Tuesday, 29 March 2011

I Aten't Dead

Lots has been happening here in the Marshlands. Due to an unexpected attack of nice weather, I've been doing lots of ground work in the garden.
A fence has been put up, so the garden actually ends now, rather than meandering into the neighbouring rapeseed field*, and Edible Hedge planted. A compost bin has also been assembled out of bits of pallet, an old door & UPVC window frames.

Gravel paths have been laid down between the 8 raised beds. Partly for keeping down the weeds, but mostly so Mikeyfox doesn't get muddy paws. The rest of the garden has large stepping stones (all unearthed from the end of the garden, which in January was The Great Crap Pile, but is now the home of 5 fruit trees & a motley assortment of fruit bushes), which will have creeping herbs & alpines planted between them. (Since this picture was taken, the Polytunnel has had a solid wood framed door put in, thanks to Mikeyfox, and the grassy area to the right has been dug over & planted with spuds).

There is also Tomato Mile, which still needs digging over.

It's a long border down the sunniest side of the garden, where I'll be growing tomatoes, tomatillos & squash. the grassy bit on the left has been dug over since this picture was taken, and will be crammed full of legumes.

Speaking of Crammed full of legumes, I cooked some of the Pea Beans (Phaseolus aegypticus) that I grew in last years growing-beans-for-drying experiment

They were delicious, creamy with a rich, chestnut flavour. If you have room for them in your garden, I can't recommend them highly enough. You can eat them as whole pods, young fresh beans or dry them for cooking later. They are really low maintenance too. I didn't eat all the dried seeds, so will be growing lots more this year!

So now I'm off to Bruge for a week of beer drinking. yay!

*Much to the displeasure of the cats

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Pumpkin & Ginger Cake (yes, cake!)

March is proving to be a turbulent month for this little fox. So what better way of dealing with stress than to make cake? And not just cake, but guilt-free, flavour-filled, crammed-full-of-healthy-things vegetable cake.
Now before you run shrieking for the hills, bear with me.
Carrot cake.
Chocolate & beetroot brownies.
If they can work, why not parsnip cake, why not courgette cupcakes, why not pumpkin cake? So over the last few weeks I've been mucking about with vegetables in cakes. Some have been a bit of a disaster (grated carrot in scones? No. Just... no), others need a bit of tweaking before I'm ready to blog about them, but some just come out perfect first time.
Say hello to Pumpkin & Ginger cake

Sweet, spicy & a little bit nuts.

Pumpkin & Ginger cake
3 eggs
100g demerera sugar
250g finely grated pumpkin (or butternut squash)
150g brown rice flour (it gives a really nutty flavour to the cake, and is also suitable for coeliacs. Wholemeal spelt flour also works well. Or half plain flour & wholemeal)
80g ground almonds
100g crystallised stem ginger (or stem ginger in syrup), finely chopped
2" piece of fresh ginger, finely grated
2 tsp baking powder

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/G4. grease a springform cake tin & dust with a little ground ginger.
Whisk the eggs & sugar in a large mixing bowl until really light & fluffy. It'll take a few minutes. Sorry. Stir in the pumpkin & grated ginger. Add the flour, ground almonds & baking powder & mix gently. Fold in the crystallised ginger & pour into the cake tin. Smooth the top over & bake for 30 minutes in the middle of the oven (or until a skewer poked into the middle comes out clean). Leave to cool, about 5 minutes should do it, before removing it from the tin.
Serve with a cup of tea, and don't feel bad about having seconds.

And on the bad days. the long days, the tough days, the it-can't-get-any-worse days. Have a slice & remember it's just a ride.

Scorzonera - I Never Met Her!

Ooft, that was a bad one, even for me.
Yes, it's another slow-growing, space-occupying weird vegetable. Sorry those of you with small gardens!

Scorzenera (Scorzonera hispanica) is also known as Spanish Salsify or False Salsify (and occasionally appears on Masterchef as just 'Salsify', making me wobbly with suppressed fury at inaccurately named veg, and in danger of spilling my second-cheapest-in-the-supermarket rioja*), and is another member of the ever-reliable Asteraceae family. It's mostly grow for its cylindrical root (that can grow up to 1 meter long, though never more than 2cm in diameter. Good luck pulling that out in one piece), though like Salsify the spring shoots & flowerbuds are also edible. The name comes from the Italian scorza - bark & negra - root, referring to the black skinned roots.
It's not a common sight in vegetable gardens, which is a shame. It's a low maintenance crop, with no pest or disease problems. It also repels carrot root fly, and thus is Awesome.

Like Parsnip & Salsify, it's prone to forking on recently manured soil. Or stony soil. Or clay soil. Or when Mars is in retrograde. Digging helps. When I had heavy clay soil I found digging a narrow trench a spade deep & filling it with compost produced good results (but better results came from not bothering with digging a trench & planting Jerusalem Artichokes instead).
Sow the seeds in drills 1cm or so deep in rows 15cm apart, thinning out the seedlings to 15cm apart (or sowing the seeds 15cm apart if, like me, you find pulling up seedlings a little bit heartbreaking).
After that, they can pretty much be left to their own devices, but for the occasional weeding (by hand - they are delicate), and a splash of water in dry spells. They can be harvested in the autumn, or left in the ground to produce 'chards' in the spring. Treat them the same way as Salsify really.

The black skin is not exactly inedible (Mikeyfox eats it, but then he also eats mushy pea sandwiches), but is corky & a bitter. You can peel the roots before cooking (they'll need immersing in water with a splash of lemon juice to stop them discolouring), but they slip off easily after they've been boiled or roasted. The roots can be baked, boiled, fried, sauteed, battered & deep fried, made into fritters, croquettes or gratins. Here's a simple one to get you started.

Scorzonera & Mushrooms
300g Scorzonera
150g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
20g butter
1 tbs olive oil
1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, chopped.
salt & pepper
1 tbs fresh parsley, chopped

Peel & chop the scorzonera, and place in a bowl of water with a squeeze of lemon juice. Put the butter & oil in a pan over a medium heat & add the scorzenera. Cook for 4 or 5 minutes, until golden. Add the mushrooms & garlic, and cook another minute or so. Reduce the heat & add the juice of the lemon. Cover & leave to simmer for 10 minutes. Season & add parsley.
Serve with crusty bread & a salad.

The same recipe works with all the ingredients thrown into a dish & baked in the oven for 30 minutes (including the lemon rind) & finished with parsley.

Next time, vegetables - in cake!

*I know how to party.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011


Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius, from the Latin tragos - goat & pogon - beard. Those kooky botanists) is another slow-growing vegetable. I know, I'm torturing you folks with small gardens! The name comes from the old Latin name solsequium, from the way the flowers follow the course of the sun each day (likes daisies, which isn't that surprising as they are part of the same family, Asteraceae*). It's also known as Goat's Beard or Vegetable Oyster, as the root is said to have a delicate, oyster-like flavour (having never eaten oysters, I can't say if this is true). It was a wild harvested food in France & Germany in the 13th century, and wasn't cultivated until later. Today it's still an unusual crop, which is a shame as it's a low maintenance veg, with no real pests or diseases and can be grown near carrots & parsnips to discourage carrot root fly (being related to tagetes and all).

Like parsnips, it's prone to forking on recently manured, heavy or stony soils. Digging over in the autumn & adding some organic matter or sharp sand will help. The seed looks like chopped up pieces of straw (and will blow away in the wind!), but you've not been conned, they are seeds!
Sow 10cm (4") apart with 30cm (12") between rows (get used to those spacings, pretty much everything I grow is in 30cm rows - onions, beetroot, carrots, parsnips, turnips...). Keep weed free (by hand, as the roots are easily damaged) & water in dry spells. They can be harvested from August onwards, or left in the ground overwinter to produce edible shoots (known as 'chards') in the spring. I tend to dig up a few in the autumn, and if the roots are small, leave them in the ground with a covering of mulch to protect them from frost, then in the spring when new growth appears, a covering of straw or an upturned bucket can be used for 'blanching' the stems to make them sweeter & tender (much like when forcing rhubarb) & harvest when 10-15cm long.

Salsify roots have a mild, sweet flavour, with a hint of the seaweed to it. They discolour when cut, so need a splash of lemon juice (which is lucky, as they go really well together). They are delicious sauteed in butter with garlic, in a gratin, roasted with lemon wedges or grated raw into salads. The chards can be eaten raw or lightly cooked.
The flowerbuds are also edible, and can be picked just before they open with a fingers length of stem & treated like asparagus (steam & serve with a squeeze of lemon juice & a scrape of butter, or bake into a quiche).
Here's a favourite recipe of mine, it's a simple fritter that really gives the salsify flavour a chance to shine (rather than get smothered in cheese)

Salsify Fritters
250g-300g Salsify roots, scrubbed (you can peel them if you prefer)
1 clove garlic, minced (I use a fine grater)
1 egg, beaten
1-2tbs flour
juice of 1/2 a lemon
salt & pepper
a little butter or oil

Coarsely grate the salsify into a bowl & add the lemon juice. Give it a shake around. Add the remaining ingredients & mix well. Heat the oil or butter in a large frying pan on a medium heat, and spoon out the batter to make 6 or 7 fritters. Flip when golden & firm, and cook the other side until done too. Serve with a salad or hot straight from the pan while no ones looking.

*the Aster family, which includes sunflowers, chamomile, artichokes, marigold, echinacea, chrysanthemums & dahlias. And the sight of one never fails to make me smile.

Friday, 4 March 2011


Before sweetcorn, before mushrooms, before even my beloved squashes, my favourite veg as a cub was parsnips. It was the first vegetable I learned the name of, and what I would always ask for if I had a say in what would be for dinner (until my 6th birthday, when my Nan took me to a fancy restaurant, and I was presented with a china plate of roasted parsnips. My first attempt to cut into one with the unwieldy silverware made a deafeningly loud squeeeek, and I was convinced it was the parsnips shrieking out as I sliced into them, and didn't touch another one until I was much, much older*).

Seed packets & gardening books will tell you that February is the time to start sowing parsnip seeds, but I like to sow them in March. It improves your chances with the famously slow & erratic germination, the soil is a little less likely to be freezing cold & sodden, and you don't have to hare about the place getting the soil turned & raked into a fine tilth a month before anything else gets sown. To be honest, you can sow as late as April & still get good results.

Parsnips like a sunny spot with fertile, well-drained soil, preferably light & sandy, but do well in my soil (which is on the clay side of loam). It will grow in heavier soils, but will come out as vegetable Cthulhu's (very forked - but once scrubbed, chopped up & roasted or made into soup, no one will know the difference!). Recently manured soil will also produce vegetable Cthulhu. Stony soil will produce vegetable Cthulhu. Looking at them in a funny way will produce vegetable Cthulhu.

Parsnips grown in the heavy clay of Sheffield - certainly not showbench material, and prone to canker, but they were delicious!

Parsnips grown in Lincolnshires glorious loam. Ridiculously long roots & no forking.

Like most delicious things, they are prone to pests & diseases. Carrot root fly (aka The Little Bastards) can be avoided by sowing parsnips between rows of onion, garlic or chives, or growing in 1' high raised beds, or covering the plants with fleece (I sow carrot & parsnip seeds between rows of shallot & garlic, which seems to work well). Canker (a vague term that basically means fungal disease) is a rusty, brown or black areas around the crown of the parsnip where roots have been damaged by carrot root fly, slugs or being a bit heavy handed when wielding the hoe, and infection sets in. If it's a small patch, you can just cut it off when preparing your parsnips for cooking. If it's more serious, you can try growing resistant varieties (Gladiator & White Gem are pretty good) or improve the drainage of your soil (which is a roundabout way of saying 'Dig').

As vegetables go, parsnips are not really suitable for a small garden. They take the best part of the year to grow, and need very particular soil if you want long, straight roots. But if you can, I really recommend them. Their sweet, nutty flavour is a real pleasure in the depths of winter.

*You know how people say the sound of fingernails on chalkboards cuts right through them? Knives on china plates. Gets me every time.