James Wong's - Homegrown Revolution

Archive for November, 2012

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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!

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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!