Friday 2 December 2016

Mexican gardening: Jicama

Jicama seeds, valladolid market, yucatan, mexico

The Secret Garden Club loves Mexican food. It's difficult to obtain authentic ingredients in the UK, although this is continually improving, so in the past we've grown jalapenos, tomatillos, poblanos and mouse cucumbers.

I'm just back from a trip to the Yucatan, where the food is strongly influenced by Mayan ingredients - achiote, sour oranges, pumpkins and their seeds, habanero chillies and jicama. I tried to smuggle jicama back home in my hand luggage, but these were confiscated at Minneapolis airport, along with my beautiful white stone molcajete and my hot sauces. Sob. I'm still not over it.

Their habaneros are milder than ours, which is ideal as I find them too hot to be pleasurable in the UK. I love chillies but I'm not into all that macho posturing about heat. I want flavour rather than Scovilles. Fresh green and yellow habaneros are wonderful, simply sliced into food or served as a garnishing pickle.

I did manage to bring back some jicama seeds, so hopefully Zia Mays and I will be able to grow some of these radish-y/potato-ish roots. They are a bit like 'oca' but without the lemony flavour. You can eat it raw, say in a salad. I had it like that at Hartwood restaurant, with a hibiscus dressing. It was probably the best thing they served. Peel the tough skin off with a sharp knife.

It can also be used cooked, as chips, briefly fried in olive oil and doused with chilli salt. This time next year, the Secret Garden Club will hopefully be laden with jicama. I haven't yet found a place to buy them in London.

Jicama seeds, valladolid market, yucatan, mexico
jicama salad, Hartwood restaurant, yucatan, mexico
Jicama salad at Hartwood

Monday 31 October 2016

Jerusalem artichokes in autumn

Jerusalem artichoke flowers sunchoke flowers

As relatives of sunflowers, you can see why Jerusalem artichokes are called 'sunchokes' in the US.

We are trying a batch in the garden. By mistake, I pulled out a root. The choke was tiny, scarcely bigger in girth and length of my little finger. They need more time. Zia told me to cut off the flower heads:
 'Too much energy is going into those and you need it all in the tubers'. 
I shoved the untidy but cheery blossoms into a vase. 

This is a perennial plant that originally comes from the New World, cultivated by native Americans. It isn't as starchy as it tastes, containing inulin. This is a good food for diabetics. The problem is the resulting wind, but if combined with cumin seeds, say in a soup or roasted with olive oil, that should help with the 'fartichokes'. 

Jerusalem artichoke flowers sunchoke flowers
Jerusalem artichoke flowers sunchoke flowers
Jerusalem artichoke flowers sunchoke flowers

Monday 19 September 2016

Après summer garden catch up

autumn bounty: secret garden club

This is the list I sent Zia Mays just now, an update on the garden.

Rose arch gone mad.
Bramble tentacles everywhere.
I need to mow lawn but missed dry weather window.
Planting for winter.
Clearing up for winter.
fennel seeds

The tomatoes have been wonderful: dark beefy tomatoes and droopy plum pomodoros
Good amount of jalapeños, froze some, ate some, smoked some. 
 A few padrons, that I've fried in olive oil and sprinkled Maldon salt on.
Not many tomatillos.
No gooseberries.
1 mature fig so progress. Lots of baby fig buds, but there isn't enough season left to ripen them.
Lots of cobnuts but I picked them before fully mature, they were creamy and milky and then- they were all gone. Squirrels?
Tons of grapes, best to pick when not too ripe as they become hollowed out by snails.
Not many blueberries. They hide in undergrowth and are dry by the time I find them.
Saw one red currant? down near fig but wasn’t sure if it was a poison berry.
No artichokes at all. Not a one.
A few wild potatoes.
I’m doing something with the rosehips this year. Update: rosehip and chipotle jam.
Not much fennel. I've picked off the seeds.
Just picked the physalis, quite a few, but ripened late. Ate all of them in one fell swoop. 
No olives again. After cheery potential of flowers but no fruit.

one fig: secret garden club

Sunday 21 February 2016

Growing a curry (House and Garden magazine)

Read the rest of the piece here in House and Garden magazine...

The Painted Garden: impressionism and horticulture


A London Afternoon in February

After my Calcotada meal near Piccadilly, I visited the Royal Academy exhibition Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse to recap on some much-loved impressionist paintings. I'd seen many of them before but this was a new perspective.
The theme was the role of gardens and gardening in impressionism.  Many of the impressionist painters were keen gardeners; Monet had more books on horticulture than he did on art. The exhibition also showed the Japanese prints with arched bridges that so influenced the water gardens at Giverny, which Monet worked on for forty years. Monet first saw a water garden at the Exhibition of Paris and employed landscape gardeners and botanists to recreate the water lily landscape that became so celebrated. A whole room is dreamily devoted to Monet's Nymphéas.

The French, from Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and the Nabis, Vuillard and Bonnard, had a cool palette, reflecting the blues, greys, pinks and greens of Northern France. They also admired the organic, less structured, wilder English garden rather than the formal 'don't touch the grass' French garden.
Moving further south, the exhibition hung a couple of works from Matisse, scratched out on thin paint with areas absent of detail, revealing warmer tones.
I discovered the oeuvre of Joaquin Sorolla, a Spanish impressionist whose paintings had a golden glow similar to the luminous work of his contemporary Maxfield Parrish. I love his painting of Tiffany, the stained glass artist who created the famous Art Nouveau lamps. Sorolla's paintings had a very different look to those of the French impressionists, reflecting the dusty burnt umber colours, palms and tropical fronds of Spanish gardens.
It's always worth going to see the original paintings: reproductions simply cannot do justice to the subtlety of colours, the strength of brush strokes. It was inspiring, both as a gardener and as a sometimes painter.

You can book to visit this exhibition at the Royal Academy here. It closes April 20th.

Saturday 13 February 2016

Growing basil varieties for flavour

There are few herbs quite as pungent in their aroma as basil: a heady, clove fragrance with notes of liquorice and cinnamon in there as well. In The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit calls the taste of basil akin to “sucking on a sweet rusty nail”, which is an evocative description though I’d say it’s much more pleasant than that.

Basil is best used fresh. Dried basil is pretty tasteless, frozen can be OK, although much of the flavour is lost and you certainly don’t get that fragrance hit that you get with the fresh growing leaf.

The supermarkets will sell you sweet, or Genovese, basil growing in a pot. If you’re lucky you can keep this growing for several weeks, supplying you with fresh leaves when you need them. Once you get the pot home, unwrap the cellophane wrapping, stand it in a drip tray and water really thoroughly. Then place it in as bright a position as possible – a south-facing windowsill is ideal - and keep the soil moist. When you pick the leaves, don’t denude the stems completely: you can cut the stems to just above the first set of true leaves and it should regrow.

Although Genovese basil, with its punchy aroma, is the classic version for making pesto, it’s only one of many different varieties. Milder in flavour but with large, floppy lettuce-like leaves, is Neapolitan basil – great for wrapping small balls of mozzarella or tearing over a pizza. Purple basil brings dramatic colour to salads. Greek basil has tiny leaves but great fresh taste. Lemon, lime, and pineapple basils bring an astringency to the classic clove fragrance and cinnamon basil adds warmth.
Greek basil leaves are much smaller, with a slightly milder, sweeter flavout. 
There is a greater difference in flavour in the Asian basils: Thai, and holy basils. These give Thai dishes, especially curries, those quintessential anise notes. Basil Ararat, appropriately enough, has a distinctive flavour halfway between the two.

These varieties are all just as easy to grow as Genovese basil but are almost impossible to find in the shops - you may occasionally find Greek basil plants in Sainsburys and Waitrose, and Thai basil leaves in the latter. Luckily you can find the seeds in some major and many specialist catalogues, and now is the time of year to start thinking about sowing them.

After a lot of experimentation I’ve come to the conclusion that in the UK, basil is an indoor plant. Its fleshy leaves don’t stand up well to wind and rain, they fall prey to slugs and snails and act as a magnet for greenfly. Better tend them indoors and cosset them.

Basil needs light and warmth to grow well. Sown in February, the emerging seedlings can take advantage of the increased daylight hours in March to put on strong growth and keep you in basil right through the summer.

All basil varieties can be grown the same way. Fill a medium-sized pot – you need one at least 16cm across to get a decent crop – with multi-purpose compost to 2cm below the brim. Water well. Sprinkle the basil seeds over the surface in a single layer – two pinches should be enough. Similarly, sprinkle more compost over the seeds, just enough to barely cover them. Put a clear polythene bag over the pot and place it somewhere sunny and warm. You should see the seedlings start to emerge in three to six days – you can then remove the plastic bag.

Keep the soil nice and moist and you should have leaves ready to cut in a couple of months’ time. So long as you don’t remove all the leaves from any one stem, harvesting will make the plant grow back more strongly and your pot sown now will keep you in basil for the rest of the summer. 

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Oranges aren't the only fruit

Various citrus


Citrus trees are incredibly rewarding to grow: apart from the edible fruit, many have edible leaves and flowers and are beautifully scented.
They are perhaps not for the low-maintenance gardener, although - like many plants - once given the right conditions they can thrive for years. The right conditions, however, can be quite specific. 
Read the rest here at House and Garden....

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Micro greens: sprouting from legumes and January eating

carrot couscous with sprouted beans

Our latest column in House and Garden magazine on how to sprout from beans and grains is here
My recipe (above) using sprouted beans is here.

What to eat in January. 

This is Veganuary. Every year, we are exhorted to go on a diet just after Christmas, to stop drinking for a month, to join a gym, and now to go vegan - that is, eat no animal products for the month of January.

Even as the author of V is for Vegan, I'm not a fan of self-denial or suffering. I'm a maximalist, my sort of vegan food means you can still enjoy yourself. It is not particularly low calorie or directed towards weight loss. January is the coldest month in the Northern hemisphere and should be filled with soups, stews and alpine foods. The odd warming mulled wine or ruby red glass of port does not go amiss either. We need the calories, the cheer, the solace of hearty grub while we await the thaw.

Those are the arguments against Veganuary. Arguments for thrive on the idea of New Year. A new start for a new you. 
I'm going to up the ante and present you with a recipe that is not only vegan but also raw. What is raw food? As a diet it is all foods that are not cooked, or foods that are heated to under 40 to 49ºC. Rawfoodarians believe that cooked food is 'dead' food. We can learn from every diet, no matter how faddish it may appear, and soaking grains and legumes so that they sprout is an intrinsic part of the raw food diet.