29/01/2015

Winter in the Perennial Vegetable Garden (2)

Comments very welcome!

Here are the winter photos for the second set of perennial vegetable photos I've put on this blog. Spot the vegetables you might get a harvest from in the snow compared to the ones which are definitely not baring any green. (But bear in mind that you'd get a better harvest from more mature or more pampered plants than some of these!)

(Spring, summer and autumn photos. Photos from 2013/4 here.)

Lovage
New cardoon
Scorzonera
Solomon's Seal
Tree onion
Welsh onion
Potato onion
Everlasting onion
Elephant garlic
Garlic
Mallow (Mystic Merlin)
New globe artichoke
Wild cabbage
Patience dock
Salad burnet
Dwarf golden hop
Wild rocket
Buck's horn plantain

26/01/2015

Salad Burnet Pesto

Comments very welcome!

Salad burnet.....
perennial,
salad burnet
tough
salad burnet in the snow
and pretty,
salad burnet in flower
makes.....
ingredients for salad burnet pesto
pretty good.....
salad burnet pesto in blender
pesto!
salad burnet pesto in bowl

I think it's scrumptious - can't wait for my tea! 

N.B. I toasted the sunflower seeds first and also added some fresh tarragon and a little fresh rosemary to the mix.

31/12/2014

Babington Leek Soup

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On Monday I drifted rather limply around the allotment, in a weakened state during a bout of worsened asthma following a virus, wondering what would be easy to harvest for a meal.

Newly emerging Babington leeks
Newly emerging Babington leeks

I decided to pull a bunch of these young Babington leeks to use in a soup. (Now that they are established on the plot the leeks seem to be re-emerging in early winter, not in spring as they did at first).

Babington leek, elephant garlic and air onion bulbs
Babington leek, elephant garlic and air onion bulbs

I also pulled up a small elephant garlic bulb (at centre in the photo) and a clump of Finnish air onions (right in photo). (The air onions are still a bit of a mystery. I got seed for them from an Ebay seller along with a note describing how they develop top-set onions and generally behave like tree onions. So far mine have just developed Welsh onion-like flowerheads followed by seeds. It will be interesting to watch to see what they do in future years).

Babington leek soup during a time of illness seemed a good idea. I surmised that as they emit a strong garlic smell when chopped they must contain alliin, a precursor of the compound allicin which gives garlic its distinctive odour and which is often reported to have potent cold-fighting properties (and several other therapeutic effects). I haven't been able to find any measures of alliin in Babington leek but I did find one study which found that elephant garlic (a close relative of Babington leek but rather less strongly garlic-scented when crushed) contains about a quarter of the alliin content of garlic.

Babington leeks in late spring
Babington leeks in late spring

Alliin is found in intact garlic cells. Nearby but physically separated from the alliin resides the enzyme alliinase. When the cells are damaged by a predator or pathogen (including cooks with garlic crushers or sharp knives) alliin and alliinase combine to form allicin. Alliinase doesn't survive cooking but allicin is more heat-stable so the advice is to crush garlic and then let it sit for ten minutes to allow the allicin to form before preparing your dish.

(I'm not sure of the state of scientific research on garlic and allicin therapy. I must admit I ate a lot of raw crushed garlic before and during this latest cold and subsequent chest infection to no good avail - but I'm not quite ready to give up all trust in garlic yet!)

So I crushed and chopped my alliums (both bulbs, leaves and green shoots) and sautéed them slowly in oil. When they were softened I added a pint and a half of vegetable stock, two bay leaves and some thyme and some chopped scorzonera root to give some thickness, and simmered the soup until the scorzonera was cooked and then removed the bay leaves and blended and seasoned it.

Babington leek soup
Babington leek soup

Well it didn't taste too good. It was bitter. I think I was hoping for something slightly akin to lovely French onion soup or at least to leek and potato soup. So I added a chopped potato and some more water and seasoning and simmered and blended it again. Better, less bitter and good enough for me to wolf down a bowlful, but well, not a great soup. Perhaps I didn't sauté long enough or maybe the inclusion of the leaves was a mistake. It was the first time I had cooked with the bulbs of Babington leeks. I will try them again, perhaps roasted next time, but other suggestions from more sure-footed cooks than I are very welcome!

24/12/2014

Sugar and Spice....

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Last December I strayed from the topic of perennial vegetables for a change and found myself writing about making comfrey plaster. I've decided to make straying from the topic a mid-winter tradition - this means that today I can write about two other non-vegetable perennial plant uses which I've been curious about for a while.

The first is the use of the sugarleaf herb Stevia rebaudiana as a sweetener. I mostly wanted to do this as an exercise in self-sufficiency (potentially one less shop-bought item) but Stevia is attractive to me as a healthier alternative to sugar too. Stevia is not hardy enough for outdoor living all year round in the UK but I've been growing Stevia on my windowsill for a while ever since I learnt it will grow in a less than fully sunny spot (of which we have few). This year I took a bunch of softwood cuttings and very soon had a whole tray of plants to harvest for leaves. The photo below is of a small more recent cutting. It will need trimming soon to prevent it from flowering and seeding so it will overwinter. Here is a photo from the permies.com site of an older bushier plant.


Stevia plant
Stevia

Stevia drying
Stevia drying

I ground the dry stevia leaves with a hand blender and added warm water to the leaves in a jar (in the ratio of 4 parts water to 1 part leaves). I shook it up and then let it sit on the kitchen side for 24 hours.


Freshly ground Stevia
Freshly ground

Stevia infusing in warm water
Warm water added

The resulting infusion was strained into a jar. I decided to use the Stevia solution to make some blackcurrant cordial by thawing some frozen blackcurrants, cooking them up with very little water to make a thick puree and diluting and sweetening the strained puree to taste.


Strained Stevia infusion
Strained Stevia infusion

Strained cooked blackcurrants
Strained cooked blackcurrants

This glass of refreshing blackcurrant cordial contains two tablespoons of puree and one and a half teaspoons of Stevia solution. It was sweet enough for me and I couldn't detect any of the Stevia aftertaste that I'd heard mentioned. Perhaps it didn't come through the strong blackcurrant flavour.

Sugar-free blackcurrant cordial
Sugar-free blackcurrant cordial

You can use Stevia for almost all recipes that call for sugar - with careful attention to quantities, because it is much sweeter than sugar, and adopting some special measures in baked recipes where sugar may have a structural and/or chemical role. (Ha! That sounded quite good I thought but I don't really know what I'm talking about now - more information here). I've only baked with Stevia in a banana cake so far - this was fine but someone pointed out to me that you don't really need any additional sweetness at all in a banana cake! More experimenting to come.

The second non-vegetable perennial plant use was inspired by reading about herb bennet (Geum urbanum) in Alys Fowler's book The Thrifty Forager. She explains that the roots of herb bennet 'impart a wonderful clove flavour' when you cook with them. Well this was the vigorous, almost thuggish, plant I'd been hard at work pulling out of the pots in the backyard where it loves to self-seed itself! I looked around and found one plant left (which I uprooted to satisfy my curiosity - but I'm not worried - its children will be back!)

Herb bennet plant
Herb bennet

Only having one root I very carefully washed off all the soil, dried it and chopped the whole thing up (even the fine hairy portions which I wouldn't have bothered with if I'd had more.) The hand blender couldn't make contact with such a small portion of chopped root so I mixed it with sugar in order to blend it and produced this spiced sugar which spelt lovely - and clovely!

Sugar spiced with clove-root
Sugar spiced with clove-root


I had spiced apple pie in mind at first but then decided to adapt a recipe I found for clove biscuits. (This involved adding half a cup of melted butter to one cup of spiced sugar, stirring in half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, one beaten egg and one cup of sifted flour and then letting the dough rest in the fridge for fifteen minutes. Teaspoons of the dough on baking sheets gave two dozen cookies and were baked at 350°F for about ten minutes.)

Uncooked cookies

The resultant cookies do have a lovely clove flavour and are crisp with a slightly chewy centre (but were a bit too sweet for my taste). Of course the next step should be cookies both spiced with Geum urbanum and sweetened with Stevia rebaudiana!

Finished clove cookies

Happy Christmas/Yuletide!

27/11/2014

Baked Sea Beet and Potato Balls.

2 Comments

The plan was to use Lincolnshire spinach (Good King Henry) in this recipe by ShopCookMake for Vegan Potato & Spinach Balls. But I didn't have enough leaves in the backyard and found it had mostly died back at the more exposed allotment. Shame really - I was quite looking forward to tweeting about Good King Henry's Potato Balls!

So I decided to use perennial sea beet instead. It's a good opportunity to show a photo of the true sea beet I'm growing now:

Sea beet plant
Sea beet Beta vulgaris maritima

rather than the imposter I was inadvertently growing in 2013 (and blogged about here):

Probably a leaf beet plant
Probably leaf beet Beta vulgaris cicla

This came to me as seed from a seed company labelled as Beta vulgaris maritima but the young plants looked rather like leaf beet (perpetual spinach). I thought that perhaps the plants would develop the almost leathery texture of sea beet leaves as they got older and initially I sold a few young plants as sea beet. When I had a chance to collect some wild seed myself and grow it out the difference was clear; the new seedlings were stouter individuals with thicker leaves from the start. Either the original seed was from leaf beet or perhaps from a sea beet plant which had crossed with leaf beet. (If you were an unfortunate recipient of an untrue sea beet plant, probably in late 2012 or early 2013, please get in touch so I can send you a replacement).

The baked sea beet and potato balls were quick to make following the method and quantities in the original recipe.

Sea beet leaves
Sea beet leaves

I just cooked the chopped sea beet with chopped garlic in a little white wine and combined them with the mashed potato, herbs and cumin before forming them easily into balls.

Unbaked balls
In the making...

(I added some sorrel leaves for a lemony touch to mine and plenty of salt and pepper.) They were baked on a greased tray for fifteen minutes in a hot oven.

Baked balls
Baked balls

They tasted just as you would expect - flavoursome spinachy balls of mashed potato! I think some toasted cumin seed would have made them more special but they went down very well all the same - Stew had six!

22/11/2014

Watercress Update

Comments very welcome!

Back in February this year I wrote about my attempts to find the best way to grow watercress (Nasturtium officinale) in a container.

Close-up of watercress

Growing it in a pot submerged in water hadn't worked too well for me so I tried growing it in a large tub of sandy compost with minimal drainage and giving regular waterings of tap water. This has been successful and we've harvested it a lot over the year.

Watercress growing in a large tub

It has grown better when the weather has been cooler though. The leaves are a bit smaller than shop-bought watercress. I'm not sure yet if this is because our yard is shadier than commercial watercress beds or because I've only given it an occasional feed. I'll try and remember to set up a rough trial next year to judge this.

Watercress is a brassica and suffers from a similar range of pests as cabbage. I was accidentally well-prepared for defending the watercress against cabbage white butterfly egg-laying attempts. The orange tub pictured above had been previously used for my Daubenton kale cuttings and I had constructed this frame to fit the tub and covered it in netting. It worked well for the watercress too. (The net really needs to be finer for defence against flea beetle and greenfly but we were fortunate not to get many of these in the backyard this year).

Frame of netting to keep out insects

As watercress leaves can be killed by the frost I covered the frame with some polythene today. I think this will keep off all but the very worst of the weather this winter. It the temperature drops extremely low and the plants die they are very easily replaced by cuttings from a bag of shop cress.

Polythene frame to keep out frost

Watercress appreciates the minerals in hard tap water. What a splendid excuse not to mend that dripping outdoor tap - just site your watercress pot beneath it! But however it is grown watercress is an excellent backyard perennial vegetable as it doesn't mind shade, grows almost all year and gives you a lot of nutrients from a small space.

If you don't want to root your own cuttings I do have some watercress plants for sale on my website.

26/10/2014

Autumn in the Perennial Vegetable Garden (2)

1 Comment

I know there is value in an honest warts-and-all blog but I am a little embarassed about some of the perennial vegetable photographs this year (spring and summer photos here, winter update here and photos from 2013/4 here). There are clear signs of neglect you see. Naturally I blame my annual vegetable garden taking up all my time - perhaps oneday I'll find enough perennial vegetables to give it up all together! I think my main shortcoming has been not doing enough mulching with soil-enriching and moisture retaining compost and I've had some hungry and thirsty plants as a result and a few poorly ones too.

But it is hard to put the strange case of the patience dock down to this failing. This plant has apparently died and arisen from the dead repeatedly all year. In the summer I decided something must be grazing upon it and so I covered it with chicken wire and protected it from slugs with some iron phosphate granules. But it disappeared again only to put forth another new leaf a few weeks ago! Docks are known for being vigorous plants that gardeners struggle to eradicate. The nearby lovage, often a monster of a plant, hasn't grown as much as I expected either along with some other plants I expected to really take off including common chicory and a Crambe tatarica. I've wondered if the soil was poisoned as all these plants are growing close to the allotment boundary where a previous allotment neighbour used annual applications of weedkiller. But planted further away is my horseradish plant, another notorious toughie, and it has shown similar reluctance to realise its full potential. The troubled plants are all deep rooters and I think there is a layer of very thick clay about a foot down in this part of the allotment - an apple tree in this area languished for several years before starting to grow properly. But could that be sufficient cause for the problems of these robust plants? I remain mystified.

I'll resite some plants and apply as much compost mulch as I can this autumn. At least with perennials if you neglect them one year you have the chance to pamper them the next - and hope they forgive you!

Lovage
Lovage
New cardoon
New 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
Mallow (Mystic Merlin)
Mallow (Mystic Merlin)
New globe artichoke
New 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