27/06/2014

Gooseberry Lasagne

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I was musing on the lazy gardener's dream one day and found myself musing out loud on Twitter.....























Twitter is such fun - thank you Mr. Welford and littlerobbergirl - and inspirational too - today I did try a gooseberry lasagne!!

Stew's stated position on food is that he won't eat anything that's been in the ground! But when he tells me that he doesn't want pudding in his first course he's often not joking any more. So I set about making our usual vegetable lasagne for tea (fairly standard lasagne; onions, peppers, courgettes, aubergine, chillies and tomatoes layered with lasagne sheets and a white sauce and topped with cheddar cheese) but before I added the tomatoes I set aside a portion of the vegetable mixture for my experiment.
  
I'm not crazy - or original! Gooseberry sauce is a traditional accompaniment to mackerel, Jane Grigson described cooking gooseberries with veal and you can find gooseberry salsa recipes online (although these are sometimes asking for cape gooseberries which are at least in the same botanical family as tomatoes - unlike the true gooseberry).

Here are my cold-hardy perennial tomatoes!

Ribes uva-crispa - the gooseberry

I can't quite bring myself to show you the photo of the uncooked vegetable sauce with the gooseberries because it turned a rather upsetting shade of blancmange pink. But here is the finished result...

Gooseberry lasagne

Here's the tomato one for comparison...

Tomato lasagne

A taste comparison? Well you won't be surprised to hear that gooseberries don't taste like tomatoes, not even when cooked up in a lasagne - but on its own terms it tasted good to me - a little fruity admittedly (strangely apple came to mind rather than gooseberry!) but none the worse for that - quite good grub! Stew had a taste - to be fair I have to report that he didn't agree.

So I guess the search for a cold-hardy perennial tomato will have to go on. Now I do have a friend who says cooked rosehips are the thing for a 'just-like-tomato' flavour - rosehip lasagne anyone?

17/06/2014

Wild Rocket

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I've discovered that wild rocket is a really useful perennial vegetable! Although the 'wild rocket' that is grown for selling in supermarkets is sometimes an especially peppery form of the annual or salad rocket Eruca sativa, the plant I'm interested in here is Diplotaxis tenuifolia, also commonly known as perennial wall rocket.

wild and salad rocket leaves side by side
Wild rocket (left)   Salad rocket (right)

A comparison of just the leaves of the two plants reveals that perennial wall-rocket has rather finer, more deeply serrated leaves than you usually see on salad rocket and that the leaves are similar but more fiery in taste. If you see the whole plant, especially in its second or later years, you'll be looking at a low-growing spreading clump with slender but quite woody-looking stems. Provided you're happy with its hotness you can use it in all the same ways as salad rocket.

Wild rocket has been a revelation to me. The first time I grew it it didn't come to much - becoming straggly and unproductive rather quickly and rotting off over the winter. But then I saw that a plant I had given a friend had grown into a beautiful dense mound of fresh green leaves and had, she told me, been supplying herself and her daughter with plenty of salad leaves for weeks.

Its name came up again in the course of my efforts to find a better range of plants for a narrow dry shady border at the base of a wall in our backyard. Planted there it suddenly flourished and overwintered with no problem. I trimmed the branches by about two-thirds in the late autumn to stop them flopping over the bricks onto the path and to keep it bushy when they began to sprout again early the following spring.

Wild rocket in April
Wild rocket in April

I've been amazed by just how obliging it is. It would be interesting to see how it would get on in a gravel path, in pockets of soil on the top or sides of a wall or in a hanging basket. We pick it a lot for salad leaves and it doesn't get much of a chance to flower - but when flowering has taken place it doesn't seem to have been to the detriment of leaf production.

I made wild rocket pesto tonight to eat with spaghetti. I harvested quite a lot of leaves and left the plant with a messy crew cut but snipped each bunch of leaves above the growing point so that they will replenish themselves quickly.

Wild rocket after harvesting
After harvesting

I wanted 100g of rocket leaves for the recipe I was following - loosely following: I used hazelnuts instead of pine nuts to reduce the cost (and also because I like to use ingredients that I could easily grow myself) and I used hard goat's cheese instead of pecorino because there was none of the latter in the shop! But I could only gather 50g of leaves from my plants and so Caucasian spinach leaves and parsley made up the weight.

Wild Rocket Pesto
Wild Rocket Pesto



Wild rocket is fairly expensive to buy in bags from the supermarket but it's very easy to grow your own from seed (I also have a few plants available to buy at present). It doesn't need a fully sunny spot, is happiest in poorer, dryer soil and produces lots of leaves in a small space and for a long time. Other than the shade-tolerant, climbing Caucasian spinach I can't think of a more useful plant for a backyard larder.

31/05/2014

Saturday Soup

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I was going to call this post Sustainable Soup. Except for adding some olive oil, honey, salt and pepper, I made it entirely from plants that have been growing happily in the allotment or backyard for several years now without any energy from me save an occasional weed and compost mulch. But I liked the sound of Saturday Soup better.

Saturday Soup ingredients

I collected the ingredients last night and spread them on the kitchen table for their photo this morning. Starting from the top-left corner they are: Good King Henry, lovage, allium leaves (potato onion, welsh onion, chives), thyme, sage, pot marjoram and sorrel.

To make the soup I chopped everything in the picture above, discarding the thyme stalks and the Good King Henry stalks (but including the flowers). Then I gently softened the allium leaves in some olive oil, added the Good King Henry, lovage and herbs with two pints of water and simmered it all for about ten minutes (maybe a bit less). The sorrel went in next with some salt and pepper and then I puréed it all with a hand blender and tasted it.

Too bitter! I love Good King Henry cooked just like spinach and haven't before felt the need to rub salt into the leaves or soak them to reduce their bitterness as others do. But this was definitely too bitter. Never mind, this ehow.com page came to the rescue! Following the advice I added some more salt and then some honey and then some more olive oil. Much better - but a little thin. I remembered that musk mallow thickens soup and added a good handful from an exuberant plant that's growing in a shady corner of the backyard. I also added some more garden sorrel and some mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) from pots in the garden and puréed it all again. (Usefully for on-hand ingredients from shady town gardens, both the mountain sorrel and the mallow seem to revel in shade and garden sorrel and Good King Henry also seem quite happy in a semi-shaded spot).

Soup with a sprig of mountain sorrel

I now had Satisfying, Sustainable, Saturday Soup and have just enjoyed it for lunch. So next time more sorrel and less Good King Henry (or treat the leaves first. I understand one can either soak in salt water for half an hour and discard the water or rub salt into the leaves and rinse after a few minutes). Also on a cold day I might add a starchy perennial component such as skirret (or stored oca). That would make an especially sustaining, satisfying, sustainable, Saturday Soup!

25/05/2014

Sorrel and Potato Gratin

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I've been exploring the Internet again in search of good simple recipes for perennial vegetables and I've found a recipe for Sorrel and Potato Gratin from Martha Stewart's website. The recipe uses 3 cups of sorrel like the Goat's Cheese and Sorrel Tart recipe I discovered last July.

Sorrel and Potato Gratin

I didn't actually know who Martha Stewart was, although the name was very familiar. Now I know she's an American wonder woman who seems to have discovered the secret of youth.

I'm not sure that this recipe is part of her secret as it contains 300ml of heavy cream. In fat content 'heavy cream' in America is most like whipping cream in the UK - but I assumed it was like double cream so my version was even richer! It was very delicious but I expect making it with lower fat substitutes like yoghurt or silken tofu would work well too.

I didn't have any shallots so I used onions instead. I think I actually do have shallots growing on the allotment - they are an ideal perennial vegetable (see here) - but I've forgotten quite where I've planted them! Go to the recipe link for exact quantities but here's my cooking-by-pictures recipe to show you how quick and easy it was.

1. Butter the dish.

2. Add the onions.

3. Then the sorrel.

4. A layer of new potatoes.
Season. Repeat 3 and 4.
5. Add the cream. Cover and
bake for an hour at 350°F.
6. Bake uncovered for further 20
minutes until nicely browned.

I couldn't harvest quite enough sorrel from my two non-flowering sorrel plants for this recipe and so gathered some from the flowering version. But that was only because I'd picked heavily last weekend when I'd made the goat's cheese tart again. I really recommend the non-flowering form of garden sorrel. The regular one is already throwing up flower stalks but this one will stay all season as a low mound of glossy, succulent, quickly-replenished, lemony leaves. I have some for sale on my website at the moment if you'd like to buy one.

26/04/2014

Spring in the Perennial Vegetable Garden (2)

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New photographs: some more of the perennial vegetables on my plots and in the backyard.

Lovage
Cardoon
Cardoon
Scorzonera
Scorzonera
Solomon's Seal
Solomon's Seal
Tree onion
Tree onion
Welsh onion
Welsh onion
Potato onion
Potato onion
Everlasting onion
Everlasting onion
Elephant garlic
Elephant garlic
Garlic
Garlic
Common mallow
Common mallow
Globe artichoke
Globe artichoke
Wild cabbage
Wild cabbage
Patience dock
Patience dock
Salad burnet
Salad burnet
Dwarf golden hop
Dwarf golden hop
Wild rocket
Wild rocket
Buck's horn plantain
Buck's horn plantain

06/04/2014

'Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs' to read (and to eat!)

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Emma Cooper, ethnobotanist, author of "The Alternative Kitchen Garden: an A to Z" and producer of The Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast and of numerous other online horticultural initiatives has written an ebook entitled 'Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs' which is coming out on 1st of May this year.


Emma's book is about unusual edibles. Jade pearls and alien eyeballs are both common names for edible plants and as she sent me a preview of the book I know which ones they refer to! In fact the whole book provides a rich and appetizing seam of references to unusual edible plants alongside engaging stories of people who seek them out and grow them.

Kitted out with pith helmet and magnifier, Emma is on a virtual book tour this month and she is visiting The Backyard Larder Blog today. So I asked her some questions about her views on the possibilities/limitations of perennial vegetable gardening.

Emma on tour!

Welcome Emma! In the course of researching for your book did you get any idea of the proportion of gardeners who are growing something you'd call an unusual edible?

Not really. On the one hand, it’s clear that unusual edibles are still unusual, and that the majority of gardeners are happy growing their favourite vegetables and reliable varieties. But it is sometimes surprising how willing people are to give something new a go once they’ve learned a little bit about it.

Would you say that seeking out unusual edibles to grow is becoming more popular in recent years?


Recent books by Mark Diacono (A Taste of the Unexpected) and James Wong (Homegrown Revolution) have certainly given unusual edibles some more mainstream attention, although it’s not clear how long that will last. Research shows that the majority of allotment gardeners use commercial sources for their seeds, so it’s encouraging to see some of the big seed companies adding more unusual edibles to their range and making them more widely available.

Can you tell us about particular edibles that were unusual, say, 20 years ago but are now quite commonly found on allotments and in gardens?

There’s been a real resurgence in salad leaves. It all started with Joy Larkcom and her ‘saladini’, which she brought back from her tour of Europe, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted 20 years ago that rocket would become so ubiquitous in kitchen gardens. The market for chilli pepper seeds and plants has really heated up in the last few years, as well – they’re very trendy at the moment.

What do you think it takes for a food to make the leap from 'unusual' to 'common'?

That’s actually quite a complicated question to answer. I looked at that as part of the research for my Masters degree, and there’s a lot of factors that are involved when people choose what to eat. Foods can be adopted very quickly into the diet – which seems to have happened with chilli peppers for example – or completely overlooked. Here in the UK I think we’re currently going through a period where many people are open to trying new foods, and that’s a big part of the battle. But for something to really become common then of course it has to be affordable to most people, and the supply lines have to be there. In terms of unusual edible plants then for them to catch on with gardeners the seeds have to be readily available, and the plants have to grow well in our climate – and for many species that means some breeding work is needed.

Was there anything you discovered which particularly surprised or impressed you whilst researching for the book?

All of the people in the book, and in fact all of the people I have encountered on my unusual edibles journey, are really committed to sharing their knowledge of these plants and helping to make them more popular. Everyone is so willing to help if you have a query, it’s a really welcoming community. Even amongst gardeners, who are lovely people in their own right, people with an interest in unusual edibles stand out.

Your book covers both annual and perennial edible plants of course but, as a gardener yourself, would you say there is less work involved in growing perennial rather than annual plants - or other advantages? How about disadvantages?

I don’t think there’s less work involved in growing perennial plants particularly, but what you find is that the work is spread out across the year. With annuals there’s a huge race to sow seeds and get plants into the ground in spring, and then you’re hard pressed to keep up with the harvest in late summer. With perennials the work is more evenly spread out. That can also be a disadvantage, as it means you have to remember when you’re supposed to be tending to a particular plant; it’s easy to miss your harvest! Gardening media is very much geared to a traditional garden with mostly annual plants, and if you want to include a lot of perennials then you have to work out your own timetable – but once you do you have a good spread of crops throughout the year.

I've often wondered about the familiarity, or otherwise, of names for perennial vegetables. Do you think people are more likely to try Caucasian spinach for example, because 'spinach' is familiar as a vegetable name, but less likely to eat say musk mallow or day lily?

That’s a factor that came up in my research. Historically cultures have found it easier to accept new crops that they understood. Once of the reasons the potato struggled in Europe was because there wasn’t a tradition of using tubers. The chilli may well have been accepted everywhere it went because it was recognised as a spice. Marketers use this tactic now – oca is described as being very similar to potatoes. I’m not entirely sure it’s helpful, as they are quite different, but there’s a need for unfamiliar things to be explained in familiar terms. But I don’t think that goes any way to explaining why so many plants are unlucky enough to have ‘bastard’ in their name.

Of the perennial vegetables you have become familiar with, which do you think has the most to offer the amateur vegetable grower? 
 
I think it’s definitely time for a sea kale revival. It was popular in Victorian times, but has fallen out of favour. It’s easy to grow, and familiar enough to be accepted, whilst being different enough to add novelty to the garden and people’s diets. That doesn’t mean we have to grow or eat it in Victorian ways; in Charles Dowding’s new book – Gardening Myths and Misconceptions – he says that he’s stopped forcing his sea kale plants. Not only is it a chore, but it weakens the plants. He now harvests young, green leaves instead and finds that they’re delicious and that the plant is more productive.

In your book you talk about how concern about the planet is a major motivation for people to grow unusual edibles and you explain the thinking behind this. Are you optimistic that growing such plants might be part of a broader, long-lasting shift towards 'greener' methods for growing food in this country?

I was reading an article recently about a farm in Nebraska that was responding to drought by diversifying into grapes, as they use far less water. Here in the UK the media coverage of the floods we’ve suffered this winter has put some of the blame on our current farming practices. My personal feeling is that agriculture will adapt to changing conditions – but only when it’s forced to. If gardeners have already shown that unusual edibles can grow well in this country, and there’s a demand for them, then that might be a way to get change happening a bit more quickly.

Do you have a personal favourite unusual edible (of whatever sort)?

I have a soft spot for achocha, partly because it was one of the earliest unusual edibles I grew, and partly because it’s such an easy plant. Sow the seeds around the same time as you’d do your French or runner beans, and you’ll quickly have a climbing plant that will scramble over its support, the shed, the washing line and even the dog if it stands still too long! It has beautiful leaves, and although the flowers are small they attract hoverflies and other beneficial insects. And then, one morning, you’ll notice a small army of fruits hiding among the foliage. You’ll be picking them all summer without making a dent, and it’s beyond easy to save your own seeds for next year.

Sliding down the scale of unusualness a bit, if people are looking for something a bit different but still familiar then there are some lovely courgettes and summer squash you can grow. Rugosa friulana is a yellow courgette with bumpy skin – it looks very ugly, but tastes wonderful and has firmer flesh than a traditional courgette. And the little patty pan squashes that look like flying saucers are wonderful, too.

Thanks Emma - your answers (and your book!) have given me a really useful broad view of the world of unusual edibles.

For details on buying 'Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs' go to the book's homepage.

30/03/2014

Bringing the Babingtons Home for Tea

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Babington leeks
Babington leeks in late summer
I had my first harvest of Babington leeks yesterday. This wild perennial leek is Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii, named after Charles Cardale Babington, who lived at the same time as Charles Darwin. It is one of many closely related perennial leeks: amongst them being elephant garlic A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum, kurrat or Egyptian leek A. ampeloprasum var. kurrat and pearl onion A. ampeloprasum var. sectivum. Most of them reproduce by seeds rather than the topset bulbils of Babington leek.

I'd read that the leeks (at at least 2-3 years old) are harvested from late autumn to spring but the new growth on mine didn't emerge until mid-winter and the white stems looked too short to harvest until now. They still look rather short but I want to use a good few of the leeks before they throw up a tough flower stalk in late spring. (In summer the green topset bulbils can be used and when the flower stalk dies down you can dig up and store the bulbs.)

The usual advice is to slice the leek off at ground-level when harvesting, leaving the distinctly bulbous portion near the roots to regrow. I'd planted the original leek bulbils about 2cm below the surface in autumn but found during the following winter that they had pulled themselves deeper into the ground - to about 10cm. (I learnt on Twitter that they do this by means of 'contractile roots'. Amazing!) So to get a longer shank I dug down a little way to the bulb and sliced the leek off just above it.

Underground bulb of Babington leek

Harvested Babington leeks


I expect one can plant even deeper to get longer shanks but digging further down to slice them off would be time-consuming. A better strategy would probably be a fairly deep mulch or ground-cover. I haven't got around to mulching my leeks and have left them in rather bare ground whilst they wait for a camomile ground-cover to establish itself around them. The camomile was chosen for its anti-fungal properties in the hope that it might guard against leek rust. But it is the Treneague form, very ground-hugging, and I'm wondering now whether a slightly taller plant, perhaps the species Chamaemelum nobile, might be better for promoting longer white stems on the leeks.

Or a different approach... if the leeks are happy growing closer together (and I think they would be) I could have lots of plants in a small area and could afford to pull whole plants up when they are old enough to harvest. In which case planting deeper makes more sense and it would be easy to pop a bulbil into the hole left behind when a leek is pulled up.

Having harvested, what to do with them?  The leek is a very versatile vegetable - leek recipes are truly abundant. But Babington leek tastes of both leek and garlic so I decided to substitute it for both leek and garlic. I used this Jamie Oliver recipe for braised leeks with garlic and thyme as a starting point, where the vegetables and herbs are sautéed in butter in a frying pan and then simmered in wine and stock in the oven. I scribbled down the recipe and then - gave it to the cook! I'll come clean - this blog rather belies the fact that Stew, my husband, does most of the cooking in our house! It just doesn't seem very fair to ask him to do experimental cooking with the unusual vegetables I insist on growing. But a leek is a leek and he was very accommodating.

Chopped Babington leek

Our thyme wasn't plentiful so he used some rosemary instead, along with eight leeks rather than four - as they were small - no garlic, and rather less wine, stock and butter than in the recipe.

Braised babington leek and rosemary in wine with spaghetti

We ate it with wholemeal spaghetti and Parmesan cheese (washed down with more of the wine). Mmmm!

A word of caution - don't cook with Babington leeks if you don't like the smell of spring woodlands when the lovely wild garlic is out! That's what the house smelled like whilst the dish was being made. The leeks didn't have quite the same sweetness as biennial leeks but the garlic flavour was delicious and the meal seemed very vibrant and healthy.

Can anyone tell me if kurrat tastes of garlic too? I'm interested now in growing a variety of perennial wild leeks with a variety of flavours and, ideally, a variety of harvest times.

If you're looking for somewhere to buy Babington leek plants I have both plants and bulbils for sale here.