James Wong's - Homegrown Revolution

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INCA BERRIES: Uber trendy, yet super easy-to-grow

kiwi

COCKTAIL KIWIS: Super-hardy, mini kiwis with edible skins

CHAMOMILE-SLIDER

SOWING CHAMOMILE FROM A TEABAG?

CHICKPEA 'EDAMAME'

CHICKPEA ‘EDAMAME’

Posted on: September 6th, 2012 by James Wong 19 Comments

Love those deliciously nutty pods of edamame beans you get in Japanese restaurants, but frustrated you can’t grow them in the UK? Well I think I have gone one better with super easy-to-grow chickpea ‘edamame’!

WHAT ARE CHICKPEA ‘EDAMAME’?

Chickpeas

Chickpeas might be a common sight in the UK in cans & blitzed into hummus, but the fresh pods of the young green ones have yet to make it to the shelves of even the fanciest supermarkets. So all the more reason to grow your own!

The mini pods, each containing just one or two ‘peas’ are far more sweet and nutty than regular edamame, which is now sold frozen in huge packs for just a couple of quid.

HOW TO GROW CHICKPEAS

THE VARIETY ‘PRINCIPE’ GROWING IN MY GARDEN

The plants make a excellent ground cover crop of ferny silver leaves and pretty white flowers & the best thing is they are virtually foolproof to grow. Ridiculously drought resistant, free from pests and can even be sown from a supermarket packet of dried (not canned!) chickpeas. So what on earth is stopping you?

THE PODS ARE READY WHEN THEY LOOK LIKE THIS

Pods are ready to harvest when they are slightly hard to the touch, but still a bright, fresh green. Brown papery pods with contain starchy dried up seeds. You should even be able to judge the size of them by holding them up to the light.

THE HARVEST FROM JUST ONE SMALL PLANT

Just one plant will provide a pretty decent starter for two people. With three plants offering up a gluttonous treat. To prepare and cook them simply snip off the pods and cook them just like regular edamame – more on this later.

FUZZY LITTLE GREEN PODS READY TO BE COOKED

HOW TO EAT CHICKPEA ‘EDAMAME’

You can also shell them first, boil for 1 minute or so and toss into salads, cous cous or rice dishes. You can even mash a cup of the cooked peas with an avocado and stir in 1 tbsp olive oil, a clove of chopped garlic & 1/2 tsp of chopped mint to create a mean dip somewhere between guacamole and a fresh green hummus!

CHICKPEA ‘EDAMAME’ JAPANESE  STYLE

FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN IN 5 MINS FLAT.

For lazy sods like me though the simplest way to to dunk them in a pan of briskly boiling water for just a minute or two and serve them drizzles with sesame oil & a sprinkling of sea salt.

CHICKPEA ‘EDAMAME’ SPANISH STYLE

CHARRING BRINGS OUT THEIR PISTACHIO FLAVOUR

The same mix can be given a Spanish twist by charring the whole pods in a dry pan just until the begin to blacken on the outside. Douse with olive oil, smoked paprika and sea salt and scoff with a cold beer. Finally a beer snack you don’t have to feel guilty about!

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Chickpea ‘Edamame’ check out pg 96 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

MANUKA COVER

MAKING ‘MOCKNUKA’ HONEY

Posted on: July 16th, 2013 by James Wong No Comments

Don’t own acres of rolling New Zealand countryside or a trusty beekeeping outfit?

Here’s my cheat’s guide to making your very own ‘mocknuka’ honey from homegrown manuka flowers.

Manuka honey has shot to prominence in recent years for its powerful antimicrobial effects (and hefty price tag!). Yet any old shop bought honey can be given the unique scent of manuka and many of the same health benefits by simply being infused with the fresh leaves and twigs of this common garden plant. Inexpensive, super-easy and virtually food mile-free, this is one of my favourite sticky summer treats.

‘MOCKNUKA’ HONEY RECIPE

STEP 1: Making your own Mock-nuka honey couldn’t be easier. All you need is two ingredients, manuka twigs (actually a common UK garden plant!) & honey.

Just in case you weren’t sure what the plant looked like, here’s a quick snap of my manuka bush in full flower. Look out for them under the name ‘Leptospermum’ in most good garden centres.

STEP 2: Chop up a good handful or two of young manuka bush twigs with a strong secateurs.

STEP 3: Pour the clippings into a double boiler and tumble over just enough honey to cover them. It doesn’t have to be fancy stuff either, whatever you have to hand.

STEP 4: Stir through the mix, cover with a plate & pop it the whole thing on a low heat for 45 minutes. Don’t try doing this in a regular pan as without the low, sustained heat of a double boiler the honey will burn and the delicate aromatics of the manuka will be destroyed.

STEP 5: Ta- Dah! That’s it. All you need to do now is strain the warm honey through a sieve & bottle it up. Dunk a sprig in for decoration if you fancy.

Sorry I couldn’t resist: Here’s another final close-up. Mock-nuka honey tastes great, has loads of the same health benefits & comes at a fraction of the price. Makes a pretty nifty gift too!

purple

PURPLE CARROT CHEESECAKE

Posted on: April 7th, 2013 by James Wong 8 Comments

I was so excited about growing these fluorescent ‘Deep Purple’ carrots, I thought they deserved a fate a bit more more special than being turned into soup. The answer? Why e-numberless purple carrot cheesecake of course!

WHAT ARE PURPLE CARROTS?

Before you ask, nope there has been no GM jiggery pockery here. Purple is in fact the original colour of carrots, with the plain orange form we know today actually only becoming popularised in the 17th Century.

This weird and wonderful colour comes from the same pigments that give fruit like blueberries and black grapes their characteristic hue and sky-high antioxidant levels, making them so much healthier than the boring supermarket form. Stunning colour, intense, sweet flavour and they just might help stave off impending wrinkliness: What’s not to like?

HOW TO GROW PURPLE CARROTS

Purple carrots are just as easy to grow as regular ones even in the tiniest plot. The is a fantastically detailed guide on exactly how to do this on the RHS Grow Your Own website.

There is only one catch however and that is tracking down the seed in the UK. Sadly although pretty much all of our major catalogs will claim to offer ‘purple’ carrot seed, the single variety they sell (‘Purple Haze’) actually only has a purple skin, remaining bog standard orange just beyond the surface. WTF!?

A quick few clicks online however will pull up a good range of international suppliers selling the illusive ‘Deep Purple’, which as you can see is pure burgundy to the core. Most of these seed suppliers (mainly US-based) will deliver pretty much anywhere in the world at very reasonable rates. The guys I get mine from are Tradewinds Fruit – who I am slightly addicted to buying quirky veg seed from.

PURPLE CARROT CHEESECAKE

When I first sliced into these beauties I noticed how incredibly intensely they stained the chopping board and wondered if you could use this dye as a natural food colouring in baking – say in carrot cake.

As my favourite bit about carrot cake has always been that sacrelicious combo of creamy cheese frosting and warm spices, I thought why not turn just ‘em into a cheesecake? And to my surprise it actually worked out pretty tasty. Don’t believe me? Here’s the recipe…..

STEP 1 GRATE: Start out by peeling & grating 2 large carrots really nice and fine. I used a microplane (superfine grater) to turn ‘em in to confetti-like fluff rather than big crunchy shards. While you’re at it, grate up a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger and the zest of an unwaxed lemon.

STEP 2 TOSS: Toss the various gratings into a large mixing bowl with 3 large eggs, 1 tsp of mixed spice, 1tsp of lemon juice, 1 tblsp of cornflour, 1 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract, 250g caster sugar & 800g of cream cheese (about 3 packets of Philly).

STEP 3 STIR: Stir the whole mixed together till the nearly black carrot grating dye the whole lot a fluorescent purple hue.

STEP 4 POUR: Pour the mix over a pre-prepared cheesecake crust in a WATER TIGHT pie dish (I will explain why in the next step). You can buy one ready made or make your own according to any standard Delia-type mix. She has a great recipe for one here: Delia’s cheesecake crust recipe.

 STEP 5 BAKE: Place the now ready-to-bake pie dish into a large roasting tin and fill the tin with boiling water to half way up the sides of the pie dish (hence why the dish needs to be watertight). This works to stabilise baking temperature and ensure the cheesecake cooks evenly.

Then carefully pick the whole contraption up with oven gloves and pop it in a medium oven set at 175C for 55-60 minutes until it is just set, with still a little bit of wobble in the centre.

STEP 6 COOL: Remove from the oven, and keeping the cake still in its mould, leave it to cool on a sideboard until completely cold. Then wrap it in cling film then let it chill overnight in the fridge. Once this is done remove carefully from the tin, slice and serve with an (optional) decoration of carrot slices & leaves. Yum!

 

january harvest small

MY JANUARY HARVEST

Posted on: February 1st, 2013 by James Wong 8 Comments

I braved the ice & snow of a truly bitter January morning to share this little haul with you.

Just coz it’s bone chillin out doesn’t mean you can’t eat well in the 21st Century veg garden.

MY HARVEST ON 16TH JANUARY 2013

It might still be dull and grey outdoors, but just an inch or two below the frozen ground is a buried stash of all manner of weird and wonderful root veg – from florescent purple carrots to sugary skirret. Here’s just a small selection of the kinds of stuff I’ve been scoffing through January…

CARROT ‘DEEP PURPLE’

Purple carrots are becoming increasingly trendy these days in seed catalogues and farmers markets everywhere. Yet the single variety they all stock, ‘Purple Haze’, rather frustratingly only has a thin purple skin, being otherwise boring old orange at its core. What a swizz!

‘Deep Purple’ though (as the name suggests) is darkest burgundy right to its very heart, coming packed full of powerful antioxidants & with the most intensely sweet carroty flavour. These easily knock the socks of any of the ubiquitous supermarket types on every count, from flavour to nutrition.

Although sadly not (yet) stocked by any major catalogues on this side of the Atlantic, for just the cost of a pint or two the many Stateside suppliers will happily deliver the seeds to you anywhere in the world. I picked mine up from Tradewinds Fruit.

Intrigued? Look out for a post on making ‘Deep Purple’ carrot cake with these in a couple of weeks!

SKIRRET Sium sisarum

See these long white roots that look like stretched out parsnips? These are skirret: an ancient British crop cultivated on these islands long before its notoriously tricky-to-grow supermarket cousin (the parsnip) & with a infinitely more crisp, sugary bite. They are also perennial, meaning you will get years of harvests from a single 5-minute planting, just make sure to leave a couple in the ground (tasty as they may be) for next season.

Cook ‘em just like you would parsnips – roasted, mashed or boiled – with thier slightly higher starch content making them even more rich and comforting in the dark days of winter. You can even crunch into them raw like little white sugar sticks – in fact the word “skirret” comes from a corruption of its Dutch name meaning “sugar root”

PERUVIAN GROUND APPLE Smallanthus sonchifolius

The great white sweet potato look-a-likes in this picture are they fresh, crisp roots of the Peruvian Ground Apple – which taste somewhere like a cross between Asian pears and waterchestnuts. Probably the single most productive root veg you can grow in the UK (at least for me) capable of producing yields of up to 10kg per plant under ideal conditions.

Curious to know how to grow, cook & eat them? Watch this space for an imminent blog post on exactly how to do this in the next couple of weeks.

CHINESE ARTICHOKES

Vegetarian ‘witchetty grubs’ with a fresh, nutty crunch. Sadly the continuous driving rain last year didn’t agree with them at all, meaning that instead of being pure creamy white and semi translucent, this year’s tubers sadly aren’t the best quality. This is such a shame as my little clump have kicked out fistfuls of perfect specimens for the last 4 years without fail. Oh well, there’s always next year!

Hugely popular in Japanese, Chinese & French cuisine, they are lovely raw in salads, served as cruditee or briefly pan roasted with lardons and butter. However arguably the most popular way to serve them in Asia is lightly pickled in a sweet brine – often flavoured and coloured with the bright red leaves of Japanese Beefsteak plants (check the pic below, without a single e-number in sight). Truly amazing as part of an Eastern-inspired ploughman’s lunch. Yum!

New Zealand Yams

NEW ZEALAND YAM HARVEST

Posted on: January 30th, 2013 by James Wong 5 Comments

Tired of watching your spuds getting clobbered by blight? Well fear not. Introducing New Zealand Yams, the delicious & super easy-to-grow spud substitutes that come complete with an iron-clad blight resistance. Hooray!

WHAT ARE NEW ZEALAND YAMS? Oxalis tuberosum

Despite their (rather confusing) common name, New Zealand yams actually hail from the highlands of South America where they have been cultivated since Incan times & held in roughly equal esteem to the common spud.

In fact it’s really only historical fluke that has seen potatoes (also originally domesticated by the Inca) become a global staple, while these delicious little yams remain a well kept foodie secret. If the right conquistador had picked these guys up, fish & chips could look very different indeed. :)

NEW ZEALAND YAMS IN A WELLINGTON SUPERMARKET 

(Click the pic to check out the link.)

As far back as the Irish potato famine these tasty, multicoloured tubers were tested out as a disease resistant alternative to spuds in an age when it seemed that the potato’s ridiculous susceptibility to blight in our mild, soggy climate would soon make it commercially extinct. Tried growing spuds over the last 2 summers? Sound familiar?

So, why the name New Zealand yams? Well those kiwis are known for being far more excited and adventurous about alternative crops than us Brits and in the last 30 years they have risen quickly to become a standard supermarket vegetable Down Under – as the picture  above proves (Check out the sprouts in the top left corner).

Click the pic to find out more info from the great ‘Grab Your Fork’ blog.

HOW TO GROW NEW ZEALAND YAMS

Extremely closely related to wood sorrel (a common UK garden weed) New Zealand yams are a cinch to grow even in our less than idyllic climate. You see the Inca were rather genius agriculturalists, with many of their prized crops domesticated from pernicious weed species – thereby creating super-vigorous, low-maintanence veg that would thrive through pretty much anything that is thrown at them.

In fact, they are already being cultivated on a commercial scale in Norfolk by my twitter buddy Jonathan Pearson @Freshfromthefen. The only thing they they really dislike is excessive and prolonged hot weather. Not sure that is going to be a problem any time soon…..

Unlike spuds, there is no need for dodgy chemical spraying or laborious earthing up & they even have tasty Bramely-flavoured, shamrock-shaped leaves – meaning two harvests from the same plant. Neat huh?

PLANT NEW ZEALAND YAMS UNDER TALLER STUFF LIKE TOMATOES OR SWEETCORN TO GIVE YOU 2 CROPS FROM THE SAME TINY PLOT.

(Click the pic to find out more)

There are only two golden rules to bear in mind. Firstly much like regular potatoes, New Zealand yams benefit from being tricked into growth early indoors (i.e. what plant geeks call ‘chitting’). I like to do this buy potting them up in a seed compost on a sunny windowsill in late March or early April, then planting established plants out after all risk of frost has past in May.

Secondly, it is important to leave these little guys in the ground for as long as possible – until a good 2 weeks after the first hard frosts cuts down their foliage. This is because the plants only begin to kick out tubers rather late in the year, so the longer you leave them the better your yields will be. If you are keen on growing these in the far North or a freakishly early frost is forecast a simple tip to up your yields is to pop a couple of cloches over your plants as the nights begin to draw in in Autumn.

Want more tips on growing New Zealand Yams? Check out page 151-153 of my book ‘Homegrown Revolution’ & this fantastic blog http://oca-testbed.blogspot.co.uk

WHERE CAN I BUY NEW ZEALAND YAMS?

Slowly but surely New Zealand Yams are becoming available through a range of suppliers, who normally sell them under their indigenous Peruvian name ‘oca’.

By far the best selection (and quality) for me has been the company Real Seeds, who I buy mine from through their mail order website. www.realseeds.co.uk

HOW TO COOK NEW ZEALAND YAMS

Way more versatile than the humble spud, New Zealand yams are delicious both raw and cooked – roasted, chipped, mashed, boiled & baked in all the same ways as a really good new potato. Raw they have a crisp apple-like texture and tart Bramley flavour which makes them used much like a fruit in salads & coleslaws.

Once cooked however, their sharpness transforms into a mild tanginess that is off set by a rich, waxy classic Jersey Royal flavour & texture. Being such a unique ingredients, I don’t like to mess around with them too much, serving them in super simple, fuss-free dishes like these paprika & mint wedges. Yum!

NEW ZEALAND YAM WEDGES WITH PAPRIKA & MINT

The ultimate comfort food in the dark days of winter, these surprisingly healthy wedges as as delicious as they are easy-to-make.

STEP 1. Kick off the proceedings by preheating your oven to 200C. Then give 1kg of yams (about 1-2 plants worth) a really good scrub & slice them in half.

 STEP 2. Scatter the sliced yams into a roasting dish, cut sides facing up. Then sprinkle over some really good quality smoked paprika, drizzle over a little over oil and season well with salt & pepper. Pop in then oven for 20-30 minutes or so until the yams are golden and cooked right the way through.

 STEP 3. Scatter over a few torn mint leaves & tuck in! Lovely as a substitute for spuds with a Sunday roast or just as they are, dunked in a herby sour cream dip. God bless carbs!

 

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat New Zealand Yams check out pg 151-153 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

 

Dahlia yams

EATING DAHLIA ‘YAMS’

Posted on: January 14th, 2013 by James Wong 7 Comments

Believe it or not these blowsy garden flowers were first introduced to our shores not as an ornamental, but as a tasty root veg. Skeptical? Here’s my rookie’s guide to growing, cooking & eating Dahlia ‘yams’.

THEY SURE LOOK NICER THAN A ROW OF SPUDS DON’T THEY? CLICK THE PIC TO GET TO A GREAT TELEGRAPH ARTICLE ON HOW TO GROW THEM.

WHY DAHLIA ‘YAMS’ MAKE GOOD EATING

Before you instantly dismiss the idea of eating Dahlia roots as some kind of hippy-food, bush-tucker gimmick consider this: runner beans were first introduced to the UK for their ornamental flowers, while Dahlias were originally introduced as a promising root veg. It looks like we simply got our horticultural wires crossed!

First domesticated by the Aztecs for their tasty, sweet potato-like roots, Dahlia ‘yams’ were once a staple food as important as the avocados, tomatoes and sweetcorn that they were eaten alongside. Yet being 100% resistant to the dreaded potato blight, super easy to grow & offering up a summer-long display of dazzling flowers to boot, I believe they beat the humble spud hands down for the urban foodie grower that also wants a pretty garden and an easy life from their tiny space.

IT’S THE GIANT ‘CACTUS’ FLOWERED VARIETIES THAT PRODUCE THE BIGGEST CROPS.

PICKING THE RIGHT VARIETY (THE CRUCIAL BIT)

Sadly, as they have been bred from hundreds of years exclusively for the size and colour of their flowers the flavour of Dahlia ‘yams’ is rather variable, spanning from amazingly sweet and waxy – like a Jersey Royal spud – to perfectly edible but a little watery. On one hand this makes growing Dahlia ‘yams’ a bit of a foodie Russian roulette, but on the other, who knows you may yet discover the world’s tastiest kind in your own back yard!

In my tiny back garden trials – helped immensely by the kind advice of the National Collection of Dahlias – I have discovered that the big ‘Cactus’ flowered types tend to produce the largest, juicest roots with the yellow and red types generally firmer and nuttier than the rest (which I find the most tasty). But there may well be even better strains out there! Give my recipe below a go in the autumn and get back to me on your results. I’d love to hear your views!

EATING DAHLIAS

Related to Jerusalem artichokes, Dahlia roots have a crisp, refreshing apple-like texture and mild carrot/celery flavour when raw and work great in salads and stir fries. Try them as a substitute for water chestnuts for example or grated in a coleslaw. Their juicy crunch and sweetness means they even work in fruit salads, especially when paired with similar textures like apples.

However my favourite way to eat them is cooked, much like a potato, in soups, stews & rosti. The key here is to slice or grate the roots, then squeeze out some of the excess water to concentrate their lovely nutty flavour and give them a firmer bite.

DAHLIA & RED ONION ROSTI

Crisp, sweet and with a hazelnut-like richness, Dahlia ‘yams’ knock the socks of any old spud in these Eastern European-inspired rosti.

STEP 1 - Dig up your Dahlias when the first hard frosts blacken all their leaves – usually in early November where I live – and give them a good scrub.

For this recipe you will need about 1kg of fresh roots, which roughly equates to those of 1 good sized plant. (You can grow up to 4 per square metre)

N.B. Never eat dry roots straight from a garden centre as they will be chemically treated (not to mention rock hard and dried up). After a season of ‘detoxing’ in the garden, they will be fresh, crisp and perfectly safe to eat.

STEP 2 – Peel the ‘yams’. Unless you are going to cook them straight away, it would be a good idea to dunk them in a bowl of water – just like you would potatoes – to stop them going brown in contact with the air.

 STEP 3- Roughly grate the ‘yams’ with 1 small onion & squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. Then wrap all the shavings in a clean tea towel and twist it to squeeze out as much excess water as possible. This concentrates their flavour and gives them a firmer, meatier texture.

STEP 4 – Combine the Dahlia & onion mixture in a bowl with 2 eggs, 6tbsp of flour & a grating of nutmeg.

 STEP 5 - Season well with salt and pepper and give the whole lot a good mix to combine. You should end up with a thick, chunky ‘dough’ as pictured below.

STEP 6 – Grab small handfuls of the mix and squeeze them between your palms to create little patties – about 10cm in diameter and 1cm thick. Fry them in olive oil over a medium heat in a large frying pan until golden brown.

STEP 7 – Serve with a dollop of cream fraiche, a few slivers of smoked salmon, a wedge of lime and a scattering of dill. Winter blues? What winter blues!

December Harvest

MY DECEMBER HARVEST

Posted on: January 6th, 2013 by James Wong 3 Comments

Just because it’s cold out doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of foodie treats in the 21st Century veg garden. Behold the dazzling world of exotic root veg that absolutely anyone can grow, even on our chilly little island.

MY HARVEST ON 21st DECEMBER

As the frosts start to bite, fruit and leafy greens are making way for a bumper harvest of root veg. With this year being almost apocalyptic for potato growers, it’s great to see so many of the more exotic tubers – from New Zealand yams to Dahlia roots – fairing so well, as if completely unaware of the scourge of blight that has devastated spud growers. Plus a couple of other exciting bits and pieces – let me walk you through them….

NEW ZEALAND YAMS  Oxalis tuberosa

No photoshop I promise! These highlighter-pink, mini-spuds are the tart Bramley apple-flavoured tubers of New Zealand Yams. Second only in importance to the potato to the Incas, these natives of the Peruvian highlands (ignore their rather misleading common name) are by far my favourite spud substitute.

Coming in a range of dazzling colours from ivory white to deep purple, they are as versatile to eat as they are to look at. Raw they have a fresh acidic crunch, more like a fruit than a root veg, but once cooked this all but disappears, leaving a much more conventional Jersey royal-type flavour. Look out for my upcoming blog post on these (including recipes) very soon.

DAHLIA ‘YAMS’ Dahlia sp.

The pointy, white ‘sweet potatoes’ in this snap are the roots of the common garden Dahlia, originally introduced to our shores from Mexico not as an ornamental but a promising root veg much loved by the Aztecs.

Their sweet, waxy tubers are a delicious blight-resistant veg at this time of year after a summer of showy flowers. Just make sure not to scoff ‘am all or you won’t have any plants next year. :)

Skeptical? I’ll be blogging about these guys in greater depth (including a recipe) in a week or two, so watch this space!

INCA BERRRIES Physalis peruviana

The plants might have been well and truly blasted by a couple of hard frosts in the middle of the month, but the fruit in their little lantern-like cases have remained well and truly intact. Cutting the frosted stems down, I picked off dozens of these little fellas to chuck into winter fruit salads for that last taste of summer sunshine in the depths of a rather soggy winter.

TASMANIAN MOUNTAIN PEPPER Tasmannia lanceolata

A tough and reliable evergreen, the glossy dark green foliage and burgundy stems of the Tasmanian Mountain Pepper make it an increasingly popular garden plant all over the UK. What most people don’t know however is that its fragrant leaves – that taste like a cross between fiery wasabi & fragrant bay leaves – are an uber trendy spice Down Under, found in all sorts of bush tucker herb blends (even McCormick make one). Amazing dried, crushed and seared onto steaks, steeped into Bolognese sauce or soaked in the marinate for a truly stunning BBQ chicken. Yum!

MASHUA Tropaeloum tuberosum

A close relative of the common garden nasturtium, these stunning mini radishes are the tubers of another Andean root veg known as mashua. Vigourous and virtually indestructable, these vines are resistant to drought, pests, poor soils and virtually anything else that can be thrown at them.

MASHUA FLOWERS

They even come with pretty flowers to boot, in fact they are already grown in gardens all over the UK as a garden ornamental. Now here comes the catch, while I love their flavour – somewhere between chestnuts and vanilla – they are often described as the marmite of the veg kingdom – either love ‘em or hate ‘em. Intrigued? Well there is only one way to find out.

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat everything in this post check out my new book Homegrown Revolution!

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GROWING INCA BERRIES

Posted on: December 27th, 2012 by James Wong 12 Comments

Sticky, sweet & incredibly exotic, you might not believe it but uber trendy South American inca berries are infinitely easier to grow than the lowly tomato. If you plant just 1 fruit crop next year, make this it!

WHAT ARE INCA BERRIES?

With their delicious tropical fruit flavour of ripe pineapples mixed with fresh kiwis, you might think the shiny golden fruit of inca berries would be terribly tricky to grow in the UK, requiring fancy heated greenhouses and teamfuls of staff. However despite their exotic appearance & chef’s penchant for using them in chic patisserie and posh cocktails, I believe the plants have to be the most overlooked and easiest to grow of all annual fruits.

HOW TO GROW INCA BERRIES

Sown just like their relative the tomato in March or April and planted outdoors when all risk of frost has past, these make super-productive, fast-growing plants that require none of the slavish devotion to feeding, watering & training that their cousins do, yet will provide you with a crop that’s twice as expensive to buy in the shops.

Drought tolerant and resistant to most pests and diseases (including the dreaded blight), come late September you will be rewarded with handfuls of sticky sweet berries for very little work in return.

Given just a little coddling the plants can often prove hardy in most parts of the UK, with my 3 plants kicking out hundreds of fruit every year despite having been left to fend for themselves outdoors over two of the coldest winters in a century. Not bad for a fruit we usually fly in from Colombia hey?

Give ‘em a sheltered spot & a nice thick mulch (an insulating layer of compost laid over their bases) and they should pop back up each spring after being knocked down by December frosts.

Don’t believe me? Well inca berries, under the name ‘Tipparees’, were once a common outdoor crop all over the UK in Victorian times. Mrs Beeton even made jam out of them! Check out my simplified twist on her classic recipe below.

HOW TO EAT INCA BERRIES

Apart from their winning flavour, inca berries also have an extremely long shelf-life, staying fresh for up to 3 months from a September picking – making them the only fresh homegrown berry you can eat on your Christmas dinner table. They are also packed full of pectin, meaning a perfect set for jams & jellies everytime without the need to use fancy jam sugars or adding liquid pectin.

Delicious straight from the bush, simmered up in pies, tumbled into crumbles or even chopped into fruity salsas, the berries are as versatile as they are easy to grow. However above all else, this is my absolute favourite inca berry recipe – shamelessly adapted from a Beetonian classic.

BUTTERED INCA BERRY & PINEAPPLE JAM (Makes 1 jar) 

1) De husk 40 inca berries & slice them in half.

2) Pop all the sliced fruit into a pan with 100g caster sugar and 1/2 cup of pineapple juice & stir together. Bring to the boil and simmer over a medium heat for 15 minutes stirring occasionally.

3) After simmering for 15 minutes you will have a pan of softened fruit with wrinkly skins, floating in what looks like a disconcerting amount of syrupy liquid. Don’t panic, this will soon thicken during the next step. Blitz the whole lot up with a stick blender, or alternatively, mash them up with the back of a fork and whisk briskly to combine.

4) Stir in 1/2 tsp of butter until it melts and is entirely incorporated. This comparatively tiny amount of butter entirely transforms the flavour of the jam, turning it from fresh and fruity into something altogether more deep, rich & exotic.

5) Whilst still piping hot pour the mix into sterilised jars (just run ‘em through the dishwasher to do this) & seal the lids. The smoothie-like consistency will soon set on cooling.

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Inca Berries check out pg 236 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

 

Raw rhubarb & rosewater daiquiri

RAW RHUBARB: SURPRISING TREAT

Posted on: December 12th, 2012 by James Wong 4 Comments

Crisp, bright & with an almost tropical fruitiness, raw rhubarb is a truly unexpected treat. Swap the simmering for an overnight soaking & transform a ration book staple into something altogether more far-away & exotic.

HOW TO NOT COOK RHUBARB

Despite having been grown for millennia for its medicinal roots, rhubarb’s edible charms were surprisingly only discovered two hundred years ago right here in Old Blighty, making it one of the world’s most modern food crops. This comparatively tiny history as a cook’s ingredient, means that we have only just started tapping into its true culinary potential & amazing versatility – as crisp, raw vegetable for instance. Skeptical? Give a couple of these recipe a go & let me know what you think.

RAW RHUBARB ACHAR - with pineapple, chilies & cashews

Raw rhubarb achar

A cross between a fruity salsa & crisp veggie pickles, Achar is a Malaysian salad that adds a bright, zingy note to rich curries, grilled fish  & satay. Here is my fusion take that uses rhubarb much like green mangos or green papayas to add a fresh zesty note to an old-school street food favourite.

Serves 4 as a side dish

What you need:

2 sticks of forced winter rhubarb (summer rhubarb can be a little tough & stringy), sliced very thinly

1/4 cucumber, finely sliced into bite-sized pieces

1/4 pineapple, finely sliced into bite-sized pieces

1/4 red onion, finely sliced

1 red chili, finely slice

1 tbsp of sugar

1/4 tsp of salt

2 tbsp of white vinegar

1 small sprig of mint, finely chopped

2 tbsp of roast cashews, finely chopped.

What to do:

1. Combine all the ingredients, except for the cashews, in a large mixing bowl and toss together to combine.

2.Cover and pop in the fridge for the flavours to meld overnight (or for at least 2 hours). The vinegar will part pickle the vegetables, with the sugar and salt will drawing out the excess moisture & making them firmer and crisper.

3.Before serving, drain off the excess liquid & scatter over the roast cashews.

4.Serve cold with grilled fish, rich curries or satay.

RAW RHUBARB COMPOTE – with candied ginger & pistachios

Fresh & zesty this super-simple raw compote is a world away from the soggy, over-boiled school dinner version.

Serves 4

What you need:

2 sticks of forced winter rhubarb, sliced very thinly

5 dried apricots, finely diced

2 tbsp of sultanas, finely chopped

1 tbsp candied ginger

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp sugar

The juice & zest of 1/2 a lime

2 tbsp pistachios, halved

What to do:

1. Tip all the ingredients together in a small mixing bowl and toss to combine.

2. Cover and place in the fridge overnight (or for at least 2 hours) to let the flavours meld.

3. Serve with greek yoghurt & granola, with french toast & clotted cream or even as a sweet chutney with cheese and crackers.

RAW RHUBARB DAIQUIRI – with rosewater & strawberries

Raw rhubarb & rosewater daiquiri

For a glimpse of summer right in the depths of winter, nothing beats this concoction of rhubarb, rosewater & strawberries.

Makes 4 glasses

What you need:

4 sticks of forced winter rhubarb, sliced into chunks

The juice and zest of 1 lime

100g of caster sugar

5 frozen strawberries (fresh will work just fine too)

2 tsp rosewater

100ml tonic water

2 shots of white rum

What to do:

1.Whizz all the ingredients in a blender until you get a smooth pulp.

2.Strain the pulp through a sieve & pour over glasses full of ice.

3.Scatter over a few thin shards of rhubarb and lime slices.

CUCAMELONS INTRO

CUCAMELONS: GRAPE-SIZED CUKES

Posted on: December 2nd, 2012 by James Wong 73 Comments

Doll’s house-sized ‘watermelons’ that taste of pure cucumber with a tinge of lime. These little guys are officially the cutest food known to man & oh-so-easy to grow even for real beginners. Let me show you how to get started…

HOW TO GROW CUCAMELONS:

Cucamelons can be grown in pretty much the exact same way as regular cucumbers, only they are far easier. They don’t need the cover of a greenhouse, fancy pruning or training techniques and suffer from very few pests. Sow the seed from April to May indoors and plant out when all risk of frost is over. Give them a support the scramble over, keep well watered and that’s pretty much all you will need to do!

Harvest them when they are the size of a grape, but still nice and firm.

They make pretty, high-yielding vines that can be planted really close together to get the most out of a small space – as little as 15cm between plants around a trellis.

My harvest from just 4 plants!

FINDING CUCAMELON SEEDS:

Want to know where you can get your hands a little plant?

I have teamed up with the lovely plant geeks at Suttons Seeds to sell Cucamelon Seeds as part a brand new ‘Homegrown Revolution’ range of weird and wonderful edibles. Why now check ‘em out?

HOW TO EAT CUCAMELONS:

The fruit can be eaten straight off the plant, or tossed with olives, slivers of pepper and a dousing of olive oil. Perfect for a quirky snack with drinks – or even popped like an olive in a cheeky martini.

PICKLED CUCAMELONS WITH MINT & DILL

To preserve their virtues right in to the depth of winter, you can even make cucamelon dill pickles. Fantastic in a simple ham sandwich or with a fancy cheeseboard.

 

They can be pickled whole, however slicing these little fruit in half and pre-salting them will result in far more crisp result – not to mention that fact that they will be ready in half the time.

Pre-salting simply involves sprinkling the sliced fruit with a really generous amount of sea salt in a colander (about 1 tbsp per cup of cucamelons) and setting them over a bowl for 20 minutes or so. This will draw out the excess water from the fruit, which prevents the fruit from diluting the vinegar during the pickling process.

After the 20 minutes are up give them a good rinse, pat dry with some paper towels and you are ready to go!

You can flavour the pickling vinegar with anything you fancy. My favourite mix combines dill, mint, pickling spice and a sprinkling of pink peppercorns. Add a generous sprinkling of sugar and salt and stir the mix to combine.

Adding an (optional) scrunched up vine or oak leaf will further help ensure a crisp result, as the tannins in the leaves will inhibit natural enzymes within the fruit that can cause softness.

Top up with a good quality vinegar to cover the fruit, seal the jar and give it a good shake.

Pop it in the fridge and they will be ready in a just a week!

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Cucamelons check out pg 101 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

November Harvest

MY NOVEMBER HARVEST

Posted on: December 2nd, 2012 by James Wong 2 Comments

Temperatures may be plummeting but there are still plenty of edible treats out there in the 21st century veggie patch. From saffron to sweet potatoes, chilly weather need not mean a season of bland, boring food!

MY HARVEST ON 16th OCTOBER

My November Harvest

FROM THE TOP DOWN: SWEET POTATOES, INCA BERRIES, BARBERRIES, SAFFRON, DWARF PUMPKIN, GOLDEN HUCKLEBERRIES, JAPANESE QUINCE & OLIVES.

My November Harvest

Just a quick peek at a small selection of what I’ve been scoffing this November. As always, everything has been grown outdoors in my tiny 5 x 5m front garden this (undeniably soggy) summer. Scroll on down to learn what they all are and how you scoff ‘em. :)

SWEET POTATOES  Ipomea batatas

Sweet potatoes

Despite a truly miserable summer I was really impressed with my sweet potato plants which offered up nearly 4 kilos of mini ‘new’ sweet potatoes from a modest 2m square bed.

After a couple of years of trial and error my secrets to success are picking the right varieties (this is absolutely essential) & starting the plants off not from ‘slips’ (limp cuttings posted out by mail order companies) but from vigorous established small plants that a few companies have now started stocking in the spring. I plant mine out in a raised bed, enriched with loads of organic matter in the sunniest, warmest spot available, then just let them get on with it.

My favourites varieties so far are ‘Beauregard’, the orange fleshed, orange skinned ones in the photo above, and ‘T65′ with their bright pink skin and creamy white interior. Although looks and flavourwise ‘Beauregard’ the closest possible match to the traditional supermarket kind, I can’t recommend enough going that extra mile and hunting down alternatives like ‘T65′, with its intense flavour that’s virtually identical to rose cordial. Stunning made into chips, wedges, boiled or even grated raw into salads and coleslaw. Yum!

INCA BERRIES Physalis peruviana

Inca berries

Mega productive & super easy-to-grow, the shiny golden fruit of Inca berries have to be the most overlooked fruit crop for UK growers. My 3 plants kick out hundreds of fruit every year despite having been left to fend for themselves outdoors over two of the coldest winters in a century. Not bad for a fruit we usually fly in from Colombia hey? Give ‘em a sheltered spot & a nice thick mulch (an insulating layer of compost laid over their bases) and they should pop back up each spring after being knocked down by December frosts.

Don’t believe me? Well Inca berries, under the name ‘Tipparees’, were once a common outdoor crop all over the UK in Victorian times. Mrs Beeton even had jam recipe for them. Look out for a post on this in the very near future….

JAPANESE QUINCES Chaenomeles japonica

Japanese Quince

These might be an incredibly common plant, grown all over the UK as a popular garden ornamental for its stunning satin petals, but for some arcane reason the delicious perfumed fruit of this neglect-proof bush have stayed well under the foodie radar.

Japanese Quince Flowers

THE STUNNING SPRING FLOWERS OF JAPANESE QUINCES

A quick-growing, patio-sized bush that can be shoe-horned into even the smallest garden, these neat little shrubs will reward you with great handfuls of freckled yellow fruit and scarlet spring blossom for the 10 minutes it takes you to plant them.

Japanese Quince Liqueur

MAKING ‘KARINSHU’ (JAPANESE QUINCE LIQUEUR). CLICK ON THE PIC FOR A LINK TO A GREAT RECIPE FROM KYOTOFOODIE.COM.

Just like with European quinces, a touch of sugar miraculously turns the raw fruit from rock hard and mouth dryingly astringent into a true culinary treat of deep, perfumed mellowness. In fact they can be cooked and eaten in exactly the same ways as their European cousins in jellies, jams & pies. However undoubtedly my favourite recipe is to turn them into ‘Karinshu’ a traditional Japanese liqueur that can be enjoyed both as a delicious after dinner drink or as a throat-soothing cough medicine, apparently hugely popular with public speakers and actors in Japan.

Wanna know more? Check out this brilliant website all about this much-underestimated exotic crop. How to grow, cook & eat Japanese Quince.

SAFFRON Crocus sativus

Saffron

The world’s most expensive spice worth literally its weight in gold, saffron is nevertheless far easier to grow than onions in our cold, blustery climate. Despite its exotic and heat-loving image, saffron is actually a thoroughly British crop and was once grown here on a massive commercial scale for over a thousand years. Given its mood-boosting & mildly psychoactive properties I have no idea why we ever stopped! Wanna know more? I’ve written a whole post on it (plus a fun saffron martini recipe) right here. A very British saffron harvest

BARBERRIES  Berberis thunbergii

Barberries

Another boring UK garden plant that lives a double life as a huge commercial crop and much loved delicacy in other countries, the tangy, cranberry-flavoured fruit of the barberry is an essential ingredient in the cuisines of Iran, Lebanon & Turkey.

In fact made into a crystal-clear jelly, the fruit were once a key part of a whole range of Victorian dishes, served like redcurrant jelly with cheese or roast meats like lamb and game.

Persian Barberry Chicken

PERSIAN BARBERRY CHICKEN WITH SAFFRON RICE. CLICK FOR THE FULL RECIPE.

OLIVES Olea europea

Olives

Last but certainly not least, here’s a little cheat, my harvest of UK grown green olives thanks to the generosity of one of my neighbours. Watch out for a post on this (including a recipe for curing them) in the near future.

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat everything in this post check out my new book Homegrown Revolution!

saffron11

A VERY BRITISH SAFFRON HARVEST

Posted on: November 20th, 2012 by James Wong 4 Comments

Mega-expensive, incredibly exotic & yet super easy-to-grow. Here’s my guide to growing, cooking & eating this surprisingly traditional British crop, with giggly mood-boosting properties to boot! Saffron martini anyone?

WHAT IS SAFFRON?

The world’s most expensive spice, worth literally its weight in gold, the fragrant red threads of saffron add a vibrant yellow colour & rich, creamy flavour (somewhere between eggs & golden syrup) to all sorts of exotic dishes – from paella to curries. But despite being associated with the far flung cuisines for the Middle East, India & Spain, the big surprise is that saffron is actually a quintessentially British ingredient and was grown on a massive commercial scale on our blustery islands for nearly a thousand years.

In fact, as the picture above shows you – it is actually a very close relative of the regular ‘park lawn’ crocus & is just as easy to grow. Those red threads that hang down from the centre are the spice, ready for use straight off the plant. Add to that the fact that it is packed with mood-boosting, mildly psychoactive chemicals that (at the right dosage) will give you a mild, giggly ‘lift’ for up to half an hour & you will see why I think this is one spice everyone should be growing.

GROWING SAFFRON

Think you’d need a greenhouse to grow saffron in the UK? Well think again! It was widely cultivated outdoors in Britain for hundreds of years, with massive plantations giving places like Saffron Walden in Essex & Saffron Hill in East London their names. Bare in mind this included a period when our climate was far colder (e.g. the Thames froze solid every winter), so if the Elizabethan’s could grow these, so can you! In fact, just in case you still had your doubts, there is still one commercial plantation growing saffron in Britain, at high altitude in North Wales. Check out www.britishsaffron.co.uk

Unlike most annual crops saffron can produce unbroken harvest for up to 15 years in a row if you follow a few simple rules, offering up pretty purple flowers, gorgeous fragrance and harvest literally worth its weight in gold for the 15 minutes it takes to plant them. This makes them, for me, the one crop that offers up maximum reward for minimum work.

All you need is a nice sunny site with really well drained soil, ideally with a neutral pH – the warmer and sunnier the better. I like to dig in plenty of grit or biochar (ground up charcoal) into the ground before planting to ensure a nice quick draining mix that will warm up quicker in summer and prevent these Mediterrenean plants from having their roots sit in cold, wet soil over the winter.

Plant the corms (available from Suttons Seeds in late summer) as soon as they arrive a good 10-15cm deep & water in well. You can even grow ‘em in a wide brimmed pot of gritty, pH neutral compost if you are gardening in an area with very acid soil, as long as it is at least 25cm-30cm deep & leave ‘em to get on with it. Within 8 weeks you will be rewarded with you first flush of saffron blooms in October or November with flowers carrying on to pop up over roughly a 2 week period.

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Saffron check out pg 172-173 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

WHY AREN’T MINE FLOWERING?

Although the plants themselves are very easy to grow, there are a few little tricks to getting them to flower well every year. These are the top tips I use to keep ‘em producing even in truly terrible summers like this year.

1) Plant ‘em deep – Between 10cm-15cm below ground level.

2) Pick mature corms – Many suppliers will sell you very small corms that won’t reach flowering size for 2-3 years. Side step the wait by buying mature corms, that should flower just 6-8 weeks after planting. I have grown mine for Suttons Seeds 3 years on the trot without fail.

3) Don’t trim their leaves – The plants produce loads of grass-like leaves between October & April each year. As these die down there is a temptation to trim them off to neaten up the plant. However this will weaken the plant and reduce your chances of flowers.

4) Add tomato fertiliser – Spoil your little plants with a high potash feed like a liquid tomato or rose feed just after they finish flowering and again in March to help bulk ‘em up.

5) Cloche protection – Dormant saffron corms are triggered into producing flowers by summer warmth – ideally a 6 week period at 21C. Although this is not a problem in the average UK summer, in particularly terrible ones (like this year) it is worth laying a couple of cloches over the beds between July and August to keep them nice and warm. Other things you can do are to ensure the sunniest site possible, use a dark coloured gravel as a mulch or even try growing them in dark coloured pots (dark colours absorb the sun’s heat a little better).

HOW TO EAT SAFFRON 

All you need to do is pluck the tiny red threads from the centre of the blossoms with a tweezers. They are ready to use straight away, or you can dry them for later use by simply sandwiching them between two sheets of kitchen towel and leaving them on a windowsill for 2-3 days. Then just pop ‘em in a small glass jar and where they’ll store in a cool dry place for over a year.

While most of us nowadays think of saffron as a ingredient in paellas and curries, it is actually a quintessentially British ingredient long used in custards, hot cross buns, marzipans, biscuits and cakes – adding a rich buttery warmth and golden hue.

PSYCHOACTIVE SAFFRON MARTINI

I prefer to make the most out of its mood-boosting, mildly psychoactive properties by extracting and concentrating them in gin to make the most giggle-inducing martini known to man.

STEP 1: PICK YOUR SAFFRON

To get started all you need to do is pinch the orangey red threads from the centre of the flowers. You DON”T need to pick the flowers off to do this like I did here either. By plucking them out with quick nip of the tweezers from the centre of each bloom, your display stays intact and you still get  yours hands on the good stuff. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it?

STEP 2: MAKE YOUR GIN

Pop a good teaspoonful of threads into a small (330ml) bottle of gin with a couple of strips of lemon zest and 1/2 a vanilla pod, screw on the top and leave it to sit in a cool dark place to ‘let the yellow mellow’ for 5 days to a week, shaking occasionally.

1 WEEK LATER…..

Saffron gin

Ta dah! Your spiced saffron gin is now ready. It works amazingly in cocktails, poured over Christmas pudding or even used to make a sneaky spiked custard from autumnal puddings.

STEP 3: GET MIXIN’

To mix your martini simply slosh a shot of your saffron gin in a cocktail shaker with a shot of Martini bianco , a tablespoon of golden syrup, a twist of lemon juice and a big old handful of ice. Shake until the shaker is frosted, leave to stand for 2 minutes for the flavours to mingle and serve.

CHECK OUT THE FULL RECIPE BELOW…

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Saffron check out pg 172-173 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

Rumtopf

HOMEGROWN RUMTOPF RECIPE

Posted on: November 8th, 2012 by James Wong 1 Comment

Sweet, sugary & with a deadly kick, there is no more indulgent (or easy-to-make) homegrown Christmas present than a jar of rumtopf. And there’s just about enough time to knock one up right now with the last autumn fruit…

WHAT IS RUMTOPF?

A traditional German Christmas treat, Rumtopf (literally meaning ‘rum pot’) is made by simply layering a small handful of each of your fruit harvests throughout the year into a glass jar and topping it up with sweetened (and often spiced) rum. Come December a whole 365 days of harvests can be enjoyed – as if by magic – in just one deliciously sugary, boozy concoction. Somewhere in between a fruit compote and a fragrant liqueur, it’s a wonderful way to use up odds and ends of your harvests creating probably the most simple, yet dangerously indulgent treat known to man.

MY NOVEMBER RUMTOPF HARVEST

THIS MONTH’S HAUL INCLUDES (FROM TOP DOWN) BARBERRIES, INCA BERRIES, ARONIA BERRIES, GOLDEN HUCKLEBERRIES, CHILEAN GUAVAS, ASIAN PEARS, WINTERGREEN BERRIES & JAPANESE QUINCES.

As November marks the last few fruit harvests of the year I dashed out today to gather the last few layers for a few rumtopf jars that I’ve been working on through the summer. You don’t have to be a forward-planning geek like me either, if you have a glut of autumn fruit you still just about have time to start your own – as the mix needs at least 6 weeks for the fruity mix to surrender their flavours to the sugar rum bath.

MY HOMEGROWN RUMTOPF RECIPE

FROM TOP: ASIAN PEAR, JAPANESE QUINCES & CHILEAN GUAVAS

All you need to do is wash and slice up any of the larger fruit and you are good to go. This year I made two versions, one using a little bit of everything that took my fancy & another which combines the three fruit in the pic above (Asian pears, Japanese quinces and Chilean guavas) for my own oriental slant on ‘Murta con Membrillo’ – a traditional Chilean dessert using guavas and quinces steeped in booze.

THIS SEASON’S FRUIT (ON TABLE) ABOUT TO BE JOIN THE EARLIER HARVESTS IN THE SUGARY, SPICED RUM

I have been working on making a few jars of rumtopf since July, creating layers of everything fro homegrown strawberries, figs & cocktail kiwis as the seasons have progressed. As new fruit come into season, simply pop another scattering of each into a Kilner jar and top up with 1 part sugar dissolved into 3 parts white rum.

A FULL JAR ABOUT READY FOR TOPPING UP.

Pretty much any fruit is a perfect candidate for making rumtopf, but I would stay away from very watery stuff like melons (which can dilute the rum) or particularly dark coloured fruit like like blackberries, which can stain the liqueur so dark you can’t see the contents. You can even plonk in a vanilla bean, sliver or two of lemon zest or cinnamon stick if you fancy. However with the zesty, herb-like fragrances of the Chilean guavas and wintergreen berries I decided to skip the spices this year.

The only trick you need to bare in mind is to keep the fruit well immersed in the rum mixture. Lots of people recommend placing a clean saucer on top of the fruit to keep them submerged, although this hasn’t really been a problem for me. Now pop the lid on and keep it hidden away from prying eyes in a cool, dark place until Christmas.

ALL SET FOR CHRISTMAS!

After at least 6 weeks (but preferably up to 3 months of steeping) you are ready to get greedy! Rumtopf is delicious spooned over yoghurt, ice cream or even stirred into mincemeat for some blinding mince pies. So what the hell are you waiting for? Go on out and have a go!

guavas18

CHILEAN GUAVAS

Posted on: November 8th, 2012 by James Wong 17 Comments

Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit, these intensely fragrant berries somehow manage to combine the flavours of wild strawberries, pink guavas and a hint of candy floss. Easily the ultimate foodmile-free exotic fruit!

WHAT ARE CHILEAN GUAVAS?

MY FIRST CHILEAN GUAVA HARVEST IN SEPTEMBER (I WAS SCOFFING THEM UNTIL YESTERDAY!)

Hailing from the wilds of Southern Chile, these impossibly exotic mini-guavas were surprisingly once commercially cultivated all over the South West of Britain in Victorian times. Yet fast forward 150 years and the  only mention of this popular ornamental plant’s berries in gardening texts usually refers to how to get the stains out of your patio!

Funnily enough that doesn’t stop specialist food importers flying them in from the other side of the planet, labelling them as a ‘tropical’ fruit & charging a small fortune for tiny punnets. Strange really since they might already be sitting planted in the back gardens of the customers who pay through the nose for them. :)

A GUAVA BY ANY OTHER NAME….

FROM TOP LEFT: ‘TAZZIBERRIES’ FLOWN IN FROM AUSTRALIA, CHILEAN GUAVA AND QUINCE IN SYRUP AT A SANTIAGO FARMERS’ MARKET & MY UK HARVEST. TRICKY TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE HEY?

Enterprising Aussie growers have now rebranded the fruit  as”Tazziberries” and Kiwi farmers are fighting back with the equally catchy “New Zealand Cranberries”. In their native country of Chile too there is keen interest in turning this common woodland berry into a major global crop, where they are simmered up into all manner of syrups, jams & liqueurs – often combined with fresh quinces. Yet with the plants positively revelling in the UK’s cool, maritime climate – they after all hail from a similar region to the monkey puzzle tree – why on earth has it taken us Brits so long to catch on to their charms?

HOW TO GROW CHILEAN GUAVAS

WITH STUNNING, SCENTED FLOWERS & SHINY EVERGREEN LEAVES, NO WONDER CHILEAN GUAVAS ARE ALREADY A POPULAR ORNAMENTAL PLANT. WHO KNOWS? YOU MIGHT HAVE ONE IN YOUR GARDEN ALREADY!

Chilean guavas can be grown just like their relatives the blueberries, albeit being far more high-yielding and less fussy about the ericaceous (acid soiled) growing conditions that their super-fussy, super-fruit cousins demand. They have evergreen leaves and deliciously fragrant lily of the valley-like flowers & are even ignored by birds that would otherwise decimate a blueberry patch. Could it get any better?

Their only let down is their slight frost sensitivity, so if you are gardening up North site them in against a south-facing wall and drape them in a layer of horticultural fleece when hard frosts are forecast. If you are a nervous disposition, you can even give them a home in a pot on a sunny patio and bring them a home on a covered porch or cold greenhouse over winter.

CHILEAN GUAVA RECIPES

With a exotic fragrance and familiar strawberry-like fruitiness, Chilean guavas are one of the most versatile berries in the kitchen – not to mention my favourite fruit. I love munching them straight off the plant, studding them through cupcakes, simmering ‘em into jams or plopping ‘em into booze with generous sprinkle of sugar to make truly heavenly liqueurs.

AUTUMNAL FRUIT SALAD WITH CHILEAN GUAVAS

This is so simple it really doesn’t need a recipe. Just tumble the Chilean guavas with a mix of whatever fruit you fancy (here I have used homegrown inca berries and cocktail kiwis) over some really good quality Greek yoghurt, drizzle over some honey & attack with a spoon. True autumnal bliss.

CHILEAN GUAVA HOTCAKES  

With vanilla ricotta & Chilean guava-scented maple syrup

A super-simple twist on the classic blueberry hotcakes, simply press a few fresh berries into the batter of these door-stop-thick American-style pancakes as they cook. True heaven doused with a maple-syrup scented by a quick simmer with a scattering of any extra berries that didn’t make it into the hotcakes.

For the full recipe check out my new book Homegrown Revolution

RUMTOPF WITH CHILEAN GUAVAS

In their native Southern Chile, the most popular way to enjoy these little berries is steeped in a sugary blend of rum & sliced quinces – an interesting fusion of the region’s German & Spanish foodie heritages. All you need to do is fill a Kilner jar with layers of sliced quinces & sprinklings of guavas (all whatever fruit you fancy) and top up with a mix of 1 part sugar diluted in 3 parts rum. Leave to sit in a cool dark place for 6-8 weeks and scoff spooned over a decent quality vanilla ice-cream.

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Chilean guavas check out pg 259 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

Tea & Cucumber Sandwich

GROWING REAL ENGLISH TEA

Posted on: October 30th, 2012 by James Wong 2 Comments

Bring a whole new meaning to ‘English Tea’ by growing your very own fresh tea leaves. Far more than just for your morning cuppa, they are simply stunning in salads, stir fries & my ‘tea & cucumber’ sandwiches. Here’s how…

GROWING TEA

You don’t need a colonial hillside to grow your very own green tea, hailing from cool, damp mountains of China, tea – far from being a tropical crop – actually originates from a habitat surprisingly similar to that of our blustery little island chain.

How to grow your own tea

MY OWN LITTLE TEA BUSH FROM MY PATIO-SIZED TEA ESTATE & A SNEAKY HARVEST FROM ABBOTSBURY GARDENS(WITH PERMISSION OF COURSE!)

It’s Latin name Camellia sinensis (aka. The Chinese Camellia) betrays just how closely related it is to the super common ‘B&Q’ Camellia Camellia japonica (aka. The Japanese Camellia), and can be grown in almost an identical way.

In fact Winston Churchill even had plans to cover large areas of the South West in tea estates, as he believed that if our war-time supplies were ever cut off we simply couldn’t have won! The only reason why this never actually happened was simply because the war ended before the plantations were ever planted – no kidding.

HARVESTING AT THE UK’S ONLY COMMERCIAL TEA PLANTATION AT TREGOTHNAN & A GLIMPSE OF THE EDEN PROJECT’S MINI TEA ESTATE JUST DOWN THE ROAD.

All tea needs to thrive is a bright sunny location and an ericaceous (slightly acidic) soil. So if, like me, you are gardening on an area with a rather alkaline soil (you see lumps of white chalk when your digging or your kettle furs up) you are probably better off planting yours in a pot of ericaceous compost, i.e. the stuff they sell for Rhododendrons and Azaleas in every garden centre.

Once the plants are about 50cm-1m high they will be more than happy to fend off anything the average UK winter can throw at them – with mine shrugging off chills down to -15C over two sub-Arctic Croydon winters. Meaning that unless you live in the very coldest of regions of the UK, you too can grow your own tea. However if yours are still small saplings (the way that plants are usually sold) give them in indoor home in a bright, cool porch or windowsill over their first 2-3 winters until they are large enough to take care of themselves.

COOKING WITH FRESH TEA LEAVES

The single most important piece of info about eating green tea is making sure you get the harvesting right. Adult tea leaves are inedibly tough, packed full of stringy fibres and intensely bitter flavours. Fresh young leaves on the other hand are soft, tender and with a refreshing bitter-sweet, ‘tonic water meets burnt caramel’ flavour.

Picking tea leaves

I pick the first two developing tea leaves on the end of each growing tip while they are still soft to touch and a bright apple green, as shown in the picture above. At this stage they should be tender enough to pinch off gently with your fingers – if you need to reach for a scissors, they are too tough. This regular picking, pinching out the growing tips all over the plant (up to 5 times throughout the summer) ironically triggers more vigourous growth, creating neat bushy plants far prettier than a boring old box hedge.

By simply letting these leaves wilt slightly you can use them to make a truly stunning homemade green tea. You can even grind the dried leaves down to make a Japanese-style matcha powder, used in Asia just like vanilla extract to make fluorescent green, antioxidant- packed cupcakes, ice creams, etc. (look out for a post on this in the future)

GREEN TEA DESSERTS

Matcha Desserts

IN ASIA GREEN TEA IS A STANDARD DESSERT FLAVOURING – LIKE A SUPER-HEALTHY, GROWN UP VERSION OF VANILLA & WITH THE POWER TO TURN ANY JUNK FOOD INTO HEALTH FOOD – WELL ALMOST! NESTLE USE IT TO MAKE KITKATS, STARBUCKS STEAM IT INTO LATTES & TESCOS BLEND IT INTO CUPCAKES.

However by far the easiest and most unusual way to eat the leaves is as a sophisticated salad ingredient, with a really grown-up, bitter-sweet tang. Use ‘em in small quantities just like you would rocket or chicory, either fresh off the plant or blanched for a second or two in briskly boiling water to bring out the best of their colour and flavour. Let your imagination run wild, but in the meantime here are a couple of recipe ideas I have concocted…

MY TEA & CUCUMBER SANDWICHES

Tea & cucumber sandwich

OK to be very honest here, the silly pun came before the recipe – but boy does it work! The slight bitterness of the tea leaves contrasts wonderfully with the cool, crispness of the cukes and the indulgent creaminess of the thick layer of Philly beneath.

Tea & cucumber sandwhiches

1) Slice the a cucumber into thin strips using a vegetable peeler. There is no need to peel the cuke itself as sliced this way its skin will be shredded up so fine you will barely notice it.

2) Spread a generous amount of cream cheese (full fat of course!) over some back-to-basics sliced white. You could even fold a hint of lemon zest or nutmeg into the cheese before spreading for added depth.

3) Layer over the cucumber slices with a few tips of fresh green tea leaves tucked between, cut of the crusts and slice into finger sandwiches. Serve with a cup of homegrown green tea (and for serious added ponciness) decorate with a couple of starry blue, cucumber flavoured borage flowers.

GRILLED PEACH, TEA LEAF & BLUE CHEESE SALAD

Nothing will beat this elegant (and deceptively simple) salad in the snob food stakes at your next dinner party. Delicious, healthy and uncomplicated, this is what summer eating should be all about.

Grilled peach, tea leaf & blue cheese salad

1) Slice some fresh peaches (homegrown is you’ve got ‘em) into quarters, brush them with olive oil and sear them over a hot grill for 2 minutes on each side.

2) Place a good fistful of mixed salad leaves (rocket, watercress, etc) in the centre of a large plate and scatter over a generous serving of walnuts & cubes of blue cheese.

3) Arrange the grilled peaches over the salad, scatter over a few sprigs of mint and – of course – some freshly picked tea leaves.

4) Drizzle over a little honey, a good glug of olive oil and a spritz of lime. Season well & attack with a fork!

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat homegrown Green Tea check out pg 202 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

Octoberslider

MY OCTOBER HARVEST

Posted on: October 29th, 2012 by James Wong 8 Comments

Get the low down on what’s growing on at my trial ground this month. From musk melons and Asian pears to Chilean guavas and golden huckleberries, autumnal eating could be so much more exciting than spuds & swedes.

MY HARVEST ON 9th OCTOBER

FROM TOP DOWN: MUSK MELONS, CHILEAN GUAVAS, ASIAN PEARS, INCA BERRIES, GOLDEN HUCKLEBERRIES, TOMATOS, INCA GHERKINS & TOMATILLOS.

The leaves might be falling, but October is still a hugely productive season in the fruit & vegetable garden. Here are a quick couple of snaps of the harvests from my tiny 5x5m suburban front garden, all grown outdoors in a soggy Croydon summer.

MY HARVEST ON 23rd OCTOBER

FROM TOP DOWN: SQUASH ‘SUNBURST’, TOMATO ‘ORANGINO’, PUMPKIN ‘WINDSOR’, CUCAMELONS, INCA BERRIES, CHILEAN GUAVAS, GOLDEN HUCKLEBERRIES & DWARF TAMARILLOS

With the first frosts forecast I dashed out to gather all my fruit crops before they got clobbered. Notice that while the tomatoes (widely thought of as an easy-to-grow common veg crop) weren’t able to fully mature outdoors, the more exotic stuff ripened up absolutely fine.

TOMATILLOS (Physalis philadelphica)

Deliciously tart Mexican tomato-relatives that taste like a cross between a zesty lime and a beefsteak tomato. These guys are truly spectacular in salsas, dips or spreads & absolutely essential to the culinary arsenal of any ‘South of the Border’ food fanatic.

Fantastically easy-to-grow, and with a single fruit costing up to £2 in fancy ethnic delis, I don’t know why they aren’t more popular with us Brits. Fancy giving them a go? The seeds are part of my new Suttons Seeds range available to buy right here.

CHILEAN GUAVAS (Myrtus ugni aka. Ugni mollinae)

Reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit, Chilean guavas are infinitely easier to grow than a boring old blueberry yet far more delicious. Once cultivated commercially all over the South West, their flavour somehow combines the fragrance of exotic pink guavas with the fruitiness of ripe red strawbs, ending in a curious candy floss like sugariness. Pure heaven for the incorrigibly sweet-toothed.

MUSK MELON ‘EMIR’ (Cucumis melo ‘Emir’)

Thought growing melons outdoors in the UK was an impossibility? Well think again! A new generation of early-ripening, ‘personal sized’ melons like the variety ‘Emir’ have been specifically bred for the UK climate, which will fruit outdoors quite happily given a warm, sunny site.

Chose a grafted plant & give ‘em the shelter of a cloche while establishing (OK, I know this is slightly cheating) and outdoor melons a real possibility throughout pretty much the whole of the UK – not just the balmy south.

Fancy giving them a go? The seeds are part of my new Suttons Seeds range available to buy right here.

 INCA BERRIES (Physalis peruviana)

MY TWO INCA BERRY PLANTS, EACH OF WHICH KICKS OUT UP TO 100 BERRIES EACH SUMMER.

The impossibly exotic shiny, golden berries each come wrapped in their own papery ‘chinese lantern’. Combining the flavours of pineapple, kiwi & peaches, hailing from Peru and originally domesticated by the Inca, you might think they were impossible to grow in the UK without a Eden Project style biodome.

Yet incredibly these plants were once widely cultivated outdoors in Victorian Britain (they actually fruit quite poorly in the warmth of a greenhouse). Mrs Beeton even had a jam recipe for them, calling them by their Victorian name ‘Tipparees’. Look out for a post on my 21st century take on this in a few weeks. :)

The best thing about this food-mile free exotic fruit? Kept in their papery calyxes (cases) and popped in the fridge they have a shelf life of up to 3 months, making them the only homegrown berry you can eat fresh on your Christmas dinner table.

Add to that their ridiculous resistance to drought, pests and even light frosts, not to mention their sky high vitamin content & this has to be one of the most foolproof crops that can be grown in the UK.

Wanna get hold of the seed? They are part of my new Suttons Seeds range available to buy right here.

GOLDEN HUCKLEBERRIES (Solanum villosum)

These guys were new to my trials this year & boy did they prove their merit. Combining a rich apricot-like flavour and mega-productive habit, so far just three plants have thrown up over a kilo of berries. A relatively new introduction from Africa these plants are closely-related to our native common weed the black nightshade and have proved (for me at least) to be equally indestructible.

My only complaint about them is that the berries have a habit of bursting when removed from their little clusters, which can make them a little fiddley to prepare. It is also important to only harvest them when they have turned bright orange and are on the soft side, as half-ripened yellow fruit have only a bland, tomato-like flavour until they reach their full golden ripeness. In fact, I had initially dismissed them as flavourless and boring when I first picked them in July, until tasting them again several weeks later to discover that they had miraculously gone from watery to apricot cordial in a fortnight or two.

Wanna get your hands on some? I got mine from Plant World Seeds, who have a great range of weird & wonderful edibles. Definitely a site worth checking out for the experimental foodie grower.

PUTTING THEM ALL TOGETHER….

MY MUSK MELON, INCA BERRY, CHILEAN GUAVA & GOLDEN HUCKLEBERRY HARVEST IN EARLY OCTOBER.

FOOD-MILE FREE FRUIT SALAD 

A rinse, slice and sprinkle of homemade lemongrass cordial later & here was what I was scoffing: all the flavour of a pool-side cocktail, grown outdoors in sunny Croydon.

TOMATOES!

Never let it be said that I’m anti-conventional veg. I’m no exotic crop Nazi & love growing traditional stuff like heritage tomatoes, sweetcorn, beetroot & fancy coloured carrots alongside more exotic fodder. If it’s easy-to-grow and more exciting to eat than its supermarket cousin, I’ll give just about anything a go.

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Tomatillos, Musk Melons, Chilean Guavas & Inca Berries Cucamelons check out my new book Homegrown Revolution!

Maple leaf tempura

MAPLE LEAF TEMPURA ANYONE?

Posted on: October 24th, 2012 by James Wong 9 Comments

Crisp battered maple leaves, might sound strange to Western ears, but are an esteemed autumnal delicacy in Japan. So in the name of botanical discovery I dusted off my deep fryer to see what all the fuss was about…

MAPLE LEAVES IN JAPAN

When the autumnal chills of October cause the leaves to turn in Northern Japan, it sparks off the annual “Momiji Gari” or “Autumn Leaf Viewing” season. Whole families gather in parks, gardens and rural retreats to take in the sights of autumn by picnicking beneath the stately maples.

There are apparently even guides published as to the best viewing spots & daily weather reports of exactly when and where the best views will be possible on the nightly news. Indeed the turning of the maple leaves is almost as significant to the Japanese as the flushes of Sakura (Cherry Blossom) in the spring. But to me as a greedy foodie this is the most exciting bit….

MAPLE LEAF TEMPURA

To the Japanese the vibrant reds and golds of maple leaves aren’t just a pretty Autumn view, but a delicious edible treat that kids look forward to all year called ‘Momiji Tempura’. Sugared or salted and coated in a crisp tempura batter they are sold by roadside vendors in a similar way to how us Brits would have roast chestnuts – albeit sold beautifully wrapped in little boxes (this is Japan after all!).

Having never actually been to Japan, and with google images as my only guide, curiosity got the better of me so I just had to give these a go myself. I had read frustratingly contradictory reports that claimed that the leaves were either sugary and delicious or tasted of nothing and were there just to lend a attractive shape. Also there didn’t seem to be a recipe online anywhere either, so I have kind of made it up as a went along I am afraid. So here goes….

MAPLE LEAF, PUMPKIN & FIG TEMPURA

I felt to be a real autumn treat to bring a smile to your face as the nights draw in this really had to be a dessert tempura. With this in mind I swapped the normal iced soda water used in tempura batter for fiery ginger beer & ditched the normal tempura veg for fresh figs & slices of my tiny ‘Windsor’ pumpkins that are bang in season in my garden this week. A bit left-of-field I know, but hey so is eating battered autumn leaves…

The first thing I did was to grab a raw leaf and nibble on it to see what I was working with. The flavour was mild and slightly bitter-sweet – a bit like a cross between chicory & over-brewed tea. It was also full of some really unpleasant fibres…but I persevered.

I decided to enhance the flavour of the leaves by brushing them with a thin layer of sticky golden syrup as a sort of glaze. My internet sources described these as being ‘salted’ or ‘sugared’ before frying in Japan, but lacked anymore detail so I figured I was on the right track.

After slicing & glazing I dipped the candidates into a simple sweet tempura batter, made by sifting 100g of plain flour and 1tbsp of cornflour over 200ml of ICE COLD ginger beer & giving it a brief whisk with a pair of chopsticks. For tempura virgins, the photo of a rather lumpy batter filled with floury pockets above is (rather counter intuitively) how it is supposed to look. I promise.

Using the same chopsticks, I dunked the batter-coated figs and pumpkins into a wok of simmering sunflower oil for a minute or two until they were crunchy and golden, followed by the maple leaves which took mere seconds to crisp up. A drizzle of golden syrup & scatter of black sesame seeds later and I was tucking in.

THE VERDICT?

To my great surprise the deep frying process completely obliterated any potential stringy fibrousness in the leaves, rendering them as crisp and light as the batter. In terms of flavour, to be honest a typewriter would probably taste good brushed in golden syrup and deep fried, however I thought they were delicious – with their mild bitterness off-setting the sugary coating perfectly.

Definitely something to repeat, especially with the jamminess of the hot figs and soothing starchiness of the pumpkin slices – maybe even with a scoop of green tea ice-cream? A really fun thing to do with kids & great excuse to get out and go for a hunting for leaves, guaranteed to make an Autumnal walk in your local park something to remember.