Monthly Meals – Second Instalment

Monthly Meals – Second Instalment

For anyone who read the last post in this series, it will be clear that this one is somewhat overdue, so apologies if anyone has been waiting for this installment (and yes, I do realise that writing about things we were eating in May as August draws to an end is a strange thing to be doing). You will be glad to hear that I have, at least, already started writing up the next, so it shouldn't be too far behind this one.

The first in this series of circamensual meals, covered a period of 6 weeks (if you missed it, you can find it here). Picking up where that left off (a week into May), this one will cover a similar period, taking us up to the end of the second week in June. Of course, writing up meals we've eaten over a six week period leaves me in a bit of a quandary about what to call this and future posts, as there’s only so many times you can put ‘ish’ after a month before it becomes annoying, and I don't really want to just number them 'instalment n', although that's what I've done this time. 
I'm also battling with another problem and that is how to format these posts. I'm not entirely happy with the approach I've adopted here either, which is basically to say, (1) Here's a recipe, (2) As well as some familiar ingredients, I also used x, y and z, (3) Here's some information about x, and about y, and about z. Next recipe, repeating steps 1 through 3. etc. Anyway, I'm open to suggestions if anyone has any.

Over the period covered by this post I made quite a few meals with Hablitzia and Sea Beet – as they were intended for inclusion in a post about those two plants. which I’ve now split into two posts. The first, which contains the Hablitzia meals, went live about a week ago (and is here if anyone is interested in reading it). The second, on Sea Beet, remains in the pipeline. At the risk of impoverishing it, I decided to include the Sea Beet recipes in this post. It’s one of the plants I use most often so I should still be able to include a few in the profile when I get round to writing.

One thing I will also say is that the meals below aren't the only ones we've made with things we've grown or foraged, only most of the time I'll grab a handful of something and throw it in with some pasta, or in a stir-fry, or on a pizza (and the plan is that any plants I use in this way regularly will eventually get their own write-up). Anyway, committing to writing these posts - however irregularly the intervals between them - is that I've been trying to use more homegrown/wild-collected ingredients in each meal, and to use them in meals that are our own making, rather than, say, just using them with the Pad Thai kit that I'm slightly addicted to at the moment. Anyway, here are this "month's" meals.

Halved Ciabatta topped with Samphire, Avocado and Wild Garlic Flowers

Only a small proportion of the ingedients used in this meal were homegrown or wild collected. I would love to tell you we picked the Lemons and/or the Avocados from our own trees, and that the black pepper was harvested from the little vine we've got on the go as a houseplant, home cured and freshly milled. But alas, our pepper vine has yet to bear fruit, and our Lemon and Avocado trees, sadly, do not exist - although we will, I am sure, rectify this situation eventually. However, I did, at least, collect the Wild Garlic flowers - the only particularly novel ingredient used - while we were walking in one of our local woods. And we grew the Samphire used on this occasion, although we are still a way off living the dream of samphiric self-sufficiency. Nevertheless, I'll say a bit about how we did so below, as I'm sure there are others interested in doing so. I'll also say a bit about the some of the other Samphires we grow, as they may be less familiar to some readers. Let's start with the recipe.

Ciabatta (or similar)
1 x Red Onion
2 x Avocados
Samphire (a handful)
Wild Garlic Flowers (a handful)
1 x Lemon
1 x Green Chilli Pepper
Black Pepper (to taste)

Chop the Onion and Chilli Pepper, and halve the Ciabatta. While the latter is toasting, heat some oil or butter in a pan, then fry the Samphire, Onion and Chilli together on a medium temperature. It should only take a couple of minutes for these to soften, at which point remove them from the heat, and add a splash of lemon juice. Halve the Avocado and remove the large seed in the middle and the skin, then cut into slices. Turn the Onion, Chilli and Samphire out onto the Ciabatta, cover with the Avocado and top off with the Wild Garlic flowers, adding another splash of lemon juice and some black pepper to finish.

The Plants
Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum), also known as Ramsons and Bear Garlic, is a relatively low-growing woodlander, with broad, tender leaves, above which clusters of attractive white flowers appear from around the middle of April. It grows across the UK, and where it does, it can often be found in abundance.

From a culinary perspective it is a truely excellent plant, which furnishes us with several different – albeit gustatorily quite similar – ingredients. The part most commonly eaten is probably the leaves. There are plenty of recipes for using these online, so I won't say any more about them here. Shortly after these emerge, the buds, which are delicious sautéed, become available. Once buds open, and the spathe becomes papery and folds back upon itself, and you can pick the flowers. They make an excellent garnish (as in this recipe) or addition to salads, etc. A week or two after the flowers wane, the seeds, still green and immature, start to become plump and succulent, and can be picked and pickled - think garlicy capers - or simply tossed on an otherwise unadventurous meals to make it a little bit more special - admittedly the jacket potato below isn’t a particularly good example of a meal made special by the addition of a simple ingredient, but it was tasty, and I'm inclined to think that that is enough!

There is also the bulb, which is usually 1 to 2 inches long and a couple of centimeters in diameter. These can be used more or less straightforwardly as a substitute for regular garlic. They're especially good slow roasted in the oven on a low temperature, which makes them sweeter and a little less pungent, or used as a garlicy alternative to pickling onions. The only caveat I would add is that it is, I believe, still illegal to uproot wild plants from public land, so if you want to try them you should probably grow them yourself (you can legally harvest a few seed from the wild), or harvest from private land with the permission of the land owner.

Pickles notwithstanding, Wild Garlic is still a fairly seasonal treat, but one of the beauties of it having multiple edible parts and growing in large stands, as it generally does, is that you’ll often find that individual plants within a given population mature at slightly different times, giving each usable part a slightly longer season. Once the season is up, however, you can substitute in other edible Alliums (there are hundreds). For the sweetly garlic-flavoured flowers used in this recipe, for example, you have a number of options (although my tardiness in writing this post up means that the time for harvesting most of these has now also passed, so this is more for future reference than anything else.). After A. ursinum, Chives (A. schoenoprasum) and Golden garlic (A. moly) are sending up their flowers. When they’re done, Onions (A. cepa) should be opening theirs, as should Rosy Garlic (A. roseum), and Sand Leek (A. scorodoprassum). If you resist the urge to eat the scapes - which I rarely can - flowers should be appearing on your regular Leeks (A. porrum) a little after that, and upon their wild progenitor, Allium ampeloprassum (if you have a flowering form, rather than one of the exclusively bulbiliferous varieties), and ornamental Round-headed Leek (A. sphaerocephalum). And there are many, many more.


Moving on to the Samphire, I should start by saying that there are in fact quite a few Samphires or herbes de Saint Pierre. The one used in this recipe is usually called Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea) when you want to distinguish it from the others. It is also sometimes called Glasswort (or Common Glasswort), because of its historic use as a source of Soda Ash which was in turn used in glass making. It is probably the most well known of the Samphires because it is the one that has found its way onto many supermarket shelves in the UK, across Europe and elsewhere in the world - that said, I've heard that a relative, Sarcocornia perennis is also sometimes grown commercially for this purpose, and with only the harvested shoots to go on it's not easy to distinguish the two.

Anyway, Marsh Samphire is an annual member of the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), which grows naturally in some parts of the UK, particularly on salt marshes. It is also fairly easy to grow at home, and although more suited to a sand bed, we've got a few plants growing in pots scattered around the garden. To get started you can buy seeds online (possibly plants too, if you look hard enough), or use the larger stems from shop-bought Samphire as propagation material. The second method has both advantages and disadvantages.

Fairly good results can be acheived by simply removing any lateral shoots from the bottom inch or so, and standing your Samphire in some water, with or without added rock salt (we've had slightly better results with, but that could be by chance). While not all of them will take, within a week or so you should start to see roots forming on a decent portion. And a week or so after that they are generally ready to be potted on - keeping in mind that they will benefit from a little extra watering while their roots develop. The main disadvantages is that only some of the plants started in this way seem to put on more vegetative growth, others just bolt, making it a roundabout way of getting hold of seeds for next seasons. You can get around this by starting quite a few at once.

Of course, if you're a perennial vegetable enthusiast, the truly tantalizing propect is that some of the plants started in this way could turn out to be the Sarcocornia. But while we have yet to hit the jackpot on this front, we do grow three other perennial Samphires: Rock (Crithmum maritimum), Golden (Limbarda crithmoides, previously Inula crithmoides) and Glaucous (Arthrocnemum macrostachyum).
I'll say a bit about Rock Samphire below as I used it in one of the other meals, and a little bit about the other two now to end this section.

The Glaucous samphire (pictured above - right), more commonly known as Glaucous glasswort, is closely related to Marsh Samphire, and so far it seems really promising - it tastes pretty much exactly like it, but as a perennial it can live (and produce a useable crop) for much longer. The biggest question mark hanging over it at the moment is that I'm not sure that it will be reliably perennial in our climate, as it usually grows around the coast of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Only time will tell.

Golden Samphire (pictured above - left) is an unrelated plant from the Daisy or Sunflower family (Asteraceae). It isn't particularly common in the UK, and its distribution - which is primarily coastal - is somewhat scattered. But while most populations are in the South, it has been recorded as far North as Dumfries and Gallaway. The specific epithet, crithmoides, means 'like Crithmum' (i.e Rock Samphire), which it is vaguely in appearance, at least, when it isn't in flower, and possibly also insofar as it sometimes grows on coastal cliffs, but not at all in taste. Neither is the flavour particularly like Marsh samphire - for a start, it's not especially salty. It is however pleasant enough, and although I have only nibbled a few leaves so far - this is our first year growing it - I could imagine eating it in reasonable quantities once our plant gets bigger, or when we have a few to graze from. The flavour actually reminded me of something, but I couldn't think what - maybe it'll come to me.

Perennial Vegetable Stir-Fry

There was a perennial vegetable stir-fry in the last post - although one more imaginately named and more carefully presented - and there will probably be more in future posts. What can I say, I like stir-fries. Anyway, this one involved several interesting (at least, I think so) ingredients: Chinese Toon, (Toona sinensis), Purple Tree Collard (Brassica oleracea acephala group), the Variegated form of Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria var. variegata), Top-Setting Onions (Allium cepa var. proliferum(?)), Buck's Horn Plantain (Plantago coronopus) and Five-leaved Akebia (Akebia quinata). As I discussed the latter in the last post I won’t say anything else about it here, and for the Buck’s Horn plantain, I refer the reader to our profile of that plant (here). I'll also postpone talking about the Tree Collard for a moment, as it features more prominently in one of the other recipes below. That leaves the Onions, the Ground Elder and the Chinese Toon.

1 x Red Pepper
1 x Carrot
2 x Cloves of Garlic
Tree Collard leaves (several)
Ground Elder leaves (a handful)
Chinese Toon leaves (a handful)
3 x Green Finger Chillies
Top-Setting Onions (a few small heads)
Buck's Horn Plantain flower shoots (several)
Akebia shoots (a handful)
Cashews (a handful)
Soy Sauce
Smoked Paprika
1 tsp Soft Brown Sugar
1 Serving of Rice Noodles

Chop the Peppers and Carrot into lengths, and the Collard leaves roughly. Cut the Chillies, and trim the Buck's Horn Plantain flower shoots, so there is only a couple of inches of stem below the inflorescence, and break up Onion heads into individual bulbils.

Add the noodles to a pan and cover with boiled water. Bring back to the boil, then turn down the temperature and simmer them gently until cooked.

While the noodles are cooking, heat some oil in a wok or large frying pan, then add all of the vegetables and the cashew nuts. While these are cooking chop the garlic finely and put to one side. Once your vegetables have had chance to soften, turn the heat down, and push them all to one side of the pan. Then position the pan itself so that the other half (without vegetables) is over the flame or heat source, and add a decent drizzle of soy sauce. Add the chopped garlic, brown sugar and smoked paprika, and mix into the soy sauce. Allow this to simmer gently for a minute or so, then mix it into the vegetables, and turn the heat back up to medium and cook for another couple of minutes.

By this point your noodles should be ready. Drain them, take the vegetables off the heat, and serve both together.

The Plants

The first, Toona sinensis, also known as Chinese Mahogany and Fragrant Spring Tree, is a large, deciduous tree, in the Chinaberry or Mahogany family (Meliaceae). It hails from Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, where it has a long history of use as a vegetable, particularly in China and Malaysia. The young leaves and shoots are generally eaten cooked, as they can be a bit chewy raw, but very young ones, particularly on first-year seed grown plants can be eaten raw, e.g. as a microgreen or when a little bigger, as a garnish or flavouring. At all stages they have a flavour that is difficult to describe, but with decidedly oniony overtones - albeit soft ones, more like cooked or browned onions, without the stronger sulphurous notes - with a hint of Bovril or Marmite. James Wong has described them as 'like beef crisps with a rich flavour and distinctly bold, onion-like aroma'. Personally I really like them, but as you might expect the flavour can divide people. Still, if they don't sound appetising, take comfort in knowing that when they're used with other ingredients, as in a stir-fry, the flavour isn't overpowering. On most varieties the leaves are a coppery red colour in Spring that slowly softens to green, but there is also an ornamental variety, called 'Flamingo', which has bright pink Spring leaves.

Top-setting onions, also known as Tree Onions, Wakling Onions, and Egyptian Walking Onions, among other things, are an unusual variety of Onion, often described as Allium cepa var. proliferum. Their main point of interest is that they produce, in addition to the usual underground bulbs, a cluster of small aerial onions at the top of tall flower stalks in place of flowers (or almost competely so - there are often still a few individual flowers). If you provide a bit of support, they will often sprout, giving you a bunch of airborne spring onions. Without this this cluster of top-sets (botanically known as 'bulbils') eventually becomes too heavy for the stem and flop down to the ground where they take root and establish a new clump. Left to their own devices, therefore, they appear to walk around your garden or allotment from year to year.

We grow one of the red varieties - there are also white ones - which we acquired six or so years ago from an eBay seller who advertised them as 'Moritz', an American heirloom variety. The bulbils are also often red, although they sometimes emerge green or white and only develop their colour when mature. 

By most accounts Top-setting onions originated as a hybrid between the Common Onion (Allium cepa) and the Bunching Onion (A. fistulosum), and to reflect this they are also sometimes referred to as A. x proliferum. As far as I can tell, most, possibly all, of the diploid varieties (2x=2n=16) did originate as crosses between these species. But there are also triploid viviparous Onions (2x=2n=24), and while I haven't read the latest work on this, some older studies excluded A. fistulosum from from their ancestry (Maaß 1999).

I like edible Alliums, grow quite a few and would love to grow even more in the future, so perhaps I'll dedicate a post to them at some point. For now, I'll simply note that quite a few other species share the Top-Setting Onion's viviparous tendency. For example, cultivated Garlic (A. sativum) often does so, as do at least four of our native species - Wild Leeks (A. ampeloprasum), Sand Leek (A. scorodoprasum), Few-Flowered Leeks (A. paradoxum), and Crow Garlic (A. vineale) - as do common ornamentals A. roseum and A. caeruleum. All that I have tasted (and that includes all of these species) have made for good eating.

The last plant I'll say a bit about, Ground Elder, is one of several thought to have been brought to our shores by the Romans, who prized it as a vegetable - it has naturalized across the British Isles. A perennial member of the Carrot Family (Apiaceae) it thrives in any moist, slightly shaded spot, much to the chagrin of gardeners across the country. Indeed, its ability to spread via seed and underground rhizomes - and to regrow from small pieces of the latter when the soil is disturbed - allowing it to colonise an area quickly, has earned it a place alongside such abominations as Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica), Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), Creeping Bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides), Few-Flowered and Three-Cornered Leek (Allium paradoxum and A. triquetrum), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Lesser Celendine (Ficaria verna), the Common and Creeping Woodsorrels (Oxalis acetosella and O. corniculata). Of course, I'm cherry picking my examples - and I do realise that it is sometimes with good reasons that people are unhappy about the presence of at least some of these plants in some settings - but it's worth noting that all of them furnish excellent vegetables. Perhaps, then, at least some of the ire they attract is misdirected, and the assumptions which fuel it, in need of reconsideration. 

Anyway, mature Ground Elder has quite a strong, lingering flavour when eaten raw, and the stems are still quite strong even when cooked. The young leaves, together with their long, thin petioles, are our favourite part, and often make it into our salads when they are in season - they taste a bit like parsley with a hint of sorrel. Slightly older leaves, which no longer have the glossy leaf-surface that marks the youngest ones, are still very good cooked up to about the end of May. Although, as with many perennial vegetables, particularly the most vigorous ones, you can cut Ground Elder to the ground after the first flush of leaves, promoting more new growth, and extending the season.

Homemade Sea Beet Bread with Rock Samphire and a Red Onion and Tomato Chutney

This was a meal in two parts - three if you count leaving the dough to rise overnight as a separate step - as I made the Sea Beet bread the day before, and had a few slices while it was still warm with some butter. The next day I wanted to try something a bit more interesting. Granted, I could have done a lot more - a whole coastal themed vegetable feast, say, with the Sea Beet bread on the side - but what resulted was this, and it was, at least, very tasty.

The Bread:
Strong White Flour
Olive Oil
Sea Beet (a good sized handful)

The Toppings:
Rock Samphire (a few large sprigs)
Red Onions
Black Pepper
Balsamic Vinegar (nothing too expansive)

I made the dough seperately. Strong white bread flour, water, yeast, sugar, oil and salt. When I was in the habit of making bread regularly I would just keep a bit of the previous batch as a starter, but as I only do so sporadically now, I started the yeast separately in a cup of warm water with some brown sugar to get it going. I mixed this into the flour. And left it to rise overnight, covered with a kitchen towel.

The next day. I picked a nice big bunch of Sea Beet leaves. After washing, I chopped them roughly, threw them in a pan with some boiling water and cooked for roughly 5 minutes. After draining them, I added them to the blender. At this point I acquired a little helper. With supervision, our three year old blended the Sea Beet until it was a paste. This was added, to the dough, and my assistant stirred it. Although his attention kept wandering, with some direction from me, and much to his credit, he did so until the paste was evenly distributed throughout the dough, and the whole thing was uniformly green. This, however, satisfied his interest in what was taking place in the kitchen, so unaided, I turned it out onto a floured surface, and after kneeding it well, left it to stand for another half an hour.

Once ready, I rubbed the outside with oil, cracked some rock salt on the top, and put it in the pre-heated oven to bake.

Both I and my little helper enjoyed it.

The next day I picked a few sprigs of Rock Samphire, and set about making a simple chutney as follows.

Chop an onion and a few cherry tomatoes. Heat some oil in a pan and when hot, add them in. Cook on a low temperature until they begin to soften, then add in a few decent sized splashes of balsamic vinegar. Now when I say balsamic, I don't mean the really good stuff, as for this purpose the cheaper stuff, being thinner, is better. Anyway, let the vegetables simmer in the vinegar until it starts to reduce. Then, keeping a close eye on it, add a few splashes more, reduce this, and remove from the heat.

Finally, cut a few slices of your Sea Beet bread, warm them in the over, then add the chutney, and top off with Rock Samphire.

The Plants
As I mentioned above, I had planned to include Sea Beet, along with its close relative the Caucasian Spinach, in our latest profile. I still plan to write the Sea Beet post up at some point, so to keep it short here and only say this: Sea Beet is the wild progenitor of Beetroot, Sugar Beets and Fodder Beets, and the cultivated Leaf Beets, including Swiss Chard. It’s roots are almost always fibrous and more irregularly shaped than cultivated Beets, and not really fit for food. However, the leaves are excellent - like spinach but fleshier and more succulent. Compared to most cultivated varieties of Beta vulgaris, which are biennials, it can also be quite long lived. Our oldest plant is 5 years old and still going strong.

I also mentioned Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) above. Unlike its more commonly consumed paludal namesake, Marsh samphire, which it resembles hardly at all, either in looks or taste, it is a member of the Carrot family (Apiaceae). Also known as Sea Fennel, it is a perennial, primarily coastal species with a preference for dry, rocky habitats, and the only member of its genus. Rock samphire has, it is said, also been responsible for several deaths. Before your mind runs off with you, that is not because it is a vegetable equivalent of Puffer Fish, prepared properly or else perilous to those who consume it. Rather, because of its penchant for cliff-top, wild harvesting can come with certain risks. And when, a century or so ago, demand for it was particularly high, lives were sadly lost.

The flavour is quite unique. Raw it is a bit like celery mixed with carrot, fennel, pine resin, and petroleum. I know that might sound like a strange combination of flavours, and also, as potentially off-putting, but it's actually not bad. And although I don't generally eat it much of it straight from the plant, as I have been known to do with other things we grow, with other flavours to balance it (as here), I quite like it raw. Anyway, cooking seems to soften the stronger notes, and round off the flavour nicely. Lightly fried in some butter, or in oil, with a little salt, and a splash of lemon juice and it's delicious. You can also caramelize it in a little balsamic vinegar or white wine and sugar. And it makes a truly exceptional pickle.

The photo below shows it in flower, growing with Greek/Cretan Mountain Tea (Sideritis syriaca)


Stuffed Tree Collard Leaves

This was a bit of an impromptu meal, but one that I am very glad that I blindly stumbled into. It was prepared after a visit to my parent's house, which ended, as my visits often do these days, with me taking a quick peek in their greenhouse, in which we currently house a few of our more tender plants. Now Tree Collards aren't exactly tender - they can survive some frost - but unlike many of the Brassicas grown more commonly over here, they probably wouldn't survive our coldest winters, so as an insurance policy I have plants both outdoors and under glass. Anyway, on this particular visit I discovered that the plants had put on masses of leafy growth - such that, even with my love of both, throwing them in with some pasta or adding them to stir-fries (as in the recipe above) wasn't going to cut it anymore - I need to get creative. Now when circumstances demand that I exercise my creative or imaginative faculties the results can be a bit hit and miss. On this occasion I'm inclined to declaire it a hit, on the basis that I thoroughly enjoyed them, and will almost certainly make them again.

Although I had them as a meal by themselves as you might Dolmades - or their Eastern-European, culinary cousins Golubsti - they would also work well as a side dish. And like Dolmades, clearly one alternative to the method I haphazardly settled upon, would be to cook them on a bed of tomatoes, and then serve with a dip and/or a slice of lemon or a squeeze of lemon juice. Without any sauce, the stuffed leaves themselves would, I imagine, also make an excellent accompaniment to Sunday dinner, perhaps even the main part thereof if you're vegan/vegetarian (although you probably wouldn't want mash and roasties as well).

3 x medium sized Potatoes
2 x medium sized Red Onions
1 x Leek
2 x cloves of Garlic
1½ tsps Scot's Lovage Seeds
A few Scot's Lovage leaves
Several large Sorrel leaves
10 or so Large Tree Collard Leaves
1 x tin/carton Chopped Tomatoes

Peal the potatoes and cube them, then put in a pan, cover with boiling water, and cook on a medium temperature.

Chop one of the Onions and the Leek and fry on a low temperature to soften but not brown.

When the Potatoes are getting close to being done, wash the Collard leaves and remove the stems (or petioles, if you prefer). Place a metal seive over the pan the Potatoes are cooking in, and place the Collard leaves in the seive to steam. Every minute or so turn them so all the leaves soften.

Crush the Scot's Lovage seeds with the flat of your knife, then chop them, and the Garlic finely, and the Sorrel roughly.

When the Potatoes are done, remove the Collard leaves and set them aside. Drain the water off, leaving the potatoes in the pan, and add a knob of butter, your herbs, and some salt, then mash thoroughly. When you're done mashing, mix in the Leek and Onions.

Take one of the Collard leaves, place a large spoonful of your filling and place it in the middle. Fold the sides in, and roll, then place in a deep oven dish or lasagne tray, and add a few tablespoons of water. Then place in an oven pre-heated to 180-190°C.

While these cook, chop the second onion finely, heat a little oil in a saucepan, add it, and leave to fry on a low temperature. When soft, add a tin (or carton) of Chopped Tomatoes and a splash of water, then increase the heat to bring them up to temperature. When hot, lower the temperature and simmer. After 7 or 8 minutes, chop your Scot's Lovage leaves and add these and a little salt. Cook for another minute or two, then take off the heat.

Check on the stuffed collard leaves in the oven - chances are they will need a few more minutes (I think ours were in about 20 minutes in total). I rarely have a definite plan in mind when I start a meal - it's one of the reasons my carefully arranged photos of the ingredients are sometimes missing one or two things that I go on to use - but I decided to dizzle a bit of oil over them at this point and leave for a few more minutes to crisp up a bit on the top.

Once they're ready, reheat the sauce, and serve. If I hadn't made this meal off the cuff I probably would have presented it better, with the sauce in a bowl and a slice of lemon on the side. Instead I lined them up, and dolloped it on top - not, aesthetically speaking, the best decision I have ever made.

The Plants

So the perennial vegetables used in this one were Tree Collard, Scot's Lovage and Sorrel. I won't say anything about Sorrel as, although there are some really interesting varieties, it is a well-enough known herb. The only thing I will say is that if you happen to grow the variety 'Saucy' - which has pink, variegated leaves - please feel free to send us a division.

Tree Collard - as the two terms juxtoposed in its name suggest - is an unusually large variety of non-heading (or head-forming if you prefer), leafy brassica, i.e. a Kale or Collards. Unlike the other vertically ambitious Kales, which go by names such as Tree, Walking Stick, Palm or Jersey Kale/Cabbage, however, it can also be exceptionally long-lived - reputedly upwards of 20 years in some cases. It is also remarkably prolific, even in its first year. 

Leaves of the purple variety that we grow often start off green, but soon develop purple midribs, and later acquire a flush of purple around the edges, which exposure to cooler temperatures seems to accentuate. 

It is propagated almost entirely from cuttings as like some other perennial Brassicas, such as Daubentons, it tends to flower seldomly, and to set seeds even less frequently. And not that you'd want to rely upon self-pollination when it comes to B. oleracea - as plants can exhibits quite pronounced inbreeding depression after only a couple of generations - but Tree Collards doesn't appear to be particularly self-compatible. Our plants (all clones of each other) flowered earlier this year and the only flowers that went on to mature seed - at least, as far as I can tell - were the ones that I hand pollinated with another variety. 

It is only hardy down to about -5°C, perhaps a little lower, so it requires at least some winter protection in most parts of the UK (and you would probably do well to take cuttings to overwinter indoors as an insurance against harsh winters). Alternatively, it can be grown under cover, although you'll need to keep in mind that it can grow to over 2m in height. I imagine it would do very well in a polytunnel in colder parts of the country, but if several plants are grown in an enclosed space you should give some thought to ventillation, otherwise it may start to smell rather overwhelmingly cabbagy during the warmer months.

It also needs some pruning otherwise it can get a bit lanky. Another approach would be to harvest the apical leaves every so often to encourage branching. Pruning/selective harvesting also seems to make it more productive in the long run as it doesn't appear to be able to produce as many buds from the older, woody stems. Other than this, however, it is a very easy plant to grow, and one that is sure to become more popular in coming years.

Our other plant, Scot's Lovage (Ligusticum scoticum), is a much smaller, clump-forming herbaceous member of the Carrot family (Apiaceae), which apart from being a perennial that can live for many years, couldn't be much more different to Tree Collards. It grows wild in the Northern most parts of England, and around the coast of Scotland in amongst exposed rocks. It is similar to its larger cousin Garden Lovage (Levisticum officinale), but with a milder flavour - although mature stems and leaves can still be quite strong. As well as the leaves, the young shoots, stems, flowers, roots and seed can all be used – either raw or cooked making it a very versatile herb/vegetable.

The emerging leaves are generally mild enough to use in salads. Older leaves and stems have a pleasant, but stronger flavour, somewhere between Lovage and Celery, sometimes with a very faint hint of anise, and can be used sparingly in salads, or more liberally in cooked dishes – chopped finely they are excellent in tomato based sauces. The blanched (by excluding light) shoots are also very good, with much sweeter flavour.

In summer, small white flowers are borne in tight umbels, over the green stems which are typically flushed red at their base. The leaves and stems taste better before the plant flowers, but once it does, the flowers themselves can be sprinkled on salads. By using these, however, you miss out of the seeds, which have become one of our faviour spice, with an earthy, savoury flavour a bit like celery seeds but more complex and peppery. Like celery seed, they also make an excellent condiment when mixed with salt. The roots are also supposedly very good, with a more noticable flavour of anise - one of its common names is Scottish Liquorice Root - but we have still not tried these yet.

It is a very easy plant to grow, and it is surprising that it isn’t more widely cultivated. It prefers free-draining soil and a nice sunny spot – although it can tolerate some shade – but beyond that it doesn’t appear to be particularly fussy, and is moreover, very cold-hardy, and suitable for growing in even the most exposed sites in the UK.

Foraged Fritters

Britain's coastlines are an excellent place to forage as, even without counting the many edible seaweeds, there lots of plants that have been used for food, and many that are still considered gourmet ingredients. As well as the Sea Beet, Scot's Lovage and Samphires already mentioned, there is Sea Kale (Crambe maritima), Sea Aster (Tripolium pannonicum) Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum), Sea Plantain (Plantago maritima), Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), Sea Arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima), Sea Sandwort (Honckenya peploides), Sea Blite (Suaeda maritima), Oyster Plant (Mertensia maritima), Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), and the Sour and Sea Figs (Carpobrotus spp.) to name just a few.

After a trip to the beach, my little helper and I came back with a couple of handfuls each of Wild Rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) and  Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) greens, Wild Broccoli (Lepidium draba) greens and florets, and Meadow Salsify (Tragopogon pratensis) flower-stems. I didn’t have a particular meal in mind when we picked them, but figured I could work something up when I got home - this is what resulted.


A handful of Wild Rocket
A handful of Wild Broccoli
A handful Horseradish Greens
Several Meadow Salsify Flower-stems
1 x Potato
1 x Red Onion
250g Ready made Polenta
Some Cherry Tomatoes

Top and tail the onion and remove skin, and peel the potato, then grate both into a large bowl (use larger holes for grating).

Chop the Rocket and Horseradish greens, and the Wild Broccoli, add these to your bowl and in crumble the Polenta, then mix.

Take a handful of the mix and squash it between your hands to make a firm ball. Heat some oil in a pan then add these, and flatten with a large spatula or fish slice to make patties.

Fry until golden brown on one side, then turn over to cook on the other. Then halve your tomatoes and add these and the Salsify to the pan and fry.

When cooked on both sides and hot in the middle remove from heat and serve.

The Plants
As the plant behind the sauce, Horseradish will probably be familiar to most people even if they've never knowingly seen them growing wild or in cultivation. It is large, herbaceous member of the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae), and 
to my mind, an extremely underused perennial vegetable. The roots, from which the popular (albeit with an almost Marmite-like divisiveness) condiment is made, are excellent grated fresh into food. But they can also be baked - which prevents the enzymatic breakdown of intrinsic glucosinolates into the isothiocyanates responsible for their bite -  which yields a much milder vegetable, not entirely unlike swede. The leaves can also be eaten raw - although texture-wise they're quite chewy - or cooked, which transforms them into something closer to tasty, tender green cabbage.

I suspect what turms many people off growing them is that the plants themselves can get pretty big - so they need a fair bit of room - they're also herbaceous, which means you're left with a gap in your garden come winter, and should you ever want to move or rid yourself of it, it will resist your efforts, and regrow from leftover bits of root.

Wild Rocket, also known as Perennial Wall-Rocket, is another plant that people probably already know - as it's often sold in supermarkets as a stronger version of Salad Rocket / Aragula (Eruca sativa). What many don't know is that, despite the name, it really does grow wild here in the UK. Plants and seeds are also often sold in garden centers, and it's very easy to grow yourself.

Like Wild Rocket and Horseradish, Wild Broccoli, which is also known as Hoary Whitetops, is a member of the Cabbage family. It's also a close relative of the vegetable/herb Dittander (Lepidium latifolium, aka Pepperweed, Peppergrass, Pepperwort), although it doesn't seem to be as widely known as other edibles in its family. Like Dittander, it has a hot, peppery taste raw, although perhaps not quite as strong as its cousin. As this is caused by the same class of compounds as the heat of other firey Brassicas, once again cooking makes them much milder, as it prevents the enzymes responsible for the hydolysis of which they are the result from initiating the conversion.

Like Dittander as well It is known for its ability to colonise a fairly large area quickly, and to reproduce from small pieces of root. At some point I plan to collect seeds and get a few plants going in a container in our garden, as there shouldn't be any issue about inadvertantly introducing it to our neighbours' gardens as I am quite prepared to each each and every flower it sends up.

Finally, Meadow Salsify. One of several plants known as Goat's Beard,  it is a member of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae), and a close relative of cultivated Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), the latter also known as Oyster Plant/Root, for the supposed similarity in taste of its roots to the eponymous bivalve. Like its cousin, Meadow Salsify, has edible roots, leaves and flowers/flower stems. It is also rich in a white latex that excudes from the cut plant (and stains your hands and clothes brown if you get it on you). Where cultivated Salsify has purple flowers, however, those of Meadow Salsify are yellow - both species have large, leafy bracts at their base. They can also hyrbidize, and the resulting plants (known as T. x mirabilis) can have quite stunning with orange, red, or pink, flowers.

When in seed Tragopogon species looks like Dandelions on steroids. They also tend to open their flowers in the morning, and retire them around lunchtime, earning some species the rather long-winded name Jack-Go-To-Bed-at-Noon. 

Sea Beet Pakoras with Spicy Tomato Dipping Sauce
I don't have much to say by way of introduction to the last meal, except that it was another intended for the Sea Beet post. In a way though, it might fit better here, as although t
here are lots of different combinations of spices that you can use, one reason I chose the ones I did, other than their being to hand, was to give me an opportunity to say a little bit about a couple of them.

A couple of handfuls of Sea Beet
2 x Medium Red Onion
2 x Fresh Red Chilli Pepper
2 x Cloves of Garlic
3 tbsp of Besan/Gram Flour
2 tsp / a good squeeze of Lemon Juice
Salt (to taste)
Fresh Coriander
Black Cumin
Fresh Turmeric Root (roughly the size of your thumb)
1 tbsp Tomato Puree

Using a spice grinder or pestle and mortar, grind the Caraway, Fenugreek and Black Cumin. Peel the Turmeric and grate over the spices (use a grater with small holes). Then grate in one of the Chillies, and mix to create a paste.

Chop the Sea Beet and the Red Onion roughly and add to a large bowl. Chop the Coriander and add that, and the spice paste to the bowl, and mix throughly. The add the Besan, a tsp of water, and some salt and mix again (N.B. it shouldn't be too wet otherwise it will stick to your hands and never let go).

For the dipping sauce peal the Garlic, halve the Cherry Tomatoes and the remaining Onion, and chop the Pepper and the other Chilli Pepper into chunks, then blend them.

Heat a little oil in a saucepan, and a decent amount in a deep frying pan. Add the contents of the blender to the saucepan, and after forming loose balls with the Pakora mix (if they won't hold together at all add a little more water), add these to the frying pan, and flatten with a spatula, fish slice, or similar.

When the vegetables in the saucepan have started to soften add the lemon juice and the Tomato puree. After a couple of minutes, when it starts to look like it's nearly done, add some coriander and stir. While you're making the sauce, keep an eye on the pakoras, turning them occasionally until both sides are a crip, brown colour. Once they look ready, remove from the heat, place on some kitchen roll to soak up the excess oil, and serve.

The Plants
On this occasion the Turmeric was from a local markets, but while you mightn't think so, it is surprisingly easy to grow as a house (or green house) plant here in the UK. We have grown it for several years now, and have produced a small crop of roots in previous years. However, as yields aren't as high as they would be at lower latitudes - where it can be given a longer season - we're unlikely to ever become self-sufficient in this particular spice. On the other hand, it is quite an attractive plant, with large, bright green leaves that are fragrant when crushed. The leaves and young shoots are also edible, and widely used in some places - and their distinctive, aromatic flavour makes them an interesting vegetable and useful herb in their own right. Their size also means they can be used to wrap food while cooking.

We haven't put their cold-hardiness to the test but according to Eric Toensmeier it can survive temperatures down to -15°C (presumably only for very short periods)(see here for his list of Hardy Gingers for the Food Forest).

Moving on. I won't say much about either here, but it is noteworthy at least that Fenugreek (botanically Trigonella foenum-graecum, a low-growing, annual legume) and Caraway (Carum carvi, a biennial member of the Carrot Family (Apiaceae)) seeds can be sown, rather than eaten, and in both cases this yields tasty greens that you would be hard pressed to find in the UK. Caraway also has edible roots, and although we haven't tried these yet they are supposedly very good. The plant I really wanted to talk about, however, is the Black Cumin.

There are at least two plants that seem to go by the name Black Cumin, but the one I used in this recipe was Bunium persicum - the other is Nigella sativa, which also goes by Nigella Seed, Black Onion Seed, and Kalonji, when sold as a spice, and Fennel Flower or Love-in-the Mist (also a name for N. damascena) when you're talking about the plant itself.

Bunium persicum, also known as Kala Jeera and Wild Caraway, is a relative of the Greater Pignut (Bunium bulbocastanum), a plant that I would love to grow someday, but is quite sparsely distributed across the UK, and insanely hard to get hold of in the horticultural trade, as almost everywhere that offers it (or has done so) seems to have it's doppelganger the Corky-fruited Water-dropwort (Oenanthe pimpinelloides). The subterranean ‘nuts’ (tubers) of that particular Oenanthe are eaten in parts of Europe, where it shares some common names with B. bulbocastanum, but there doesn’t appear to be a particularly well established body of ethnobotanical literature to support its use. Nor are there any of those helpful phytochemical analyses, to put to bed the worries one sometimes has when dealing with a genus that contains, in addition to more firmly established edibles like Water Celery (O. javanica), some wildly toxic plants (e.g. Hemlock Water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata)).

Anyway, back to Black cumin. From a 'grow your own food' perspective it is at once a very exciting and very frustrating plant. On the one hand, it is a cold-hardy, perennial cumin (some reports suggest it can live as long as 12 years), that doubles as a root crop - like a number of its closest relatives it perenniates by producing an underground tuber, that is edible, and eaten across its natural range which includes Iran, Pakistan, India and Tibet. On the other hand, according to some sources, it can take four years for it to flower and set seeds, and possibly as long to produce a decent sized root. Hopefully they won't take longer than this otherwise I might have to revise my current conviction that this is still a plant with considerable promise.  

One reason for the lengthy maturation process is that like the common pignut, Conopodium major, it has an annoying secondary, apical dormancy. What does that mean I hear you ask, well the seeds germinate (and fresh ones do, readily with a couple of weeks of chilling in the fridge, in some damp kitchen roll and a zip-lock bag), they send their cotyledons up and their little roots down, but then they just sit there, doing nothing, until a few months later when the scant aerial parts turn yellow, and then die back to the ground.

This  may not be the case with all B. persicum seeds, for example, it could conceibably be induced by prolonged storage (we're not sure how old the seeds we sourced were). Even if it is ubiquitous, however, it might be overcome by a longer, colder period of initial cold-treatment. Anyway, even when they do fail to produce true leaves, thankfully that’s not the whole story, as they also produce tiny little tubers - often only the size of a mustard seed. 

I’m not sure exactly what combination of conditions the tubers require to sprout again, but left to their own devices they do not do so until the following spring – so I would guess at least a period of a couple of months cold, possibly a period of warmth prior to that. Either way, it may be possible to simulate these conditions and get it to complete two season's of growth in one year to speed up the maturation process. In their second year, they grow a little bigger, but still nothing to write home about, and then die back once more. 

Unfortunately we have never grown plants into their third year. Our first batch was lost shortly after dying down at the end of its second season due to an unfortunate quirk of which I have, in the last year or so, just about rid myself - an almost complete aversion to plant labels. Anyway, our second batch died down earlier this year, so hopefully they will return next spring. And while the chances are that they won't flower next year, I still have my fingers crossed for one or two precocious plants. If that does happen, however, I face a dilemma: either we harvest and use our first crop of home grown Black cumin or we grow out all of these in the hope of selecting for early (relatively speaking) maturation. Hypothetical as that is at the moment, I suspect I would choose the latter - I've never had a whole lot of success at plant breeding/selection, but dreams make life worth living. Of course, flowers or not, there is that other dream: a crop of Persian Pignuts. If either of those dreams ever becomes a reality - if Black Cumin turns out to be all that I hope it to be - I'll write up a profile, but for now - Adieu!




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