, diced raw garlic, salt and pepper and served with raw parsley sprinkled on top, a mixture of your favourite salad leaves and Manneesh (sesame and thyme coated flatbread) for dipping – delicious with homegrown boiled potatoes or rice too. It is like another version of humous (which we all know I’m a fan of…).

Aubergines are also stewed in the classic French Ratatouille and here I offer my recipe that I used to cook the (few) Aubergine I managed to grow/harvest 2016 season. If you are lucky, you will be able to make the entire dish using homegrown produce!

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Ratatouille 

(Serves 2)

  • Olive oil, for frying in
  • 1/2 – 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 aubergine, sliced into small chunks
  • 1 courgette, sliced into discs
  • 1 red pepper, sliced into small chunks
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 200-400g fresh tomatoes, sliced in half
  • Salt and pepper, for seasoning
  1. Heat the oil in a large pan. Fry the sliced onion and aubergine, turning it down to simmer.
  2. Add the sliced courgette and pepper. Add the diced garlic and the tomatoes, stirring to combine.
  3. Leave to simmer for at least 15 minutes – 30 minutes, the longer the better, stirring now and then.
  4. Once the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes have broken down, releasing their juices to become a sauce, add salt and pepper for seasoning and remove from the heat and serve hot in dishes.

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Calabrese Broccoli

Calabrese broccoli, an edible green crop from the group Brassica oleracea, from the cabbage family is harvested for its flowering head. Broccoli has large flowering heads, usually green in colour, branching out from a stalk in a tree-like structure from a thick stalk, which is edible, surrounded by giant leaves. The growing style resembles a cauliflower very much.

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‘Ironman’ Calabrese Broccoli – July 2016

The world ‘broccoli’ comes from the Italian word ‘broccolo’, translating as the ‘flowering crest of a cabbage’ and is a diminutive form of ‘brocco’, meaning small snail or sprout. The broccoli we know today is the result of careful breeding of cultivated leafy cole crops in the northern Mediterranean starting in around the 6th century BC. Since the Roman era, broccoli has been considered a unique ingredient in Italy. It is considered that broccoli was first brought to England from Antwerp during the 18th century. Broccoli was first introduced to the USA by Southern Italian migrants but was not well-known until as late as the 1920s where it was written people ate the heads ‘like cauliflowers and the stems like asparagus’.

Calabrese broccoli was named after Calabria in Italy and is what most people refer to when they say ‘broccoli’, rather than sprouting broccoli or purple sprouting broccoli. Cabbages were being grown in what is now Turkey and spreading through the Mediterranean. During around 8th century BC, migrants to Italy supposedly brought the purple sprouting broccoli that established itself in Tuscany. The Romans were quite taken by the vegetable and it became a standard favourite in Rome where the Calabrese variety was developed and adored. Roman farmers named it ‘the five green fingers of Jupiter’. Apicius, cookbook author of ancient Rome, prepared broccoli by first boiling it and then brushing it ‘with a mixture of cumin and coriander seeds, chopped onion plus a few drops of oil and sun-made wine’. The Romans served the broccoli with creamy sauces, flavoured with various herbs and cooked it in wine. Roman Emperor Tiberius’s(14 BC-37 BC) son loved broccoli excessively. Excluding all other foods, he gorged on broccoli prepared in the Apicius manner above for an entire month. When his urine turned bright green and his father scolded him severely, he finally abandoned his beloved broccoli. Catherine de Medici of Tuscany may have been the first to introduce broccoli to France when she married Henry II in 1533. She arrived in France with her Italian chefs and armfuls of vegetables, including broccoli. However, the first mention of broccoli in French history was not until 1560.

The first mention of the vegetable in literature in England names it as ‘sprouting cauliflower’ or ‘Italian Asparagus’. It was not particularly popular when it arrived during the 18th century. Commercial cultivation of broccoli in the USA can be traced to the D’Arrigo brothers, immigrants from Messina, Italy, whose company made some tentative plantings in San Jose, California in 1922. A few crates were initially shipped to Boston, where there was a thriving Italian immigrant culture in the North End. The broccoli business boomed, with the D’Arrigo’s brand name ‘Andy Boy’, named after Stephano’s two-year-old son, supported by advertisements on the radio publicly advertised the green vegetable. Nowadays, broccoli is not so much the ‘stranger’ to the kitchen garden as it was once called by an English writer. In 2013, global production on broccoli was recorded at 22.3 million tonnes, China and India accounting for 76% of its production. Spain, Mexico and Italy were the secondary producers, 0.5 million tonnes annually.

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Broccoli can produce poorly in hot summer weather, growing best at an average 18-23C (64-73F). When a cluster of flowers have grown in the middle, large enough to eat but still green and not turning brown or bolting, the Calabrese broccoli is ready for harvesting.

This is my first year growing a Calabrese broccoli and I was amazed at the results, expecting it to be incredibly difficult and unlikely to ever grow a large enough floret to eat, much like cauliflowers (I harvest mini-ones, not the full sized ones you find in the supermarkets otherwise they will have bolted if I leave them to get bigger). But I have managed to pick a fair few biggish ones, multiple at a time to prevent bolting and because they were still only I would say medium sized but they looked and tasted like proper broccoli! I was very chuffed. The variety I have grown this year is ‘Ironman’, (Sow: January-June, Harvest: June-November).

Sow the seed 0.5cm (1/4inch) deep in a tray of compost. Keep moist and at a warm temperature. I grew mine in a warm bedroom in January and some later ones in March. Once they had germinated, I put them on a sunny windowsill during the day time and then put them on the floor near a radiator at night time again when it was dark and chilly. Once the plants are large enough to handle, gradually accustom them to cooler conditions (I moved them out of the heated bedroom to a cooler windowsill permanently until they were large enough to plant outside). Transplant into well-fertilised soil that has been Blood, Fish and Boned, manured, composted and mulched. Transplant 45cm (18inches) apart, allow 60cm (2inches) between rows. Plant firmly up to the lowest leaves and water well (all brassicas require constant watering). As frost will most likely still be loitering, fleece well for the next few months until all risks of freezing temperatures have gone. Once you remove the fleece, you need to net the broccoli with insect netting to protect your crops from birds, but most particularly cabbage whites that will wreck havoc. It is best to do this immediately after you have removed the fleece.

To harvest, cut the heads from the plants with a fair chunk of stalk and you should get some smaller side-florets following on from your main harvest. They need to be harvested before the flowers on the head bloom bright yellow. Calabrese broccoli is best steamed or boiled: bring a pan of water to the boil. Cut the broccoli florets from the stem, then, using a knife, shred the tougher outside bits of the stalk and cut up the tender inside into match-sticks. Place them both in the pan of water, turning down the heat and leaving to simmer for a few minutes until tender – you don’t want them to be rock solid but you don’t want to leave them too long or they will be a pile of mush and turn tasteless. The other way of cooking broccoli that I like is to add them to a stir-fry. They make a delicious addition and if you do not care for boiled stalks then this is the way to eat them as they accompany an oriental dish wonderfully. The other way is eating it raw, which I have done, but it is for those who really like the strong flavouring of brassicas. Store any cut raw broccoli wrapped in a plastic bag in the fridge and use it as soon as possible, within a week of harvesting.

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Broccoli is an excellent source of vitamin C (20% Daily Value) and vitamins K, A and E. It may be important to note now that not a lot of vegetables include such a significant amount of vitamin K. There are also many nutrients in broccoli including potassium, zinc, fibre, beta carotene, calcium, iron, plus many other essential benefiting nutrients, including carotenoid compounds lutein and zeaxanith. This vegetable can benefit our health, well-being and lifestyle in many ways due to its powerful combination of vitamins and nutrients. It can support and strengthen many areas of the body, such as the digestive system, liver, eyes, heart, skin, and the immune system. Broccoli has been suggested to aid the body in fighting major diseases including cancer and heart disease. This vegetable is rich in energy boosting vitamins that can decrease stress levels and influence concentration, alertness and vitality. Raw broccoli contains several amounts of B vitamins and manganese as well as reducing levels of sulforaphane. However, cooking it does remove these particular nutrients so if you like broccoli raw as well as cooked, then dig in.

Broccoli could potentially help to reduce cholesterol and high-blood pressures due to its nutritional content of enzymes, as well as osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer, as mentioned previously. There has also been research into the possibility of broccoli preventing adult-onset diabetes. Chromium, found in broccoli, boosts the ability of insulin to perform better in people with slight glucose intolerance.

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Eat your broccoli boiled or steamed with any dish that you would eat a cooked green: pasta, rice dishes, roast dinners, it goes very well with cheese… Funnily enough, recalling broccoli as a kid, I remember loving it with spaghetti Bolognese (excluding the mince) with lots of cheddar cheese melted on top of it. Try adding broccoli to your cauliflower cheese, along with boiled courgettes and perhaps potatoes/sweet potatoes if you have any hanging around – a delicious mix.

Fry it in oil and other flavourings for a stir fry and serve with noodles…

Roast or bake it along with carrots and parsnips to serve with your roast chicken and potatoes…

Or try this combination for a simple, hearty and nutritious weekday supper: Sausages and Rice with Vegetables.

Mix and match the vegetables and accompaniments for anything you like. For myself, I eat Glamorgan sausages (vegetarian, containing leeks, potatoes and Welsh cheddar cheese wrapped up in a breadcrumb coating) while my family eat organic free-range sausages. You can also swap the rice for potatoes if you have an influx of them too.

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Sausages/Glamorgan Sausages with Rice and Boiled Vegetables

(Serves 6)

– 6 -12 organic sausages/ 6-12 glamorgan sausages – 400g rice – 1 large (or equivalent) broccoli – 1 large cauliflower – 150g peas – 100g kale, de-stalked – 4 medium sized courgettes – 4 medium sized carrots – To serve, optional, redcurrant jelly, cranberry sauce, mint jelly, mustard, gravy, sliced onions fried in olive oil

  1. Preheat oven 200C. Put the sausages on a non-stick baking tray and leave in the oven for about 15 minutes until starting brown on bottom. Turn them over and cook them for about another 15 minutes until brown on top.
  2. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Tip in the rice and turn the heat down to simmer. Leave for about 20 minutes, until the rice has absorbed all of the water (stir in occasionally to encourage it). Once the water has gone, take off the heat.
  3. Bring another large pan/lots of smaller pans of water to the boil for the vegetables: cut the broccoli into florets, take the tough outer skin off with a sharp knife and cut the stalk into strips. Put into a pan of boiled water and turn down to a simmer. Cook for about 8-10 minutes or until tender. Cut up the cauliflower into florets and cook it like the broccoli. Place the stripped kale into a pan of boiled water and turn it down to a simmer, leaving it to cook for about five minutes. Cut the courgettes into small circles and put in a pan of boiled water, turning it down to simmer, for about 8 minutes. Peel the carrots and cut them into circles and put in a pan of boiling water, turning it down to simmer, for about 10-12 minutes. Cook the peas in boiled water for about 2 minutes.
  4. Once the variation of vegetables are done, drain them all.
  5. Serve the sausages with the rice and assorted vegetables and any optional additions desired.

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Glamorgan Sausage  with rice, boiled broccoli, courgettes, cauliflower and peas