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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

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Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

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

 

Mushrooms

Unless you know your mushrooms well, it is difficult and dangerous to forage for them. I heard a story about someone who put a poisonous one in the basket alongside all of the edible ones before realising their mistake and removing it. She and her partner ended up in hospital with severe poisoning after eating the edible ones that had touched the poisonous one.

However, there is a simpler way of harvesting them if you are a scardy-cat like me. You can buy your own mushroom kits.

Mushrooms are the fleshy and edible bodies of several species of microfungi – fungi which bear fruiting structures that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye.

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Potato and Mushroom recipe – coming soon…

Identifying mushrooms requires a basic understanding of their macroscopic structure. Most are basidiomycetes and gilled. Their spores are produced on the gills and fall in a fine rain of powder from under the caps. At the microscopic level the spores are fired off and they fall between the gills in the dead air space. As a result, for most mushrooms, if the cap is cut off and placed gill-side-down overnight, a powdery impression reflecting the shape of the gills is formed. The color of the powdery print, called a spore print, is used to help classify mushrooms and can help to identify them. Spore print colors include white (most common), brown, black, purple-brown, pink, yellow, and creamy. While modern identification of mushrooms is quickly becoming molecular, the standard methods for identification are still used by most and have developed into a fine art harking back to medieval times and the Victorians, combined with microscopic examination. The presence of juices upon breaking, bruising reactions, odors, tastes, shades of color, habitat, habit, and season all have to be considered.

Mycophagy, the act of consuming mushrooms, dates back to ancient times. Edible mushroom species have been found in association with 13,000-year-old archaeological sites in Chile but the first reliable evidence of mushroom consumption dates to several hundred years ago in China. The Chinese value mushrooms for medicinal properties as well as for food. Romans and Greeks used mushrooms for culinary purposes. Food tasters were employed by Roman emperors to ensure that mushrooms were safe to eat.

The terms “mushroom” and “toadstool” go back centuries and were never precisely defined. Between 1400 and 1600 AD, the terms mushrom, mushrum, muscheron, mousheroms, mussheron, or musserouns were used. Mushroom and its variations may have been derived from the French word mousseron in reference to moss (mousse). Yet difference between edible and poisonous fungi is not clear-cut, so a “mushroom” may be edible, poisonous, or unpalatable. Cultural or social phobias of mushrooms and fungi may be related. The term “fungophobia” was coined by William Delisle Hay who noted a national fear of “toadstools”. The word “toadstool” has apparent analogies in Dutch padde(n)stoel (toad-stool/chair, mushroom) and German Krötenschwamm (toad-fungus, alternative word for panther cap). In German folklore, toads are often depicted sitting on toadstool mushrooms and catching, with their tongues, the flies that are said to be drawn to the Fliegenpilz, a German name for the toadstool, meaning “flies’ mushroom”. This is how the mushroom got another of its names, Krötenstuhl (a less-used German name for the mushroom), literally translating to “toad-stool”.

Many species of mushrooms seemingly appear overnight, growing or expanding rapidly. This phenomenon is the source of several common expressions including “to mushroom” or “mushrooming” (expanding rapidly in size or scope) and “to pop up like a mushroom” (to appear unexpectedly and quickly).

A mushroom develops from a nodule, or pinhead, less than 2mm in diameter, called a primordium, which is typically found on or near the surface of the substrate. It is formed within the mycelium. The primordium enlarges into a roundish structure of interwoven hyphae roughly resembling an egg, called a “button”. The button has a cottony roll of mycelium that surrounds the developing fruit body. As the egg expands, the mycelium ruptures and may remain as a cup at the base of the stalk or as warts or volval patches on the cap. Many mushrooms lack a universal veil, a mycelium, therefore they do not have either a volva or volval patches. Often, a second layer of tissue covers the blade like gills that bear spores. As the cap expands, the veil breaks, and remnants of the partial veil may remain as a ring around the middle of the stalk or as fragments hanging from the margin of the cap. All species of mushrooms take several days to form primordial mushroom fruit bodies, though they do expand rapidly by the absorption of fluids.

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Mushrooms are great in stir fries

The cultivated mushrooms, or common field mushrooms, initially form a minute fruiting body, referred to as the pin stage because of their small size. Slightly expanded they are called buttons, once again because of the relative size and shape. Once such stages are formed, the mushroom can rapidly pull in water from its mycelium and expand, mainly by inflating preformed cells that took several days to form.

Many mushroom species produce secondary metabolites that can be toxic, mind-altering, antibiotic or antiviral. Although there are only a small number of deadly species, several others can cause particularly severe and unpleasant symptoms. Toxicity likely plays a role in protecting the function of the basidiocarp: the mycelium has expended considerable energy and protoplasmic material to develop a structure to efficiently distribute its spores. One defense against consumption and premature destruction is the evolution of chemicals that render the mushroom inedible, either causing the consumer to vomit the meal or to learn to avoid consumption altogether. In addition, due to the propensity of mushrooms to absorb heavy metals, including those that are radioactive, European mushrooms may, to date, include toxicity from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and continue to be studied.

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So far we have tried using Taylor’s mushroom growing kit. It hasn’t been great – so far we have one big, beautiful mushroom, and nothing else. But I’ve been doing my research and have looked up how to grow mushrooms indoors and outdoors, as well as including the Taylor instructions below…

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Taylor’s Grow Your Own mushroom kits…

  1. Empty the mushroom compost in the bottom of your lined box and lightly firm. Spread over the ‘Casing Layer’ (which has been moistened with half a litre of water) and lightly mix the two layers together leaving the surface rough.
  2. Rest the lid on top of the box at an angle and put in a warm place for about a week and a white fluffy mycelium should appear on the surface.
  3. Remove the lid and place in a cooler dark location, use a mist spray to keep the surface damp.
  4. Mushroom should begin to appear after about a week, pick them as small or as large as you like.

Indoor sowing information… 

You need 20kg (45lbs) of well rotted compost for 100g spawn. Make the compost from fresh, strawy horse manure, or straw supplemented with organic nitrogen. The best compost for mushrooms is horse manure. Make sure the compost is free of worms and invertebrates which will eat the spawn. The manure will be “clean” if composting temperatures are reached. A cellar, shed, cool greenhouse, shelter or even garden frame can be used. Beds should be about 25cms (10 ins.) deep, boxes 15-20cms (6-8 ins.) deep. Tightly pack with compost. It may heat up after packing so leave until the temperature is steady and no higher than 21C (69F). Scatter the spawn over the surface and mix in until it is about 2 to 3 ins deep Firm the surface again and cover with a damp newspaper to keep the compost dark and moist. The compost will become covered in white fungal threads in two to three weeks. When the compost is fully colonised (covered with white threads) remove the newspaper. Cover the compost with 2.5 cm (1 inch) of casing. Casing may be either 50% garden soil 50% peat plus 2 or 3 handfuls of lime per bucketful of casing, or 50% chalk and 50% peat. Peat free compost can also be used but add the chalk or lime. Before using the casing it should be thoroughly wetted and allowed to drain. Keep the casing layer evenly moist but not wet. Use a fine rose watering can or mist spray. Mushrooms will first appear as tiny pin points 3-5 weeks after casing. Air humidity must be kept high at this point (about 85%) to allow mushrooms to develop. They will grow in a flush approximately every 10 days. Pick by twisting the cap until the mushroom comes away and avoid damaging the small ones nearby.

For outdoors…

Sow from Spring to August. In grass areas lift 25 cm (10 ins) square turfs, 4 cm (1.5 ins) deep and about 60 cm (24 ins) apart. Loosen the underlying soil with a fork. Where no animal or garden compost has been added recently, or where the soil is poor add well rotted farm manure, garden or mushroom compost. Spread the mushroom spawn thinly over the soil and mix to a depth of 1 cm. Press the turf down firmly and moisten in dry weather. The soil below should not get saturated. A good dressing of humus – limed peat, rotten horse manure or old mushroom compost is recommended. Choose a lawn or pasture where the soil is rich, moist and contains plenty of fully decayed organic matter. In the garden it will thrive best in lawns which are not to acidic and therefore do not grow moss. Neglected lawns and around compost heaps are good sites. Growth will depend on the weather. Mushrooms grow best in warm damp conditions and once established they should continue to thrive if the weather is warm and the turf is kept moist. Growth produces patches of greener grass. Mushrooms grow best at an even temperature of about 16C(60F). They do not grow well below 10C(60F) or above 20C(68F).

Mushrooms are an excellent source of potassium, a mineral that helps lower elevated blood pressure and reduces the risk of stroke. One medium portobello mushroom has even more potassium than a banana or a glass of orange juice. One serving of mushrooms also provides about 20 to 40% of the daily value of copper, a mineral that has cardioprotective properties. Mushrooms are a rich source of riboflavin, niacin, and selenium. Selenium is an antioxidant that works with vitamin E to protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Male health professionals who consumed twice the recommended daily intake of selenium cut their risk of prostate cancer by 65 percent. In a Baltimore study, men with the lowest blood selenium levels were 4 to 5 times more likely to have prostate cancer compared to those with the highest selenium levels. One cup of raw onions equals 2.2g of protein which is pretty high for plants. Mushrooms are therefore very useful for vegetarian or vegan diets as a source of protein and vitamin B and D.

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Mushroom and Orach seeds

I’ve been using mushrooms more this year and have come round to liking them in a number of different dishes. They are a great replacement for chicken in casseroles, brilliant in stir fries (Garden Stir-Fry – the way to use up unwanted veg), I like them just fried in butter with rice and salad for a quick lunch, or fried with Orach seeds. They are a traditional side to egg and bacon, or just egg and toast. An addition to chicken pie. Mushroom risotto, addition to carbonara, raw in French salads with raw green beens and hard boiled eggs. Yet my favourite new-found-new-liked recipe is mushroom and cheese omelette – the best omelette around.

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Mushroom and Cheese Omelette

(Serves 1)

-2 eggs -100g grated cheddar cheese -3-4 button sized mushrooms, sliced thinly -Knob of butter, for frying -Salad, to serve

  1. Beat the eggs together in a large bowl, thoroughly otherwise the whites and yolks won’t mix properly to create that beautiful yellow colour.
  2. Mix in the grated cheddar and sliced mushrooms.
  3. Melt the butter in a frying pan, swirling it round to cover the entire surface. Tip in the contents of the bowl and swirl it over the surface of the pan too.
  4. Allow it to cook on one side for a couple of minutes. Then, using a scraper, gently lift up half of the omelette and flip it over the other half. This encourages the other side to cook whilst preventing you from tearing the omelette apart.
  5. Once the outside is starting to brown and the inside looked cooked (the cheese will be melted but you want the egg part to be cooked), flip the omelette onto a plate and serve alongside a salad or some crusty bread, rice or potatoes.

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Tree Cabbage

I planted a couple of years ago seeds from the Real Seed Company called Tree Cabbage, a perennial plant.

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This is what they say on their website: http://www.realseeds.co.uk/cabbage.html

‘This unusual Spanish heirloom has absolutely enormous leaves – and it looks like a Kale rather than a cabbage; it makes no head, just a tall stalk with  a loose head on top. You simply take the huge leaves a few at a time to eat all year round. You can even keep it going for two years or more! Just cut it back when it tries to flower – it makes new growth, ideal for fresh cabbage in spring during the ‘hungry gap’. You can use it as cooked greens just as normal. But Tree Cabbage like this is also a key ingredient in the classic Spanish dish ‘Caldo Gallego’ – which is a delicious leaf, bean, and meat stew. Grows like cabbage, harvested like a kale . Very, very rare. Can be a short-lived perennial vegetable if the flowers are removed as they form.’

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This grew really well for us in our dry sandy soil. Great germination and surviving results. It is harvestable throughout the hungry gap, just what you need in England when you might struggle to keep your greens going. It tastes just like kale.

But even better, the poultry love it. We pick a bunch of it every chance we get to go the the garden and drop it off in their run and they completely destroy it within minutes. Very nutritious for them!

Every time you pick the leaves, more grow. One or two plants could easily feed a family – we’ve got goodness knows how many because I went crazy with sowing them, thinking none would germinate. But that means we have a great supply for our poultry throughout the cold season when there is little grass for them to munch in their run.

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When the plants started flowering and going to seed, I thought that meant that they were over. Instead, they made more leaves and have kept on going this year.

We have been harvesting the seeds and using it as a replacement for mustard seeds (Mustard) in curries and other dishes as it from the same family, Brassica.

They are winter cold hardy, pulling through the frosts without any protection.

They might be exhausted this season, or they might survive for another harvest. Anyway, they are a good investment.

If you are a little unsure about the cabbage/kale taste, of it just boiled, then try adding it shredded to stews, curries stir-fries: Garden Stir-Fry – the way to use up unwanted veg

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Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

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Garden Stir-Fry – the way to use up unwanted veg

One of the best dishes for cooking up unwanted veg from the garden or your fridge has got to be a stir-fry.

Almost and veg can go in, a basic one is very quick, once you have prepared all of the vegetables and the content shrinks down so much in the pan, that you can easily get rid of a few items from the storage.

I think you could probably get away with any veg but it all depends on taste. Personally, these veggies seem to be good to use, according to me:

carrots, bell peppers, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber is surprisingly good, any green leaves, like spinach, pak choi, swiss chard, Spanish tree cabbage, ordinary cabbage, kale, spring onions, garlic, normal onions, sweetcorn, mushrooms…

I’m sure there are more.

Another good think about stir-fries is that they can easily be vegetarian or vegan too. I don’t make them as much as I should do, but stir-fries are the way to use up veg when you have a glut.

So here is ONE basic, simple stir-fry recipe that is veggie/vegan appropriate. I use stir-fry oil from Sainsbury’s (because I’m lazy) but for this recipe I have included the basic flavourings for making your flavourings from scratch.

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A Basic Mushroom Stir-Fry

(Serves 4)

For the flavourings:

-2tbsp olive oil -2 garlic cloves, finely diced -2 spring onions or 1 large onion, finely diced -1tsp grated ginger -1/2tsp finely diced chilli

-8 mushrooms, finely sliced -1 red, 1 yellow, 1 green (or the equivalent in the same colour) bell peppers, de-seeded and finely sliced -4 celery stalks, sliced -3 handfuls each of kale, swiss chard, tree cabbage and spinach; de-stalked and shredded

-Dash of soy sauce -Dash of sesame seed oil

-Noodles, to serve

  1. Heat the oil up in the pan. Add the garlic and the onion and sauté gently. Turn the heat down to simmer and add the ginger and chilli. Stir for about a minute.
  2. Add in the sliced mushrooms, bell peppers and celery. Fry for a few minutes until starting to look a little brown.
  3. Stir in the shredded green leaves. Leave for a few more minutes and then add a dash of soy sauce and sesame seed oil. Stir and leave for a minute or two.
  4. Serve with noodles.

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Celery

Celery (Apium graveolens), a marshland plant in the family Apiaceae. First attested in English in 1664, the word “celery” derives from the French céleri, in turn from Italian seleri, the plural of selero, which comes from Late Latin selinon, the latinisation of the Greek σέλινον (selinon), “celery”.

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Celery has a long, fibrous stalk tapering into leaves. Depending on the location and cultivar, either the vegetable’s stalks or leaves are eaten and used in cooking. Celery seed is also used as a spice, its extracts are used in medicines.

Most experts believe that celery originated in the Mediterranean basin. Other areas that lay claim to nativity for celery include Sweden, the British Isles, Egypt, Algeria, India, China, and New Zealand. Though today it is mainly thought of as a vegetable meant for consumption, celery was originally used for medicinal purposes, as a flavoring herb, and sometimes fed to horses. It has medicinal properties because of the oils and seeds it contains. In ancient times it was used to treat many ailments, including colds, flu, digestion, water retention, and more.

Celery leaves were part of the garlands found in the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamen (died 1323 BC), and celery mericarps dated to the seventh century BC were recovered in the Heraion of Samos. Archeological digs found celery dating to the 9th century BC, at Kastanas. However, the literary evidence for celery’s use in ancient Greece is more telling: in Homer’s Illiad, horses graze on wild celery that grows in the marshes of Troy, and in Odyssey, there is a mention of the meadows of violet and wild celery surrounding the cave of Calypso. A chthonian symbol among the ancient Greeks, celery was said to have sprouted from the blood of Kadmilos. The spicy odour and dark leaf colour encouraged this association with the cult of death. In classical Greece, celery leaves were used as garlands for the dead.

Celery’s late arrival in the English kitchen is an end-product of the long tradition of seed selection needed to reduce the sap’s bitterness and increase its sugars. By 1699, John Evelyn could recommend it in his Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets. Celery makes a minor appearance in colonial American gardens; its culinary limitations are reflected in the observation by the author of A Treatise on Gardening, by a Citizen of Virginia that it is “one of the species of parsley”. In fact the name for parsley actually means rock-celery. After the mid-19th century, continued selections for refined crisp texture and taste brought celery to American kitchens, where it was served in celery vases to be salted and eaten raw.

In Europe it was not until the 1600s in France that celery was first noted as an edible plant meant for consumption. Soon the Italians began using celery the way we use it in modern times. They set out to find a way to give it a more desirable flavor because celery was thought to be quite bitter and strong. A technique was developed to remedy this stronger taste in the form of blanching. This led to two different types of celery developing. There is self-blanching or yellow celery (a recent hybrid) and green or Pascal celery. In America most people prefer the green variety. In Europe self-blanching varieties are more popular.

In the past, celery was grown as a vegetable for winter and early spring; it was perceived as a cleansing tonic, welcomed to counter the salt-sickness of a winter diet without greens based on salted meats. By the 19th century, the season for celery had been extended, to last from the beginning of September to late in April.

In the 1850s celery seed was brought to Kalamazoo, Michigan from Scotland by George Taylor. He began growing it at a nearby farm. At a fancy ball at the Burdick House he offered it free of charge to be on the serving table. It got considerable interest. Dutch immigrants in the area caught on to the idea, and Kalamazoo became the “Celery Capital” of the nation. However, this was not to last. Celery production died out after a blight hit the area in the 1930s. Now the biggest producer of celery in the nation is California.

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To grow your own celery: start seeds off indoors in small modules in early spring, March is a good time. Give them a lot of heat and keep moist for germination. Mine are in the warmest, sunniest room in the house – they get put on the windowsill during daylight hours before being ‘snuggled’, put back on the floor in the heated room for the chilly nights. I will then be moving my celery to a colder room to begin the process of hardening them off (i.e. making them tougher and able to withstand the British weather) once they are looking strong with some proper leaves developed. Plant outside, 25cm apart, in May or June, after the frosts if you can. Celery likes a moisture retentive, well-drained soil in a sunny location. I prepare the bed for them by digging a trench, filling it with well-rotted manure and compost before covering it with soil and a good thick layer of mulch – it will help to hold onto the water and suppress the weeds. I often prepare this in early spring/winter, giving the worms time to do their work below before planting the little babies out. Once I have planned them out, I like to place plastic bottles with their bottoms cut off over each individual plant before covering them with horticultural fleece, making sure they are slug protected, very important! The bottles protect the celery from cold, wind and being squashed; the fleece protects them from strong sunlight, cold, and again wind which is no friend to the plastic bottles. Keep the celery well watered and slug protected and weed free as much as possible. Once they look big and strong enough to stand the world on their own and the frosts have vanished, remove their protection and let them fend for themselves.

Self-blanching varieties avoid the need to be earthed up like the older varieties of celery. Recommended are ‘Golden Self Blanching’, ‘Daybreak’ and ‘Green Utah’. I have tried growing before now ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Green Sleeves’. Very tasty although you will have to de-string them if you are feeling fussy about chewy textures!

Try to harvest before the frosts, when the sticks are recognisably big, from around August. However, we have managed to leave our celery (when we had pretty much a whole fields worth a couple of years ago thanks to my over-generous sowings and surprisingly successful germinations and survivals) under fleece throughout the winter. They did go to seed the following spring but it meant that a steady harvest for us/pigs saw us through the winter- although I think I put a lot of my family off celery… similar to the runner-bean situation that occurs yearly…

Problems with celery: slugs and snails are your ultimate competition. Starting them off indoors not only increases the likelihood of germination but it also helps to protect them from these pests. Celery fly maggots can strike in April, planting them out in May avoids this. The problem I had last year was celery blight. It looks like rust, similar looking to potato blight. The outer stems get these nasty brown patterns that eventually droop and become inedible. It also prevents the plant from ever developing to a proper size, so my harvest was very poor last year. There is nothing you can do but to snap off the outer stems infected to slow down the spread of the disease and to harvest them as small treats instead of large, supermarket-style vegetables.

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Celery is among a small group of foods (headed by peanuts) that appear to provoke the most severe allergic reactions; for people with celery allergy, exposure can cause potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. Seeds contain the highest levels of allergen content.

Celery is a rich source of phenolic phytonutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Celery is an excellent source of vitamin K and molybdenum. It is a very good source of folate, potassium, dietary fiber, manganese and pantothenic acid. Celery is also a good source of vitamin B2, copper, vitamin C, vitamin B6, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin A. Celery supposedly: helps lower blood cholesterol, lowers inflammation, lowers blood pressure, prevents ulcers, sustains liver health, boosts digestion and reduces bloating, prevents urinary tract infections and may help in preventing cancer. Altogether, a very good veggie!

I mostly eat my celery raw – homegrown it can be stringy but once prepared by being sliced in sticks it is deliciously sweet and juicy. Serve with any other salad, Waldorf Salad is popular in the US (celery, apple and walnuts, I think?). My mum used to have raw celery sticks dipped in salt. Use for dips like humous. I think it is yummy dipped in baked potatoes that have been mashed with salted butter. It is also delicious stir fried after being sliced into small pieces – a whole new taste, it is one of my favourite veggies to stir fry, along with broccoli stalks and sweetcorn, I don’t know why, they are just yummy too! Celery can also be boiled, steamed or roasted along with some carrots and parsnips to accompany your roast dinner. It is fundamental in my dad’s homemade Christmas stuffing alone with pear or apple. Very good in stocks, especially the leaves. It can easily be added to stews and casseroles too, perhaps even curries. Someone I know once said that veggie bolognese was nothing without celery – I am not sure I agree, I prefer grated carrots in mine but why not give it a go?!

Fun fact: The perennial BBC television series Doctor Who featured the Fifth Doctor (played by Peter Davison, from 1981–84), who wore a sprig of celery as a corsage.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

What to do with bolted lettuce?

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It can be a little frustrating to turn your back for a minute and that whole patch of lettuce you had is now bolted.

Bolted is when the plant literally ‘bolts’ upwards, going to seed.

For lettuce, this makes them pretty inedible unless you like a very bitter taste. The problem is when it all happens at once – what do you do with a dozen bolted lettuces? Here are a couple of tips for not letting the greens go to waste.

Compost

One option is to compost them. Pull them up and leave them to rot down on your compost heap. Green leaves are well known to rot down well and to make a lovely fertile mush. Use your composted bolted lettuce to feed the ground for your next batch of salad, thereby continuing the circle of life and not wasting anything. Please never feel tempted to bonfire or bin something as innocent as a bolted lettuce, it would be such a waste!

Feed the birds

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Not the garden birds but any feathered poultry you, friends, family or a neighbour might have. Unlike us humans, poultry are not too fussy about how bitter their lettuce leaves are. It is very good for them too. A green-based diet does wonderful things to their eggs, making their yolks a rich, yellow colour. My poultry basically rule me – well, I think all my animals believe they are royalty. You  should see the way I am summoned by the cats to feed them. Even one of our pigs asks me to hand feed her every night. But the poultry believe it is their right to have boring chicken food first thing and a special snack in the evening. They stand by the fence and wait all afternoon. It has been a lot cheaper and a lot healthier for  them, I am sure, to give them the unwanted excess of our garden produce. They love old cabbage or cauliflower leaves, any chickweed weeds growing in the patch and the bolted lettuce. If you don’t have any feathered pets of your own, see if anyone you know does and would appreciate the greens. You never know, you might be able to exchange bolted lettuce for half a dozen eggs every now and then. It is the sweet farm-community-business I think we are missing around here – I will give you something you want that I don’t want, in exchange for what I want that you don’t want.

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Fry ’em

Treat bolted lettuce like oriental greens that are slightly strong tasting. Add the torn up leaves into any stir fry and add some flavouring of chilli, ginger, soy sauce etc. as you wilt them down.

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Side Dish

Try frying the bolted lettuce on its own and serve it as a green side dish, just like some pubs and restaurants serve wilted spinach as an optional side dish instead of salad or chips. Fry them in some butter or oil in a pan and serve alongside any meal that takes your fancy.

Lettuce Soup

I haven’t made this before but I have heard that bolted lettuce tastes fine when it is blended into a soup. Here is a recipe I would use if I wanted to make it as I think it sounds pretty good. It is by Rose Prince from the Telegraph Magazine (search online). Let me know if you ever try it, I would love some feedback:

(Serves 4)

– 120g salted butter  – 1 leek, sliced and then washed – 500ml boiling water  – The outer leaves from 2 floppy ‘butterhead’ lettuces, or a romaine lettuce – 150ml Greek yogurt or crème fraîche

To serve:  – 12 pink peppercorns – The leaves from 4 sprigs of dill  – 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil  – A little yogurt or crème fraîche

1.Melt the butter over a medium heat in a small pan and add the leek. Cook for two minutes until soft then add the water. Bring to the boil and simmer for four minutes. Add the lettuce leaves and simmer for one minute.

2. Put in a blender and process with the yogurt or crème fraîche until very smooth and velvety – you can pass the soup through a sieve after blending for an extra silky texture, if you wish. Taste and season with salt and a tiny amount of ground white pepper.

3. To make the pepper oil, put the pink peppercorns with the dill in a pestle and mortar. Add the oil and pound until the spice and herbs are bruised, releasing their flavour. Serve the soup either hot, soon after you have made it, or chilled, with the oil dripped on to the surface. Add a little more yogurt or crème fraîche.

Let them flower for the bees

Another option is to leave the bolted lettuces where they are, or some of them, for the bees. They do like bolted crop’s flowers, particularly brassicas I have noticed.

Save for seed

If you don’t leave the gone to seed lettuce for the bees needs, then you can always save it for yourself to take the seeds from your favourite variety. Pick or shake off the ready formed seeds into labelled envelopes and store in a dry place for sowing next season.

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