Thursday, 19 March 2009

Jerusalem Artichokes - They're Not From Jerusalem, And They're Not Artichokes

Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are possibly the easiest vegetable you can grow. You bung them in the ground in March/April, then dig them up again in October-February.

They are no relation to the Globe Artichoke, and they're from North America, so where does the name come from? One theory is that it's a corruption of the word Girasole, the Italian word for Sunflower (Jerusalem artichokes are a member of the sunflower family), or a corruption of Ter Neuzen, the Dutch town that introduced the plant to England way back in 1617. The artichoke part of the name is due to Samuel de Champlain, an explorer who first came across the tuber growing in a Native American vegetable garden in 1605. he thought they tasted like Artichokes, and took some home to France, where they were named topinambours and sold by Parisian street vendors. When the potato gained popularity in Europe, the Jerusalem artichoke fell out of favour (and also got blamed for causing leprosy, as the irregular shape & brown mottling resembled the deformed fingers of sufferers of leprosy). They are also known as Sunchoke or Sunroot.

So why aren't they more popular? Well, they are rich in inulin, a starch which the body can't digest. So they're low in calories, but can cause. Uh. Wind. John Goodyer, a 17th century botanist & herbalist wrote "They stir up and cause a filthie loathesome stinking winde with the bodie, thereby causing the belly to bee much pained and tormented." Aww, poor 'chokes. Don't worry, I still love you.

Still, even with the occasional, um, windypops, they are well worth giving a go. They have a sweet, nutty flavour and can be eaten cooked or raw.

They're also not fussy about where they're grown. Ideally they'd like somewhere sunny with well drained soil, but they will also grow in shady spots & dry places, they even flourish in my damp, cold, clay soil. They'll grow where no other crop will (such as under trees or in hedges), they're excellent on new sites as the roots break up the soil & also make an effective summer windbreak, as they grow from 1.5 to 3 meters tall.

March is the perfect time to get them planted. You can plant tubers bought from the grocers, or named varieties bought from where ever you get your seed potatoes (Organic Gardening Catalogue have a good variety - Fuseau - which produce long, smooth tubers that are easy to peel). Plant each tuber 15cm (6") deep & 60cm (24") apart in rows around 90cm (3ft) apart.

Now you just leave them be. You might need to pile a bit of earth around the stems when they get to 30cm (12") tall to stabilise them, or stake them if you're on a windy site. If they get a bit too tall for comfort, you can cut any stems over 2 meters tall back by about one-third, but no more than that. When the leaves die back after the first frost, cut the plants down to 15cm (6") above the soil & dig up as & when necessary. the tubers will be perfectly happy in the ground (they can be stored in the fridge for a week or two, but are happier in the ground). The 'chokes I sowed last year were slowly dug up & eaten over 5 cold wintery months (the last ones were made into soup at the end of February, and were just as fresh & crunchy as the ones dug up in October). They will also grow in large pots too (this year I'm growing some in empty casks).

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Bean Sprouts

I used to hate beansprouts as a kid. As far as I was concerned, they ruined a perfectly good mushroom chow mein, and had to be picked out. The tough, crunchy texture against the slippery soft noodles really bothered me. Then I was persuaded to have a go at making my own.

Turns out I love bean sprouts, I just don't like Chinese mung bean sprouts (also known as nga choi or silver sprouts) where mung beans are tightly packed together & sprouted in darkness, which is how they get their crunchy texture. Bean sprouts grown on a sunny windowsill are sweeter & more tender, only take a couple of days & are an absolute doddle to make!
Bean sprouts are whole beans, nuts or seeds that have been soaked, drained & rinsed until they germinate (sprouted barley grains is an essential part of beer making. The grains are soaked & sprouted to activate the enzymes that will turn the starches into fermentable sugars & kiln dried. Then they get made into beer. Delicious beer.). They are rich in easily digestible vitamins, minerals & protein and are a great addition to salads, sandwiches, stews, stir-fries, bakes, breads... almost anything really!

There are a few different ways of growing beansprouts. If you're a big fan of eating them, it might be worth getting yourself a 3 tiered sprouter like the one pictured above (a Being Fare 3 shelf sprouter. I have this out on my windowsill all the time!). You can buy sprouting jars, but they are really easy to make yourself. All you need is a large, wide-necked clear glass jar (an old pickle jar will do), an elastic band & a square of muslin large enough to comfortably cover the top of the jar.
So now you need something to sprout. There are lots of different seeds & beans that sprout really well, and in future posts I'll go into more detail about them.
You'll also need to bear in mind what quantity of sprouts you'll have. Too many seeds & they will be too tightly packed in the jar, it wont drain properly, and then there will be mould. dreadful, awful mould. So here's a guideline for what will fit comfortably in your jar or sprouter:
Seeds: 2-3tbs (30-45ml)
Beans: 1/4-1/2 cup (I use a little Chinese teacup to measure out my seeds.)
Before you go bedways one evening, measure out your seeds/pulses into your jar or sprouter. Check for broken seeds or bits of grit, give them a quick rinse to wash off any dust & put them & then cover with water (plenty of water, they will swell to double their size overnight).
Next morning drain off the water (it's full of nutrients, so I use it to water my plants. You could use it for making your breakfast smoothies too though). Rinse the seeds thoroughly & drain, and really make sure that the seeds are properly drained. You can even tilt your jar over a bowl or by the sink & leave it for a few minutes to make sure it's all drained. Poorly drained seeds means the dreaded mould (though that doesn't happen often, and its mostly when dealing with small seeds). Place on a sunny windowsill & leave. In the evening, give it another rinsing & draining.
After a few days, you'll have sprouts! Different seeds & pulses take differing amounts of time to sprout (a good source of sprouting information can be found here). But seeds like alfalfa will take a couple of days (they're ready to eat when the sprouts are around 1" long), beans will take a day or two longer. Generally speaking, if you start sprouting on a sunday, you'll be eating them by midweek. Yum!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Beware the Ides of March. Also, The Snow

It's March. Month of Mad Hares, Ides to beware of and attributes akin to lions & lambs. It's also the month to start sowing seeds (even if the weather is ludicrously changeable*).
If you're an overly compulsive seed purchaser, you'll have been drooling over seed catalogues since November (ahem. No, no, I didn't draw out a to scale diagram of my garden in October. And I'm pretty sure I didn't use different coloured pens for the root veg & greens. Not me.), though now the snow has melted, and daylight can actually be seen when going out to work**, thoughts turn to what to do with the garden.

So hurrah for seed catalogues! Even if you've got a patch of land the size of a postage stamp, you can look at a seed catalogue (or website - hey, I'm not a luddite or anything!) and have yourself some happy little daydreams where you have so much land that you could buy spuds by the 5 kilo sack (instead of the 5 tuber bag), and possibly grow enough peas to actually cook with, rather than just scarf them straight out of the pod while pottering about the garden.

So here's a list of my favourite places to get seed from (One day I will start saving my own seed)

The Real Seed Catalogue is the bestest seed supplier out there. A private collection of rare & heirloom seeds, all suited to growing in the UK, all non-hybrid (no ripening-all-at-once F1 seeds here), all open pollinated (so you can save the seeds for next year). Plus they have a wealth of strange & interesting seeds & tubers alongside the usual suspects (got to love a seed catalogue with an 'Unusual Tubers' category!). They also give instructions on saving your own seed & offer advice for beginners. Also, their seeds are awesome! If you're growing tomatoes or peppers from seed & don't have a heated propagator (or have had no luck with germinating them in the past), this is the place to go to.

The Organic Gardening Catalogue is another favourite. An excellent source for environmentally friendly & organic flower, herb & vegetable seeds, sets, tubers, soft fruits, mushrooms & fruit trees as well as organic feeds (the Chase seaweed extract is very good) & environmentally friendly pest control. It's not as adorable as Real Seed,*** but it has more stuff.

Mr Fothergills is mainly here because of their Vegetable Explorer range, a surprising variety of unusual vegetables, from the Rattail Radish (From Mars) to the Japanese Saltwort. They've been around for a long time, and the seed is good quality, so it's worth having a look at if you fancy trying to grow something completely different.

Suttons have a wide range of things on offer, and a really good selection of Speedy Seeds (baby veg & salads that are ready to harvest from 3 to 8 weeks). They also have a range of seeds from Cornwall's Eden Project which are very pretty (stripy tomatoes! Black & White beans! Woo!)

*It may have been blazing sunshine at 7am, but it will probably be snowing by midday. By teatime the moon will have been devoured by a wolf, and the rivers will run purple with ribena. And the gardeners will shrug their shoulders and say 'Tch. typical March, innit?'
Right. I'm off to watch Heston Blumenthal to do something revolting-but-probably-delicious.

**After a long winter of leave-for-work-in-darkness, return-home-in-darkness, occasionally-think-you're-in-a-Ray-Bradbury-novel

***Situated in the Socialist republic of Wales