James Wong's - Homegrown Revolution

Archive for October, 2012

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.

radio4

BBC RADIO 4 COME A’VISITING

Posted on: October 1st, 2012 by James Wong 7 Comments

I nearly fell off my chair when Gardeners’ Question Time – the world’s longest running gardening broadcast – said they were coming to visit my plot. Here’s a brief photo collection of what they saw…

PART 1 - Sunday 14th Oct 2012  LISTEN AGAIN HERE

PINEAPPLE GUAVAS (AKA. FEIJOA) Acca sellowiana

The perfumed fruit of pineapple guavas have to win the prize as easily the most delicious of all hardy ‘exotic’ fruit, somehow fusing the flavours of pineapple, strawberry, guava and candy floss all into one silvery grey fruit. They don’t call this the ‘fruit salad tree’ for nothing!

Think those flowers look familiar? Well you would be right, the plants also live a double life as a common ornamental shrub that graces many a suburban back garden all over Britain.

PINEAPPLE GUAVAS ARE A COMMON SIGHT IN KIWI FARMERS’ MARKETS, WHERE THEY CALL ‘EM “FEIJOAS”

However despite only being valued in the UK for the ornamental appeal of their glaucous evergreen leaves and pretty flowers, their fruit are a major commercial crop from Colombia to New Zealand and Japan to Brazil. For some reason is is just taking us Brits a while to cotton on to their charms, with the fruit currently only to be found on the shelves of fancy London department store food halls, where they are flown in from the other side or the planet and sold for eye watering prices. Trust me, if you had to pick bets on the next ‘kiwi fruit’ (i.e. a previously obscure exotic fruit to make it BIG) then this would be it.

PINEAPPLE GUAVA LIQUEURS ARE HUGE IN JAPAN, WITH ENTERPRISING KIWI GROWERS EVEN TURNING THEM INTO SOME PRETTY SPECTACULAR DESSERT WINES.

Apart from good looks and fragrant fruit, this plant even offers up edible flowers (that have specifically evolved sweet, showy petals to encourage pollinating mammals to dust their fuzzy centres in return for a tasty treat). With a chewy marshmallow-like texture and a flavour like minty strawberries, they are one of the few edible flowers that are actually worth eating – and as you can pick the petals off without damaging the developing fruit you can indeed get two harvest from the same plant!

WASABI  Wasabia japonica

A close relative of the cabbage that thrives in damp shady corners where nothing else will grow & is completely resistant to cabbage white butterflies (the scourge of cabbage growers). The grated root is a seriously sought after Japanese delicacy used to create that wonderfully spicy green paste you get with sushi and on the ever-trendy wasabi peas.

MORE VERSATILE THAN YOU MIGHT THINK, WASABI CAN BE USED IN EVERYTHING FROM A BLOODY MARY ADDED TO A CURIOUS TWIST ON VANILLA ICE CREAM – WHICH’S BOTH HOT AND COLD AT THE SAME TIME.

Incredibly 95% of the ‘wasabi’ outside Japan actually contains no wasabi at all – it’s just a cheap counterfeit blend of horseradish and mustard dyed green (!) – meaning that until very recently the only way you used to be able to get hold of the real McCoy in the UK was to grow it yourself. With it’s altogether much rich and complex flavour, real wasabi is now being farmed by my mate James as a seriously premium condiment (a single stem is worth £30) down at The Wasabi Company in Hampshire. Look out for a full post on this story in the very near future!

LITCHI TOMATO Solanum sisimbrifolium

Now this is a great example of something that has failed my trials. I was excited to try it as a easy-to-grow tomato-like fruit, which is said to have a far superior perfumed flavour. Add that to the fact that as a common weed species in the Southern US it has an iron-clad blight resistance, thrives in drought & is super productive in the fruit stakes & I thought it would be a real winner. It even has showy, ornamental flowers. How could you go wrong?

Well after tasting one of its scarlet red fruit I very quickly realised (like many other edibles I’ve trialled) that there is a good reason why this isn’t a major crop. The fruit have a strange flavour, somewhere between a watery tomato and a insipid inca berry (aka. Physalis). Not only do they taste bland and boring, but the flavour that is there sits rather uncomfortably between sweet and savoury. Not sweet enough to make a good fruit salad ingredient and not quite savoury enough to simmer up into a pasta sauce. Then of course there are the vicious thorns that cover the whole plant including the casing of the fruit. That means you get a free acupuncture session with each fruit you pick. Sadly I think this guy is going to have to join the roughly 50% of trial species that fail my tests.Hey if you don’t give them a grow you’ll never know…

PART 2 - 21st Oct 2012  LISTEN AGAIN HERE

PERUVIAN EARTH APPLE (AKA. YACON) Smallanthus sonchifolius

Super easy-to-grow members of the sunflower family that thrive in our cool wet summers, Peruvian earth apples (aka. Yacón) have to be positively the most productive root crop that can be grown in the UK. A single plant can produce up to an astonishing 10kg of sweet, sugary roots in a single season. They even have pretty, albeit rather small, yellow daisy like flowers atop their tall stems of exotic foliage.

PERUVIAN EARTH APPLES ARE AN INCREASINGLY POPULAR ‘PREMIUM’ VEG IN STATE-SIDE FARMERS’ MARKETS.

Looking much like giant, dusty-skinned sweet potatoes, the flavour of the roots is altogether more crisp, refreshing and sugar cane-like – with a flavour somewhere between a water chestnut and an Asian pear. Their sweet flavour means they neatly straddle the culinary boundary between sweet and savoury – tasting as delicious in a oriental stir fry as they do in a tropical fruit salad.

WITH A SINGLE JAR COSTING UPWARDS OF £15 IN FANCY HEALTHFOOD STORES, EARTH APPLES ALSO HAPPEN TO BE ONE OF THE MOST PROFITABLE CROPS YOU CAN GROW!

Run ‘em through a juicer and simmer the resultant liquid down in a saucepan for about 20 mins or so and you will get a thick, caramel-coloured, maple-like syrup that is delicious on waffles and pancakes. The best thing? The sugars they contain are not absorbed by the human body – creating a super low-calorie sweet treat. It is even a good source of pro-biotics that can help boost the levels of friendly bacteria in your gut & may even help boost your immune system in turn. Why this isn’t a common UK crop I will never know!

EARTH APPLE SYRUP & CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

Here’s a delicious sounding recipe from one of my favourite blogs, sweetened with super low-calorie earth apple syrup. Click the image to get the recipe.

QUINOA (Pronounced “KEEN-WAH”) Chenopodium quinoa

MY QUINOA BLOSSOMS CHEERING UP THE CROYDON ASPHALT.

Basically just a great big, disco-coloured version of fat hen – the common garden weed – this superfood grain of the Incas is nevertheless incredibly easy to grow in the UK. Simply scatter the grains over bare ground in April and May and within days you will have a lush green carpet of tiny seedlings.

QUINOA GROWING AT 3,800M IN PERU. PHOTO CREDIT: WIKI MEDIA COMMONS

Come July the plants will erupt into bloom in a range of sunset hues that will easily hold their own in any flower border. Even their leaves are edible & can be cooked and eaten just like spinach, only without spinach’s nasty habit of collapsing and going murky brown on cooking.

FAIRTRADE QUINOA GROWERS IN ECUADOR. PHOTO CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Incredibly just 6-8 plants will produce up to a pound of grain, making it one of only two grains (the other being maize) that it makes sense for UK home growers to have a go at.

QUINOA PAELLA

Once you harvest the dried seed heads, as whiz in a food processor will rip the grain from the stems and a good soaking and rinsing later you are ready to cook them just like rice or cous cous – such as in this fun Andean take on a paella.

Stunning, delicious and offering up two crops for the effort of one – make space for a few of these little babies and you will never look back!

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat  Wasabi, Pineapple Guavas or Quinoa check out my new book Homegrown Revolution!