Monday, 27 February 2017

Puntarelle - an Italian speciality chicory with a recipe for anchovy dressing

Puntarelle is a type of Italian chicory, especially popular around Rome, but virtually impossible to find in the UK. I’ve tried growing it from seed for the last couple of years but have yet to get a truly satisfactory crop. Like other types of chicory, the seeds can be sown in late spring directly into the open ground. They germinate readily, and when mature, around October-December time, should have developed a swollen heart of tightly packed leaves and shoots, protected by the outer leaves. The growing plants need to be kept weed-free and watered regularly but need little in the way of specialist care. So far, I have managed copious numbers of floppy outer leaves, and not so much in the way of juicy, crunchy heart, which is where the true flavour and texture of puntarelle lies.
Puntarelle, growing
Puntarelle sends up lots of loose outer leaves before developing its inner heart. Take care when weeding the puntarelle bed: the  young plants do look a lot like dandelions.

Having said puntarelle is particularly associated with Rome, I was delighted to find the market stalls were groaning with plump puntarelle heads on a trip to Venice earlier this month, so while I wait to get a decent crop in England, I was able to make some fresh puntarelle salad for myself.

The traditional way to prepare puntarelle is with an anchovy dressing, Roman style. The outer leaves should be removed (don’t throw them away: they’re too bitter to eat raw but can be blanched and then braised or added to a casserole) to reveal the tightly packed core with lots of shoots and buds. These are light and crunchy with a slightly bitter edge, as you would expect from a chicory.

Once the outer leaves of the puntarelle head are removed, you can see the tightly packed  shoots at the core.
Once the outer leaves of the puntarelle head are removed, you can see the tightly packed  shoots at the core.

Break off, or slice the shoots, and shred finely with a sharp knife.
Break off, or slice the shoots, and shred finely with a sharp knife.
Soaking the shredded puntarelle shoots in iced water helps to leach out of the residual bitterness and encourages the slivers to curl up attractively.
Soaking the shredded puntarelle shoots in iced water helps to leach out of the residual bitterness and encourages the slivers to curl up attractively.
These inner shoots are shredded into matchsticks and plunged into iced water for up to an hour so that the slivers curl up. The finer they are shredded, the more they will curl. They are then lifted out of the water, quickly dried and tossed with the dressing, made with anchovies, olive oil and red wine vinegar (I also put a little Dijon mustard in the dressing) for a crisp, light and crunchy winter salad.

Recipe for puntarelle with anchovy vinaigrette

punterelle with anchovy
For one head of puntarelle:

3tbsp olive oil (good quality stuff)
3-4 anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic
1tsp Dijon mustard
2tsp red wine vinegar or to taste

Chop up the anchovy fillets and add them to the olive oil (I did this in the bottom of the salad bowl). Crush the garlic and add that too. Mash the anchovy, garlic and oil mix together with fork or wooden spoon. Beat in the mustard. Add the drained puntarelle curls and toss well until all are covered. Drizzle over the vinegar a little bit at a time so that the resulting dressing isn’t too sharp, then season to taste.

Ever hopeful, I will be sowing puntarelle again in a couple of months time in the UK, in anticipation of fresh Roman-style chicory to keep me going over the next winter.

Where to buy the seeds: Cicoria Catalogna Puntarelle Brindisina, from Franchi Seeds 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Growing jicama in the UK

Back from her travels in Mexico before Christmas, MsMarmiteLover presented me with a small bag of jicama seeds. Jicama (Pachyrrizus erosus) is widely eaten in Mexico: its roots are peeled and sliced to eat raw, often with a squeeze of lime and some chilli. They are crisp and crunchy and taste fresh like apple, or water chestnuts. The seeds are very hard to come by in the UK, and here is our chance to try to raise a crop in London.

She knows I like a challenge.

Jicama is strictly speaking a tropical plant. It's a legume and in Mexico, and other Central American countries, it grows as a vine up to about 2m high. The very decorative blue or white flowers, reminiscent of wisteria, must unfortunately be removed if you are growing the plant as an vegetable crop. Taking the flowers makes the plant expend its energy developing the edible roots. It is only the roots which can be eaten: the beanpods and the seeds are poisonous.

To get these plants going in the UK, we need to get them going early. Soaking the seed for 24 hours prior to sowing helps with germination. They'll benefit from heat too, so I'll start the seeds in modules in the heated propagator and position it on the sunniest south-facing windowsill.

soaking jicama seeds
Soaking the seed for 24 hours before sowing will
help germination
If they're going to germinate they'll do so quite quickly but the seedlings will need to stay warm and light for as long as possible, so they'll stay on the windowsill, moving into a grown-up pot once the plants are big enough to handle. Once all danger of frost is past we'll transfer the plants to my greenhouse, which is sadly not heated but which happily hosts aubergines, sweet potatoes, and melon pears in the summer months. The plants will need some support if they are not to twine and trail around the greenhouse floor.

They need well-drained soil, loamy and/or sandy to help the roots develop smoothly, and also water in the growing months - irrigating the greenhouse isn't a problem - and after that, we just need a nice long warm summer. One like 2016 would do nicely, in fact.

Try Jungle Seeds  or Chiltern Seeds in the UK.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Mexican gardening: Jicama

Jicama seeds, valladolid market, yucatan, mexico

The Secret Garden Club loves Mexican food. It's difficult to obtain authentic ingredients in the UK, although this is continually improving, so in the past we've grown jalapenos, tomatillos, poblanos and mouse cucumbers.

I'm just back from a trip to the Yucatan, where the food is strongly influenced by Mayan ingredients - achiote, sour oranges, pumpkins and their seeds, habanero chillies and jicama. I tried to smuggle jicama back home in my hand luggage, but these were confiscated at Minneapolis airport, along with my beautiful white stone molcajete and my hot sauces. Sob. I'm still not over it.

Their habaneros are milder than ours, which is ideal as I find them too hot to be pleasurable in the UK. I love chillies but I'm not into all that macho posturing about heat. I want flavour rather than Scovilles. Fresh green and yellow habaneros are wonderful, simply sliced into food or served as a garnishing pickle.

I did manage to bring back some jicama seeds, so hopefully Zia Mays and I will be able to grow some of these radish-y/potato-ish roots. They are a bit like 'oca' but without the lemony flavour. You can eat it raw, say in a salad. I had it like that at Hartwood restaurant, with a hibiscus dressing. It was probably the best thing they served. Peel the tough skin off with a sharp knife.

It can also be used cooked, as chips, briefly fried in olive oil and doused with chilli salt. This time next year, the Secret Garden Club will hopefully be laden with jicama. I haven't yet found a place to buy them in London.

Jicama seeds, valladolid market, yucatan, mexico
jicama salad, Hartwood restaurant, yucatan, mexico
Jicama salad at Hartwood

Monday, 31 October 2016

Jerusalem artichokes in autumn

Jerusalem artichoke flowers sunchoke flowers

As relatives of sunflowers, you can see why Jerusalem artichokes are called 'sunchokes' in the US.

We are trying a batch in the garden. By mistake, I pulled out a root. The choke was tiny, scarcely bigger in girth and length of my little finger. They need more time. Zia told me to cut off the flower heads:
 'Too much energy is going into those and you need it all in the tubers'. 
I shoved the untidy but cheery blossoms into a vase. 

This is a perennial plant that originally comes from the New World, cultivated by native Americans. It isn't as starchy as it tastes, containing inulin. This is a good food for diabetics. The problem is the resulting wind, but if combined with cumin seeds, say in a soup or roasted with olive oil, that should help with the 'fartichokes'. 

Jerusalem artichoke flowers sunchoke flowers
Jerusalem artichoke flowers sunchoke flowers
Jerusalem artichoke flowers sunchoke flowers

Monday, 19 September 2016

Après summer garden catch up

autumn bounty: secret garden club

This is the list I sent Zia Mays just now, an update on the garden.

Rose arch gone mad.
Bramble tentacles everywhere.
I need to mow lawn but missed dry weather window.
Planting for winter.
Clearing up for winter.
fennel seeds

The tomatoes have been wonderful: dark beefy tomatoes and droopy plum pomodoros
Good amount of jalapeños, froze some, ate some, smoked some. 
 A few padrons, that I've fried in olive oil and sprinkled Maldon salt on.
Not many tomatillos.
No gooseberries.
1 mature fig so progress. Lots of baby fig buds, but there isn't enough season left to ripen them.
Lots of cobnuts but I picked them before fully mature, they were creamy and milky and then- they were all gone. Squirrels?
Tons of grapes, best to pick when not too ripe as they become hollowed out by snails.
Not many blueberries. They hide in undergrowth and are dry by the time I find them.
Saw one red currant? down near fig but wasn’t sure if it was a poison berry.
No artichokes at all. Not a one.
A few wild potatoes.
I’m doing something with the rosehips this year. Update: rosehip and chipotle jam.
Not much fennel. I've picked off the seeds.
Just picked the physalis, quite a few, but ripened late. Ate all of them in one fell swoop. 
No olives again. After cheery potential of flowers but no fruit.

one fig: secret garden club

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Growing a curry (House and Garden magazine)

Read the rest of the piece here in House and Garden magazine...

The Painted Garden: impressionism and horticulture


A London Afternoon in February

After my Calcotada meal near Piccadilly, I visited the Royal Academy exhibition Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse to recap on some much-loved impressionist paintings. I'd seen many of them before but this was a new perspective.
The theme was the role of gardens and gardening in impressionism.  Many of the impressionist painters were keen gardeners; Monet had more books on horticulture than he did on art. The exhibition also showed the Japanese prints with arched bridges that so influenced the water gardens at Giverny, which Monet worked on for forty years. Monet first saw a water garden at the Exhibition of Paris and employed landscape gardeners and botanists to recreate the water lily landscape that became so celebrated. A whole room is dreamily devoted to Monet's Nymphéas.

The French, from Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and the Nabis, Vuillard and Bonnard, had a cool palette, reflecting the blues, greys, pinks and greens of Northern France. They also admired the organic, less structured, wilder English garden rather than the formal 'don't touch the grass' French garden.
Moving further south, the exhibition hung a couple of works from Matisse, scratched out on thin paint with areas absent of detail, revealing warmer tones.
I discovered the oeuvre of Joaquin Sorolla, a Spanish impressionist whose paintings had a golden glow similar to the luminous work of his contemporary Maxfield Parrish. I love his painting of Tiffany, the stained glass artist who created the famous Art Nouveau lamps. Sorolla's paintings had a very different look to those of the French impressionists, reflecting the dusty burnt umber colours, palms and tropical fronds of Spanish gardens.
It's always worth going to see the original paintings: reproductions simply cannot do justice to the subtlety of colours, the strength of brush strokes. It was inspiring, both as a gardener and as a sometimes painter.

You can book to visit this exhibition at the Royal Academy here. It closes April 20th.