27/07/2014

Summer in the Perennial Vegetable Garden (2)

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Here are the summer photos of the perennial vegetables I showed in April. They were a bit harder to photograph than in spring being less compact and tidy now but hopefully the photos reveal how the garden grows.

The cardoon dwarfs everything else on the plot now, even the fruit trees - it must be at least nine feet high. Since April the wild cabbage has flowered profusely. I've been constantly removing its flowers and it has just about stopped flowering now and is beginning to produce larger leaves again. You'll see the alliums have mostly died back and some are sprouting anew, perhaps a bit earlier in this dry weather than in other years (I was pleased to harvest some topsets from the tree onions). The patience dock is still small as it has been repeatedly feasted upon by some unknown creature but has protection around it now (when not having its photo taken). The mallow is just sick, however. It's replacement, Mystic Merlin, one of the Malva sylvestris cultivars, is already growing nearby. 

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

24/07/2014

Sorting Sorrels

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There is not just one but a whole botanical storehouse of sorrels in the world and several of them are useful perennial vegetables.

Many 'sorrels' in many places

Sorrel derives from an Old French word surele which has its origins in sur of Germanic origin meaning 'sour'. The sour, lemony flavour of sorrels is attributed to oxalic acid in their leaves (found in many other vegetables including spinach, chard, beets, carrots, leeks, rhubarb and quinoa). But it seems to be more complicated than a simple more oxalic acid equals more sourness relationship. If the sourness in sorrel is caused by oxalic acid why does spinach taste less sour when it has higher levels of oxalic acid? See my note below*.

All the sorrels I know about so far are in the Rumex, Oxyria or Oxalis genera (not counting roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) which is sometimes called the sorrel plant after the popular Carribean drink which is made from its red calyces).

Here's a run down of some sorrels for the perennial potager:

My personal favourite is garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa), a robust, prolific grower with good-sized leaves which have a refreshing acid taste. (It is one of about two hundred species in the Rumex genus - most are known as 'docks' but the particularly sharp flavoured ones are usually known as 'sorrels'). There are several cultivated varieties of Rumex acetosa including a non-flowering form which crops well all year.

Rumex acetosa - garden sorrel

In previous posts I've used this sorrel in sorrel soup, goat's cheese and sorrel tart and sorrel and potato gratin.

Rumex acetosa is sometimes called French sorrel but so is Rumex scutatus, buckler-leaved sorrel (or 'true French sorrel'!)

Rumex scutatus - buckler-leaved sorrel

To me Rumex scutatus has just the same delightful flavour as garden sorrel but is far more of a fiddle to pick - but I've heard it said that chefs regard it as having a superior texture and flavour. It is a lower-growing (to about 30cm), more spreading plant which self-seeds very easily and could be very useful as a ground-cover.

Red-veined sorrel (or bloody dock) Rumex sanguineus is a beautiful plant especially in spring when sunlight shines through its young leaves and illuminates their delicate red-veining.

Rumex sanguineus - red-veined sorrel

Very young leaves are pretty in a salad but in my experience (gardening on a neutral clay soil) it is not long before the leaves become coarser and lose their sharp fresh flavour.

(Rumex acetosella is also worth a mention as, like Rumex acetosa, it is another common native of the British Isles. It is known as sheep's sorrel and more popular with foragers than gardeners. It is not one that I grow; I don't know of any garden cultivars and there is a danger that it might create a weed problem as it spreads quite vigorously by runners. But perhaps it could be useful for a difficult patch where little else will grow as I've read that it can cope with dry, acid soil.)

A couple of docks which are also often listed amongst the sorrels are patience dock (Rumex patientia) which grows particularly tall and monk's rhubarb (Rumex alpina). My patience dock isn't big enough to harvest yet and I don't have alpine dock but they are both traditional pot-herbs and said to be worth cultivating as perennial vegetables.

Just two species make up the Oxyria genus: Oxyria digyna (mountain sorrel) and Oxyria sinensis. Mountain sorrel is very hardy, growing as it does in the Arctic and on mountains in the northern hemisphere. Mine grows happily in the shade of the backyard and its thin lemony leaves are very useful for adding to salads.

Oxyria digyna - mountain sorrel

But it seems to be quite a variable plant as many photos of it growing in rocky mountainous spots show thicker succulent leaves. Oxyria sinensis looks a bit like it but has handsome frilly leaves. I haven't heard of it being used as a food plant but that might be because it would be difficult to harvest - I think it grows mostly on steep slopes in the Himalayas in China.

There are about eight hundred Oxalis species. Many have 'sorrel' or 'wood-sorrel' as part of their common name. They occur in most regions of the globe but particularly in the tropics.

I have tried to introduce Oxalis acetosella, common wood-sorrel (native to Britain), into our backyard as it will grow in shade but I think it has perished. Here is Oxalis acetosella growing near Darmstadt in Germany.

Common wood-sorrel [Rudolf Schäfer ]

I will try again - it is a very fiddly plant to pick but quite adorably dainty with white or pink flowers usually etched with lilac veins.

I don't know much about the other wood-sorrels but Oxalis oregana, redwood sorrel, is recommended by Martin Crawford in 'How to grow Perennial Vegetables'. It is another pretty one:

Redwood sorrel      [Miguel Vieira ]

It's also worth saying that the leaves of oca, Oxalis tuberosa, usually grown for its tubers, have that same sorrel flavour. (I believe oca was named South American wood-sorrel by European plant hunters when they first encountered it). Always good to know when you can get two crops from one plant!

Oca foliage

Finally (and really just for fun) I wondered if this next one might be popular eating when I first heard its common name:

Candy cane sorrel      [peganum ]

It is called candy cane sorrel! - or Oxalis versicolor. Those leaves are pretty tiny though and I haven't read of anyone eating it - more of a feast for the eyes than the stomach perhaps.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*[I set off up a sidetrack whilst writing this post in order to find answers to several questions about oxalic acid and diet. But I found myself in a maze of contradictory statements and evidence. I now have just more unanswered questions! These are some of them:

Is it a well-founded fact that oxalic acid in vegetables binds with their calcium, magnesium and iron content making these minerals nutritionally useless? Or is there so much more mineral content in oxalate rich vegetables like spinach in the first place than in the average vegetable that there will still be plenty left to be absorbed?

How can oxalic acid be the cause of the reported fatal toxicity of rhubarb leaves when the levels in spinach are almost as high? If oxalic acid isn't the sole or main cause of the toxicity what is? Do the post-mortems of people believed to have died from rhubarb leaf poisoning really support that conclusion?

How good is the evidence that oxalate-rich foods increase the risk of developing calcium oxalate kidney stones at all? Is there good evidence that oxalic acid plays a role in preventing illness?

There is at least a general consensus that you have to eat an excessive amount of oxalate-rich leaves to cause health problems. I just eat and enjoy without worrying. So my appetite is satisfied - but my curiosity isn't!]

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 perennial vegetables I have growing on my plots and in the backyard. (See April 2013, July 2103, October 2013 and January 2014 posts for photos of the first set of vegetables.)

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