James Wong's - Homegrown Revolution

Archive for the ‘Leaves and Greens’ Category

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!

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.