Friday 23 December 2011

The Allium family

The Secret Garden Club workshop on December 21 discussed planting, growing, harvesting storing and cooking with alliums. 
There are approximately 750 different varieties of allium, ranging from ornamental plants grown for their striking spherical flowerheads, to edible crops including chives, garlic, shallots, onions and leeks. The distinctive onion taste comes from sulphurous compounds found in the bulbs and/or stems of the plant.
On the whole, alliums are straightforward to grow and to look after. You'll be rewarded by always having onions or garlic on hand, as they store well, or by being able to snip a few chives from a plant growing in a pot or in the kitchen garden.

You can buy leeks as seedlings but they are easy (and much cheaper) to grow from seed. They are usually started off in a seed bed – an area of well-drained, fine soil.
The main benefit of this is that it saves space in the spring and summer when you might need it for other veg. Starting the plants off in fine soil also helps to grow straight, undamaged plants.
Sprinkle seed evenly in the seed bed. Thin as soon as the seedlings are big enough to handle (and use the thinnings in a salad).
Traditionally you plant out leeks on the longest day of the year (ie, June 21), or most gardening books will suggest, when they are the thickness of a pencil.
When you transplant leeks you use a technique called ‘puddling in’. With a dibber, or a trowel handle, make a hole deep enough to take about two-thirds of the leek seedling.
Drop the leek in and fill the hole with water. Don’t firm the soil around the leek, just let the water and soil settle around the plant naturally.
Leeks like rich soils and plenty of water and regular feeding. Seaweed extract is excellent for them. Actually seaweed extract is excellent full stop.
Like other alliums they should be weeded regularly. Because they are tall thin plants, they don’t offer much ground cover.
Weeds compete with your crops for the water and nutrients in the soil. If they get really big they may compete for light as well, so keep the ground around the developing leek plants clear, preferably hand-weeding so that you don't damage the leek stems.
You can start harvesting leeks as soon as they look good to eat. So you can start with baby leeks in late summer and leave some to fatten up over the autumn.
Do not try to pull leeks from the top. All that will happen is that the leaves will break and leave you with a ragged stem still in the ground. Always take a fork and lift them from the bottom.
Leeks are very hardy. You can leave them in the ground over winter and they won’t come to any harm, although if the ground is frozen they will be difficult to harvest.
Here you can heel them in – this means lifting them, then laying them down side by side and covering shallowly with sand or fine compost. They’ll be quite happy like that and it will save space on the plot if you need it.

Garlic is grown by planting individual cloves in the ground. These develop and mature as bulbs made up of many cloves themselves. Folklore has it that you should plant your garlic out on the shortest day of the year and harvest it on the longest. The development of the garlic plant is affected by day length - the increasing hours of daylight stimulate the development of the bulb - so it makes sense to plant before the days start to get longer.
It's tempting to simply plant out garlic that you buy in the supermarket – it’s cheaper than buying garlic from a plant nursery and there’s no visible difference.
You can certainly try planting culinary garlic. You’ll probably get good results. There are two reasons why you might not, though:
1. Supermarket garlic may have been imported from Spain, or France, or simply not be a variety that’s bred to thrive in our climate.
2. If you buy garlic for planting from a reputable nursery, it will be guaranteed to be virus-free.
Some soil preparation might be needed. Garlic doesn’t need very rich soil and it doesn't like fresh manure. The Secret Garden Club's soil is sticky clay, it’s a good idea to lighten the soil a bit by digging in sand, or kitchen compost, or leaf mould, or just the multipurpose compost you buy at Homebase.
Take your garlic bulb and separate it carefully into cloves. Don’t peel them.
Push each clove into the ground, upright, with the root end at the bottom. The cloves should be buried about 6mm or half an inch deep.
Firm the soil lightly over the top … and pray for cold weather. Garlic likes to chill for a while after planting before it sends out green shoots above ground. These shoots should start to show about the beginning of February but much depends on the weather conditions.
From now you don’t really need to do anything except keep the garlic bed as free of weeds as you can. Like all alliums, the way the plant grows upright means there is no ground cover to deter weeds. Hand weeding is best: if you're tempted to use a hoe, you run the risk of slicing through your developing garlic bulb.
Don’t water the allium bed either unless you are in the grip of a prolonged drought. A wet crop is more prone to softening and rotting than a dry one.
There is only really one other maintenance job to do: if you see a flower head forming, snip it off. You want the plant to focus on producing a nice big bulb, not flowers.
Have a look at your garlic on midsummer’s day – if the bulbs look plump, they can be harvested. 
Shortly after midsummer, the plant will start to go brown and wilt. The leaves will almost certainly develop some rust – orangey brown spots. The collapse of the plant is a god sign that it’s ready to harvest.
Pull or dig the bulbs up straightaway. You can use them in cooking immediately, but if you want to store them to keep into autumn and over winter, they need to be dried first. Traditionally, the plants are left, unwashed, on racks in the open air to dry out and ‘bake’. This is all very well in the south of France, but given the UK's unpredictable climate, you’re better off finding somewhere sunny and well-ventilated, but indoors. A conservatory, or under a kitchen skylight, or in a greenhouse with the door and vents open are all good places. I hang mine in a plastic patio greenhouse with the door open.
After about three weeks, the skins will be papery and the stems dried out. To prepare for storage, trim the roots, and rub off the dirty outer layers – don’t peel or expose the cloves.
Tidy up the stems and leaves and trim to about 8 inches. Now the garlic bulbs can be strung up, or plaited, and hung in a light, well-ventilated place. They should last well into the New Year (if you don’t eat them all by then).
There are some intricate plaiting techniques and nothing looks better than a fat sturdy garlic plait. This website has good photo instructions for making a classic plait - of onions, but it works for garlic (and shallots as well) that looks good and will store your garlic tidily.

Onions and shallots
Much of what we’ve already discussed with garlic also applies to other alliums. Onions and shallots also like a light, well-drained soil. Don’t use manure, but add organic matter such as leaf mould, compost, or sand, to heavy soils such as London clay.
In a domestic garden, we’d recommend shallots over onions. They tend to be more expensive than onions to buy in the shops; also they are more space-efficient. One shallot set planted will split and give you many shallots to harvest. One onion set planted will give you one mature onion bulb.
Onions can be grown from seed, or from sets (miniature bulbs). Most domestic gardeners choose sets:
1. Sets are easier, less time-consuming and less susceptible to pests such as onion fly. 
2. Shallots grown from seed won’t split into multiple bulbs.
There are two main advantages of growing from seed:
1. More varieties available.
2. A seed-grown onion is less likely to bolt, ie, to produce a flower head instead of a bulb. In practice you can buy heat-treated sets which are also less likely to bolt.
You can plant overwintering onion sets out in the autumn, particularly Japanese varieties. These will be ready to harvest in early summer, but they need to be used quickly – they don’t store well.
The other time to plant out onion sets is in early spring – February onwards. These onions will be ready in late July/August and can be stored for use over the autumn and winter.
Both onions and shallots should be planted out, base downwards, so that just the tip is visible above the soil surface. Unfortunately, birds seem to find these tips irresistible and will pick them out of the ground. The don’t eat the sets, but leave them lying around.
Experts like Bob Flowerdew says plant them back in again, and I’m loath to disagree with him, but I’ve always found the up-ended sets don’t replant well, so instead I cover newly planted shallots and onions with a net. Once the sets have rooted and sprouted the net can be removed.
Onions and shallots can be harvested like garlic. Leave the stems to dry out in an airy well-lit space. Then clean carefully, separate the shallot bulbs, and string up or plait. You can also hang onions and shallots up in nets if the idea of stringing or plaiting is too daunting.

Onion and shallot problems
These are not usually troublesome, usually a low-maintenance crop apart from the weeding.
If you grow from seed, onion fly can be a problem when thinning or transplanting. Some people suggest planting parsley around onion seedlings can mask the smell.
White rot can be a big problem – it’s a fungus which will persist in the soil. You'll find fluffy white mould around the base of stems and skinny, sometimes non-existent, bulbs. The crop will be unusable. 

There are a couple of things you can do to fight white rot.
First of all, as soon as you find you have white rot, wash and disinfect all your tools so that you don’t spread the spores. Remove what remains of your onions and soil around the affected bulbs and incinerate it all.
Then get some Armillatox (patio disinfectant) and  following the instructions for diluting it to the letter, liberally soak the affected bed. Leave it for at least three weeks before growing anything in the bed. See the Armillatox website for more information.
A less scary but more long-term possible solution works best when you are in the first few years of cultivation. Where you want to grow onions, dig out the existing compost to a depth of about a foot and start again, either with very well-rotted manure or commercial multi-purpose compost. Create raised beds for your onions and operate a no-dig policy. Avoid using the originally affected bed for onions for a good seven years. (This is what Zia is currently practising with some success on a white rot-affected site.)
Grey mould is a distinctive grey fur, and associated with onion neck rot where the bulbs go soft and brown. Excessive feeding with high nitrogen fertilisers is a strong contributory factor for this – another good reason to practise benign neglect on your onions.
Rust – some rust spots developing on garlic, onions and leeks as the plant matures is very common and needn’t be a problem.

One thing worth mentioning is that alliums don’t like acid soils. If you suspect that your soil might be acid, you can add lime to it or in a raised bed, use spent mushroom compost which has a mildly alkaline effect and is also very good for lightening heavy clay soil.

Problems with leeks
You may have problems with leek moth, which is prevalent in the south of England. The first thing you’ll notice is your leeks look ragged and stop growing. If you look closely you will see what looks like webbing or cocooning in the middle.
The best thing to do is to prevent leek moth damage in the first place. When you plant out your leeks, throw a very fine net such as Environmesh over the crop. This can be safely lifted in November when the moth is no longer active.
If you find a leek moth infestation has already taken hold you can rescue your crop. Cut the plants right down to the ground, so that you cut out all the damaged foliage and remove the caterpillars. Burn the cuttings (don’t compost or the caterpillars will survive to create another generation).
Your leeks will grow again. They won’t win any prizes at the show, but you will get edible leeks.
These leeks were trimmed to cut out evidence of leek moth and regrew quite happily.
Allium folklore - true or false?
You should plant garlic on the shortest day and harvest on the longest.
True-ish. Your garlic won’t come to any harm if you do this. Ideally plant before a cold spell (so, late autumn). Take local weather conditions into account before sticking too closely to any rules.
You should bend over the stalks of onions/garlic to help them mature.

False. Don’t do this – it will damage the stalk and could let in disease, affecting the storage life of the bulb.

You should plant onions around your carrot crops to deter carrot fly.
True-ish. This is known as companion planting and many people swear by it. Be aware though that the distinctive allium smell may also attract its own pest, the onion fly.
If you rub the cut side of an onion over a bald patch, your hair will regrow.
False. No scientific basis for onion as hair restorer.
Placing a cut onion in a room will absorb germs and bacteria.
False, although this legend is very persistent. It was a preventative used in times of plague in both UK and US when they believed disease spread through foul air or ‘miasmas’.
Other types of edible allium
These grow easily in a pot or on the open ground. Kept near the kitchen door, you will always have chives on hand to snip into salads, or on omelettes or scrambled eggs, giving your dishes a distinct but mild onion flavour. The attractive pink flowers are also edible.

Garlic chives
There’s quite a lot of confusion over plant names in the Allium family, but I’m pretty certain these are the same thing as Chinese chives. They’re certainly multi-purpose in that you can add them authentically to Chinese food but also use them interchangeably with ordinary chives. And the white flowers are also very attractive – and edible.

Egyptian walking onions
Or 'tree onions', but let’s face it, Egyptian walking onions is a much more evocative name. Now these are weird: the bulbs (or more correctly, bulbils) develop at the TOP of the stem. At the end of the season, you can harvest your onions from above ground, then gently bend the stalk over to the ground to plant one remaining bulb. Hence the plant will eventually ‘walk’ around your plot.

Sweet onions 
There are sweet onions which can be eaten raw, like an apple. You can buy them in the UK – Sainsbury’s stocks them in their Taste The Difference range - but it is the Americans who are the connoisseurs of sweet onions and who selectively breed many varieties of onion specifically for their high water and sugar content.
One of the most well-known of these are Walla Walla sweets. They look just like an ordinary yellow onion and grow in or near Walla Walla in Washington State. Walla Walla sweets were originally brought to the US from Corsica at the beginning of the 20th century. They’re been selectively cultivated ever since to maximise their sweetness, which is down to a low sulphur and high water content.

Wild garlic (ramsons)
You’ll know the smell of this – it’s that gorgeous green garlic aroma you get in damp woodlands in springtime. Wild garlic has no fat bulb – you eat the leaves which have a distinct but mild garlicky taste. It’s a seasonal treat only and can be tricky to cultivate, although once it’s established it will spread very easily.

Elephant garlic
Not strictly speaking garlic, but a type of leek, elephant garlic looks to all intents and purposes like a huge bulb of garlic, made up of enormous cloves. The flavour is not as strong as 'ordinary' garlic - they are fantastic roasted underneath a joint of meat with the garlic flesh then crushed and creamed.   

Saturday 17 December 2011

All about alliums - or onions without tears


The roses were still in bloom in MsMarmiteLover's garden last week as we prepared for next week's Secret Garden Club, all about sowing, growing and cooking with the Allium family - garlic, onions and shallots, leeks and other less well-known relatives. Join Zia Mays and MsMarmiteLover next Wednesday for an afternoon in the Secret Garden followed by a special allium-themed afternoon tea - bookings can be made here, or from the link above.

Monday 21 November 2011

Learn to smoke

The Secret Garden Club returned on November 20 with a session on techniques for smoking food. Taking in tea-smoking, hot-smoking and cold-smoking, Zia Mays explained the principles of each method, using a wide variety of ingredients, while MsMarmiteLover turned the smoked foods into a delicious smoky-themed tea for everyone.

Guests were welcomed with a vodka and smoked lemonade cocktail, before the fires were lit in earnest and smoke wafted into the air.

Smoking techniques
Tea-smoking is a method of hot-smoking, ie, the food is cooked at the same time as being smoked. It uses a mix of tea leaves, brown sugar, raw rice and optional aromatics as the smoking medium. With the mix set in a pan under a steamer, the smoke generated infuses foods in the steamer basket with a delicate, elusive tea-smoke flavour.

Secret Garden Club tea-smoking mix:
Half a (US) cup of Lapsang Souchong tea leaves (about 30g)
Half a (US) cup of brown sugar (about 75g)
Half a (US) cup of raw long-grain rice (about 75g)
This was used to smoke:
Trout fillets - marinaded for one hour beforehand in whisky;
Tomatoes - cut in half hemispherically and lightly roasted in the oven for 20 minutes before smoking.

Also good with chicken - use thin fillets to ensure they are cooked through, duck, quail. With tea-smoking, less is definitely more: over-smoke the food and you'll be left with a distinct aftertaste of fag packet.

Hot-smoking over wood applies direct heat to soaked woodchips so that they smoulder gently. The wood and the food are both in a sealed unit so that the heat and smoke permeate the food to cook and smoke it at the same time.

Important: when smoking food with any kind of wood, it is vitally important that the wood is raw, and untreated. Any sort of treatment, coating, glue or varnish will give off potentially toxic fumes when smoked - NOT what you want coating your food. If the wood you want to use has been cut with a chainsaw, beware - there could easily be oil residues on the wood from the chainsaw. It's highly satisfying to use wood that you have chopped or sourced yourself, but you must be 100% certain that the wood is free of any chemicals. 

We smoked vegetables in the hot-smoker:
  • Sweet peppers;
  • Pumpkins, cut into thin wedges and marinaded for two hours beforehand in a mix of soy sauce and maple syrup;
  • Chillies;
  • Tofu, cut into thick slices and marinaded for two hours beforehand.
  • Sweetcorn, on the cob;
  • Apples, following a baked apple recipe but with added smokiness.
Basic marinade for the tofu, pumpkins:
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp maple syrup
A dash of sesame oil
A dash of olive oil
Half a teasp of English mustard powder

The sweetcorn and baked apples were particularly successful. We've had variable results with tofu: firstly, try to get firm tofu so that it doesn't disintegrate when you try to handle it. Tofu definitely needs to be marinaded first for a good two hours - and a more Japanese style marinade with mirin and wasabi would also work well here.

Cold-smoking is the technique we associate most with fish - think smoked salmon, smoked mackerel, smoked haddock - and meat - smoked bacon. However, it's also used to smoke cheese (such as applewood-smoked cheddar) and bulbs of garlic. When you expose food to cold, or cool, smoke, the food does not cook, although the smoke will penetrate the food more thoroughly than when hot-smoked. 

Fish (and meat) will need to be salted, or brined, before it is cold-smoked. To salt, say, a side of salmon, cover completely in salt and keep it, weighted down, in the fridge for around 18-24 hours. Brining it creates a sweeter cure: make up a salt/sugar solution, completely immerse the fish in this and store, covered, in the fridge for around eight hours. (Smaller fillets may take less time.)

Simple brine
100g brown sugar
75g salt
1 litre water

Plenty of other flavours can be added to this, eg, fennel, onions, garlic, herbs.

Reasons for brining:
·         The salt and/or sugar in the brine help the preserving process;
·         Salting/brining inhibits bacteria which might otherwise multiply while the fish is being smoked;
·         Both salt and sugar add flavour to the fish;

Once salted/brined, rinse the fish well to get rid of excess salt, then dry it, ideally for a couple of hours or so, in a cool, well-ventilated place. Only then it is ready to smoke. We also smoked cheddar cheese and garlic bulbs – these do not need brining or curing but can go straight into the cold smoker.

With cold-smoking, the challenge is to generate smoke that is cool when it reaches your food. The ideal temperature range in the smoker is between 26 and 30 degrees Celsius (80-90 degrees Fahrenheit). If the temperature exceeds 37 degrees C (100 F), then the fish will get too warm. It will lose moisture and may start to cook.

An obvious way to do this is to burn your wood in one place, channel the smoke through piping so that it cools as it goes, and direct it into a smokehouse. But if you just want to try out some cold-smoking, this is quite a cumbersome operation. Remember also, your fire needs to burn wood only (see warnings about wood-burning, above), and your piping and smokehouse should be lined with non-reactive material.

Costs can be kept down by making your smokehouse from household items such as an old fridge (cut a hole in one side to take the piped smoke, or a filing cabinet (popular because the file rods are handy to hang fish fillets from), or even a cardboard box (remember, the smoke is cool when it reaches the box).

We demonstrated a method which is quick to set up, and uses everyday items so is handy for anyone who wants to experiment but isn’t sure that they want to spend time constructing a semi-permanent smokehouse. In this option, we use the smallest possible heat point to generate a comparatively large amount of smoke.

You will need:
A deep-based, or kettle barbecue, such as a Weber
A soldering iron
A tin can, eg a Baxters soup tin
Woodchips (see notes, on sourcing wood, above)
Silver foil
A standard outdoor thermometer (recommended)
A bag of ice (may not be necessary but have one on standby)
A power extension cable

Note: the soldering iron must have no solder on it AT ALL. This is your heat source and smoking lead is a very bad idea indeed. Best to buy a new soldering iron for about a tenner and use it exclusively for cold-smoking.
Many tins these days, especially supermarket own-brand cans, are lined. You should use an unlined tin. We haven’t researched exhaustively for suitable brands, but Baxters’ soup tins are unlined, and the soup’s OK as well.

While the tin is still full, make a hole in it at the end (we used a sharpening steel and a hammer), opposite the ring-pull if there is one. The hole needs to be just big enough to fit the tip and arm of the soldering iron. Empty and wash out the tin, and let it dry.

Carefully peel back the lid of the tin using the ring-pull about half way. Fill just over half the tin with your wood chips. Close the lid as far as possible, then push the soldering iron through the hole so that it’s fully inserted in the tin and the arm is in direct contact with the woodchips. This is your ‘firepit’.

Put the tin in the bottom of the barbecue. Lay the food to be smoked on the silver foil on the top rack. Gently ease the soldering iron cable out of the barbecue and plug into the extension socket. Place the lid on the barbecue as tightly as possible allowing for the fact that the soldering iron cable will prevent it from closing fully. Switch on the power to the extension cable. You should start to see wisps of smoke emerge from under the lid within 5 mins.

With tin, soldering iron and food positioned this way, the smoke around the food should stay cool enough to cold smoke properly. We recommend you place a thermometer on the rack next to the food and check the temperature regularly. On a sunny day, the outside temperature may make the barbecue heat up – and it’s not something to do in midsummer. Cold smoking this way is a wintertime occupation. If you do see the temperature rising much above 30 degrees, slide a bag of ice into the bottom of the barbecue. This should bring the temperature down to the safe range and keep it there.

While the woodchip tin is smoking, prepare a second one. The tins will last about 90 mins to 2 hours, so, when the first is exhausted, unplug the soldering iron, remove it and the tin from the barbecue, and switch the soldering iron from tin 1 to tin 2. Tin 1 can now be emptied and reused.

Cheddar cheese
Lightly smoked: 3 hours
Medium smoked: 6 hours

Garlic bulbs
Light to medium smoked: 6 hours

Salmon fillets
Lightly smoked: 12 hours

Secret Garden Club Smoking Workshop

Vodka and smoked lemonade cocktail

Tea-smoked trout and tomato, watercress salad
Smoked cheese and garlic toasted sandwiches
Smoked salmon with cucumber pickles

Marinaded smoked pumpkin slices
Marinaded smoked tofu
Smoked sweet peppers and hot chillies
Smoked glazed sweetcorn

Smoked baked apples with Jameson whisky 

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Welcome to the Secret Garden Club blog

The Secret Garden Club is a monthly series of food and gardening workshops run by MsMarmiteLover and Zia Mays. Our aim is to show how your garden can easily produce delicious food, from planting to harvest and into the kitchen.

Don't have a garden? Many of The Secret Garden Club sessions are tailored towards working in small spaces, so that if you only have a patio, or a balcony, or just a windowsill, you can still make the most of it.

Attendees can enjoy the relaxed surroundings of MsMarmite's garden, and all sessions include food and drink, plus starter packs to take away.

On this blog we'll post details of each Secret Garden Club workshop with reports and reports from each day. Comments and queries, from attendees and non-attendees alike, are welcome.

Click here for details of the Secret Garden Club sessions and how to book.

Secret Garden Club returns

 Virginia creeper and nasturtiums, autumn in my garden.

A monthly series of food and gardening workshops with Zia Mays held at The Underground Restaurant garden. Makes a great gift. The last one was a huge success!

20th November: Smoking! Time to take up smoking again. A workshop in which you will learn to do both hot and cold smoking with a variety of foods. Also tea smoking....
£60 for the Sunday workshop with drinks and snacks made by MsMarmite. Starts at 1.30 for the workshop then afternoon tea at 3pm.
Book here:

21st December: "Plant garlic on the shortest day, harvest on the longest day."Find out all about the allium family from chives, to onions (including the exotic Egyptian walking onions), spring onion, shallots, red onions, leeks, and different types of garlic.
£45 for workshop and mulled wine, mince pies and christmassy things. Starts at 1.30pm. This takes place on a Wednesday but most people will have time off then, so close to Christmas.
Book here:

January 29th: Herbs and Medicinal plants. Herbs are easy and rewarding to grow, especially if you don't have much garden space. Don't need good soil. Will make the air fragrant as well as lifting your cooking. They have health benefits too. We have known about medicinal plants for hundreds of years and we are in danger of forgetting their qualities.
£45 for the Sunday workshop and tea. Starts at 1.30pm
Book here:

February 26th: Potatoes! Spuds-u-like! You don't need alot of space for them, you can even grow potatoes in bin liners or on your balcony. The low down on the different potatoes: earlies, new, old, blue potatoes, heritage.
£45 workshop and tea: Starts 1.30pm
Book here:
March 18th : How to have salad 365 days a year. I'm sure you want to be as happy as these women. Especially as it's Mother's Day.
Bored with lettuce? Japanese, Italian, French salad leaves, good old English lettuce, growing them under glass, in a pot, on a window sill, it's easier than you think.
£60 workshop, tea and a signed copy of my book, the perfect mother's day present. Starts at 2pm after mum's lie-in.
Book here:

April 22nd: The three sisters, Cherokee companion planting. Take away a squash plant, sweet corn plant, climbing bean trio. Plus other companion planting tricks to keep insects at bay and make your plants happy.
£45 workshop and tea, will include cornbread.
Book here:

May: Foraging in my garden. Date to be announced.

June: Edible flowers: courgette, day lilies, elderflower, nasturtiums, marigolds, hibiscus, roses, learn to grow and cook them.
Class, elderflower cocktail, food and bouquet: £60 To be announced.