There are a lot of excellent blogs about online, but one that I particular like, and make a point of following, is the Backyard Larder (here). For about a year now, Alison Tindale, who runs the business with her husband Stewart, has been posting a monthly meal diary, showcasing the culinary virtues of some of the many perennial vegetables she grows and sells. Taking inspiration from Alison, I’d like to try out something similar on our blog. And if I can keep the momentum going, that will make this post the first in a series.
Now I'm never likely to get myself organized enough to follow calendar months exactly, but the idea is that I'll try to post five or six meals that we've made, over a period of roughly a month, using plants we've grown or foraged or both. We've already started posting pictures of some of the things we've been making to our Instagram account (here), and we'll probably continue doing that. However, we'll include more photos here, as well as a list of the ingredients and a brief description of the steps involved in making the meal, should you wish to try it. Other than that, we haven't really settled on a format yet, but as some of the ingredients could be unfamiliar to some people reading this, I'll try to say a bit about each.
I would have liked to start this series last month, but we had a lot on in March, setting up the shop and getting the website to look the way we wanted it to look and do the things we wanted it to do, followed by a push to increase our online visibility. One upshot of all this was that we didn't experiment much with the things we were growing, and our food was on the whole, pretty mundane. There were, however, a couple of things that might have made it onto the blog, and rather than just pass them over, I’ve decided to include them here. As a result, this post will cover the last week in March, all of April, and the first week of May, or as I put it in the title, our April-ish meals.
Open Sandwich with Bittercresses
Although most of the things we grow are perennials, the first meal features two closely related plants – Hairy and Wavy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta and C. flexuosa, respectively) - the former an annual and the latter usually biennial (although some are apparently weakly perennial). Both species have tasty, cress flavoured leaves which, despite the common name, have very little bitterness. The flowers, the tops of the flower stems, and the immature seed pods, also make good eating, although the stems of some plants, particularly near the base, can be a bit tough.
It's a bit of a stretch to say that we grow these little plants ourselves. They found their own way into our garden way back when, so all we actually do is leave a few to disperse their seeds each year so that we have a steady supply. It's also been a little hobby of mine to make a point of eating the smallest plants before they set seed, leaving only the larger ones, so that we can gradually select for more vigorous weeds - it’s a very light touch approach to plant breeding.
I like having the variety so I’ve tried, to the best of my ability, to keep a balance of both species - although I should confess to sometimes having difficulty determining which species I have. Hairy tends to have rounder leaves, straighter stems, and flowers with 4 stamens. And the long, narrow seedpods, which are known as siliques (or siliquae), that burst open at the slightest touch when mature, typically extend beyond the terminal flowers. Wavy, on the other hand, has wavy leaf margins, hairy, more numerous flower-stems which zig-zag up, flowers with 6 stamens, and seed pods which only raise slightly beyond the terminal flowers. However, both species are variable in all of these respects. And as if that wasn't enough, they can also cross with one another to form the hybrid C. x zahlbruckneriana, although this seems to be quite rare. But I suppose that is our problem, not yours! Anyway, the meal itself is a simple one.
Bread of your choice
Artichokes (in oil)
Hairy Bittercress, Wavy Bittercress or Both
Take some nice bread (in this case a sourdough loaf, but a halved ciabatta works just as well), toast it, then topped with red pesto, sliced artichokes, capers (not that it makes much difference but I think these were surfines), bittercress leaves and flowers, toasted pumpkin and sunflower seed, and a balsamic glaze to finish. Voila!
Risotto con Bruscandoli (aka Hops Shoot Risotto)
As well as a long history of use in beer making, in many parts of Europe the young shoots of the hop bine (Humulus lupulus) have been gathered from the wild for food, particularly in Italy. In the Veneto region, where they are especially esteemed, they are known as ‘Bruscandoli’. They are also, apparently, known by a number of other names in different regions: asparagi selvatici, aspargina, luartis/loertis, luvertìn/lavertìn, luperi, luppolo,urtizon, bertüçi, tavarini, although some of these are used for hops more generally (not just the young shoots) or for other wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius). To prepare, they are washed and lightly scrubbed to remove the hook-like trichomes (which can give them a slightly rough texture) and then boiled, steamed or sautéed. They taste like very good asparagus, and are excellent simply dressed with a little lemon juice and/or extra virgin olive oil, or in risottos like this one.
Young Hops shoots (chopped roughly)
Carrot or carrots (chopped finely)
Arborio Risotto Rice
Lemon (juice and rind)
Chop a carrot or two (finely), a few spring onions, and a handful of hop shoots (roughly). Fry in a little oil until softened, then add the rice, and let it toast in the pan briefly. Grate in some lemon rind, and add a splash of the juice, then mix a few teaspoons of bouillon with about 700ml water. Add about half of this and gradually add more as it's absorbed. Once the rice is cooked, add the cheese and mix until melted and evenly distributed. Top with toasted sunflower seeds, capers, and a little parsley.... I realise that toasted seeds and capers are becoming a theme.
Pasta with 9 Star Broccoli and Garlic Mustard Bread
I won't patronise anyone by giving instructions on how to cook pasta or broccoli, but the sauce contained tomatoes, onions, black pepper, salt, oregano, and olive oil, and as well as the he herb butter by blending a handful (or thereabouts) of fresh garlic mustard leaves with margarine, chives, rosemary and a few sprigs of golden marjoram. Instead, let me just say a little bit about the two featured ingredients, 9 Star Perennial Broccoli and Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), both members of the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae), albeit with very different culinary properties and flavour profiles.
The name ‘9 Star Perennial Broccoli’, is something of a misnomer. It is a perennial, but as the young inflorescences are partially fused, it is more of a multi-headed cauliflower than a broccoli. It seems to have been originally developed by a Mr William Crisp, from county Essex, around 1907. Where it went from there, I’m not quite sure, but by 1914 it was being offered by seed companies as far afield as Australia, one of whom described it as ‘the Greatest Vegetable Novelty Ever Introduced’. I’m not sure that it deserves that accolade – there are too many to choose from – but as it is one of the very few perennial cauliflowers available, and it tastes great, it is certainly an excellent addition to the edible garden. We sometimes sell this plant, and the product description in our shop (here) has more information about it if you’re interested – at the time of writing this we also have a few in stock, but the description will still be visible even when we’re out of it.
Garlic Mustard, also known as Hedge Garlic and Jack-by-the-Hedge, is a biennial herb that will be familiar to most foragers and many gardeners. It has earned itself a reputation as a noxious weed as it spreads quickly and can suppress the growth of some other plants, allowing it to quickly colonise an area. On the other hand, it’s an extremely versatile edible, with leaves, flowers, and immature seed pods that can be eaten raw or cooked, seeds from which you can make a condiment, somewhat like mustard, and a thick taproot from which you can make a pretty decent horseradish substitute, albeit without quite as much punch.
Like most (according to some sources, all) members of the Cabbage family, Garlic mustard contains compounds known as glucosinolates. Different species accumulate different ones, in different organs, in different amounts and relative proportions, at different stages of their life cycle and in response to different environmental factors. As soon as the plant cells are damaged, e.g., by being bitten or chewed, the glucosinolates present undergo rapid enzymatic hydrolysis - a process in which a they are broken down by water with the help of an enzyme, in this case, myrosinase. This results in a number of degradation products, although precisely which, can vary depending upon the conditions under which the reaction takes place. Among these are another class of compounds called isothiocyanates. These are responsible, in large part, for the characteristic taste of most cruciferous vegetables, including the pungency of mustard, horseradish and wasabi and the bitterness of other members, such as some kales. Some isothiocyanates also have a decidedly garlicky flavour and aroma, and these are responsible for the alliaceous qualities of a small handful of species in the family, including Garlic Cress (Peltaria alliacea), Garlic Pennycress (Thlapsi alliaceum), and Garlic Mustard.
We haven’t tried the Thlapsi as its distribution within the UK is limited to the South-East, but we do have one small plant of the Peltaria, which we received, as coincidence would have it, from the Backyard Larder. So far we haven’t experimented with it much, but raw it has a hot mustardy or cress-like taste with noticeably garlicky undertones. To my mind it is too pungent for garlic bread, although cooking freshly picked leaves or shoots for use as a vegetable should reduce its pungency by denaturing the myrosinase, and thereby reducing the potential for the inherent glucosinolates to undergo hydrolysis. Some of the garlic flavour would also likely be lost. The aerial parts of Garlic Mustard aren’t particularly pungent, but combine, as the name suggests, mostly garlic, with hints of mustard, and a decidedly green, leafy flavour. Definitely worth trying if you haven’t already done so!
And for the meal itself...
Sea Beet, Wild Rocket and Stitchwort Bruscetta
I’m currently writing up a post about Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima) and one of its close relatives, Hablitzia tamnoides, which will hopefully be up in a week or so. It was one of the first perennial vegetables we grew, and it has since become one of our favourites. Wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) is another favourite, more peppery than Salad Rocket (Eruca sativa) and perennial to boot! And although we have a few plants in the garden, there’s also a stretch of coastline not too far from us where it grows in abundance! Stitchwort (Stellaria holocea) is a close relative of the forager’s favourite, chickweed (Stellaria media), but unlike the latter, it isn’t a plant we’ve eaten that much of. I started collecting the young shoots (before flower buds appear) a couple of years ago after reading reports that they were good, but they’re only available during a very short window in the year. One thing we had found previously was that, once they flower the leaves become too tough to enjoy raw, although the flowers themselves, and the unopened buds are tender enough. So this year I thought I’d try cooking with them. Given the abundance in which they can be found where they do grow – in hedgerows and along the edges of wooded areas – I really could have done a lot more, but alas, there’s always next year!
A clove of Garlic
Some Nice Bread
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Sea Beet (a handful)
Wild Rocket (a handful)
Stitchwort Shoots with Flower buds (a handful)
Toast the bread in the oven. Peal garlic, slice in half lengthwise and rub on the bread, then add a dash of the olive oil. Top this with fresh, washed Sea Beet, Wild Rocket, followed by the Tomatoes (chopped finely) and Spring onion (chopped), and top with the Stitchwort, another drizzle of oil and a pinch of salt, the place back in the oven until cooked.
N.B. In retrospect the Stitchwort would probably have been better blanched in hot water first, as a couple went a bit crispy.
Taraxiatelle with Red Pesto and Roasted Tomatoes
I've loved eating Dandelions, leaves, flowers, petals, buds and roots, but somehow I never thought of using the flower stems until I read Around the World in 80 Plants, in which author Stephen Barstow talks about using them to make, what he calls, ‘Dandinoodles’. I've tried using them in this way a couple of times, and they're good. At least, they are if you don't overcook them as I did the first time - boil for more than a couple of minutes and they turn to mush. Building upon that concept, I thought I'd try a variation that I'm calling 'Taraxiatelle'
Dandelion flower stems
Baby Plum Tomatoes/Cherry Tomatoes
Pressed flat, the hollow stems can be split lengthwise pretty easily, so I picked a load, washed them, layed them flat on the kitchen work surface and then covered them with a chopping board and pushed down lightly. I then tore them in two along the seams that pressing them created, and although a little bit fiddly, it only took a minute or so to separate them out into tagliatelle-esque strips.
To cook I added three or four tablespoons of water to a frying pan, turned the gas up high, and when, after a few seconds, it began to bubble, I added the strips of flower-stem. It only took about 30 seconds or so for the water to have more or less evaporated, at which point I turned the gas down to the lowest setting, and added a dash of oil, while turning the taraxiatelle regularly so it was coated evenly and didn’t catch in the pan. When they looked ready, after a minute or so, I stirred through some red pesto, and took it off the heat.
Actually, before I did anything with the Dandelion stems, I halved some baby plum tomatoes and put them in the oven to roast, which meant they were ready at the same time. To serve I mixed the tomatoes into the 'pasta', and (surprise, surprise) sprinkled some toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds on the top.
One last note on this meal. I thought I’d try spent flower stems to see if they were still palatable, and I’m glad I did – they were very good, a little like chicory but with less bitterness, and doing this meant that the bees had already had a chance to enjoy the flowers.
Akebia and Five Aster Stir-Fry with Magnolia Petals
Akebia quinata, is one of the many plants, known collectively as sansai, or 'mountain vegetables', wild collected in the highlands of Japan, and has edible leaves, shoots and fruit. The fruit has a thick, bitter skin which is traditionally eaten fried. Inside it has sweet, edible pulp, which surrounds the seeds, which are also supposedly edible. The shoots are usually eaten cooked, and the leaves are made into a tea. Over here it's sometimes sold as an ornamental, with attractive flowers that have with a sweet scent that some liken to chocolate but which smells more like vanilla to me. We've grown it for a few years now, but this was our first time eating it, and sadly we'll probably have to wait another year to try the fruit, as for reliable fruit set you seem to need two genetically distinct (i.e. not clones of each other) plants.
The genus Aster had a reshuffle a couple of years ago, giving us several new genera. Going by the older sensu lato, there are quite a few edible Asters. However, we only grow eight... if you include the tiny Doellingeria scabra (syn. Aster scaber) seedling, which we do, as it's one of the ones we're most excited about! Only two of the species we used in this meal are still Asters in the strict sense - A. trifoliatus subsp. ageratoides (syn. A. ageratoides), and, A. tartaricus. The others three were Eurybia macrophylla (syn. A. macrophyllus), Kalimeris incisa (syn. A. incisus) and K. pinnatifida (syn. A. pinnatifidus). We also grow A. glenhii, and Sea Aster (Tripolium pannonicum, syn. A. tripolium) but forgot to include either.
We don't have a lot of experience growing or eating most of these, so we had to look for inspiration online. What I ended up doing was an adaptation of a recipe using Korean Fragrant Aster/Chwinamul/Chamchwi(Doellingeria scabra)(here).
Akebia quinata shoots
Aster trifoliatus subsp. ageratoides leaves
Aster tartaricus leaves
Eurybia macrophylla leaves
Kalimeris incisa leaves
Kalimers pinnatifida leaves
Red chili pepper
I started by simmering the mixed Aster leaves in a little water in a frying pan, and set some rice noodles off in another pan. Once the leaves had softened, the water was drained off, the pan was wiped dry, and I added some oil, which was put back on the heat. Then I added some chopped spring onions and some red chili peppers, which were fried for a few minute, before I stirred in the Aster leaves. The whole lot was fried for a few minutes longer, then I added some sesame seeds, toasted sesame oil, and a splash of soy sauce, let it cook for another few minutes.
While it was finishing off I drained the rice noodles, and chopped some of the petals, I'd collected earlier that day from my parents' Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana), to top it off.
And that concludes our April(ish) meals. I've been keeping a note of the things we've tried this month, and taking a few photos - some of which have already been posted to Instagram, and shared to our Facebook page and Twitter feed - and at some point next month I'll post our May(ish) meals.