Stoved Salsify

Salsify is essentially a new vegetable to me 1. So I was excited when my colleague Kate brought round some Salsify from her veg box on our last team work day. (She always brings a nice vegetable for us to add to lunch). I don’t know if they’re always like this but these were particularly muddy specimens.

Raw muddy salsify

I thought I could scrub them clean so I didn’t peel them away to nothing, but they’re soft so the scrubby left marks which the dirt got into, and it took forever, so I peeled the rest.

I cooked them following a braising recipe from The Cranks Bible, it is a formula Nadine Abensur uses on various root vegetables, called Stoved roots (potatoes, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes etc). For salsify Nadine suggests using: a pinch of Marigold (veggie) stock powder, a pinch of saffron, a little olive oil and a big squeeze of lemon juice and enough water to cover. After bringing to the boil I turned it down and simmered for about 20 min until tender (the liquid is mostly evaporated). Then I added a sprinkling of parsley to serve.

Cooked salsify

I like how the saffron made them turn a nice yellow colour. They tasted lovely, though the flavour is very subtle, so the lemony-saffron sauce helps. They taste a bit like artichoke, but really, it is hard to compare them to anything.

I read that they’re a good crop to grow for eating this time of year when you might not have much (read: anything!) coming off the allotment, so I’ve bought some seeds to grow for next winter.


1. I remember we occasionally served some bland looking white spears as a vegetable at a private club I waitressed at in Montreal but I don’t remember the taste. I have a feeling they could have been prepared with a little more love.)

First spring seedlings!

At the end of February I sowed my first seeds direct into the allotment, and covered them with a net tunnel. A month later and they’ve started to come up!


The thin wispy leaves in the foreground are carrots, middle-right is mixed salad leaves, and the back row in Butterhead lettuce.

This is the first year I’ve had the allotment from winter (I only moved in April last year) and the first time I’ve grown salad or carrots there. You can see the ground is very dry – we’re having a very dry winter/spring – so I’m pleased they’ve worked at all. And that the netting has protected them from hungry birds and rabbits (so far).

This is a view of the allotment surrounding my new salad tunnel.

Dug over ground and tunnel

I’ve dug over the ground around it, in fact North helped me with that as some of it had been paths last year and needed a heavy attack with a pick axe. He also helped me colonise some of the back area of the allotment on the other side of the cherry tree, which you can see in the background in the photo above. I’m going to put potatoes in those beds this year to help break up the ground, which has a lot of roots, some probably belonging to the cherry tree, which I’m hoping I’m not going to damage. I’ve spread manure over the dug over ground to try to suppress weed growth and add some nourishment.

The only vegetables I ‘overwintered’ this year are these massive sprouting broccoli plants.

sprouting brocolli plants 24.02.12

Unfortunately they got partly eaten by mice a few weeks ago, so I’m probably only going to get half the harvest I should have had. The mice ate the little shoots that would have become the sprouting brocolli part, and left some poo behind – in case I was in any doubt whodunnit. It was maddening to think all the energy that went into these big plants (the trunks are thick and tall) would be wasted, but turns out the mice got full (or distracted) before they finished them off.

Sprouting broccoli head 27.03.12

This is a photo of the beautifully coloured head taken a month after that first one (today). They’ve sprouted very nicely.

bunch of sprouting broccoli

And picking them is a delight. My favourite way to cook sprouting broccoli is to brush it with olive oil and grill it. The leaves go all crispy (a bit like crispy seaweed you get in Thai restaurants) and the stalks and heads are tender and flavourful.

This next photo is of this year’s root vegetable patch. I’m trying to get organised this year and group vegetables by type, which makes crop rotation easier. I’ve sown carrots and beetroot seeds here and the middle rows will take parsnip seeds when I’ve finished getting the ground broken up.

rows of dug over soil

You can see what I’m dealing with in terms of soil here: sowing seeds is difficult as you need ‘finely raked soil’. Those clumps are sometimes the closest I get! For the carrots and beetroots, I broke up the soil as best I could, then ‘imported’ some finer soil from other parts of the allotment (where I had potatoes growing, and the odd molehill also comes in handy too) and sprinkled that in a thin row just where I was to sow the seeds.

Back at home the windowsills are full with propagating seed trays and young seedlings. We’re having some unseasonably warm weather this week (we seem to have by-passed spring and gone straight to summer) so I’ve been moving them off the window-sills and out into the sunshine during the day.

Seedlings in trays on table in garden

In this photo there are tomatoes, brussel spouts, cabbages, spinach, onions and leeks, basil, parley and lovage. I’ve also sown some flower seeds for the first time, not because I’ve suddenly taken a fancy to non-edible gardening, but because of their pest repellent qualities. I’m growing marigolds to protect my tomatoes and nasturtium to protect my cabbages.

September plenty

The hedgerows around us are covered in blackberries right now. Here’s one of the bushes I was picking from on the way to the allotment.

blackberry bush

My beloved chard plants, still going strong.

Chard plants

A few potato plants’ harvest. I should have stuck a foot in this photo for scale, some of them were enormous!

Red skinned potatoes on the ground

Rhubarb leaves over a foot long and wide!

5 rhubarb stalks and leaves spread out

And plenty of weed growth to go with it all.

This is that unused ‘eighth’ that I wish I hadn’t rotavated this year. The covering of manure didn’t manage to keep down the weeds. In a couple weeks time I will go on a rampage and tear all those waist-high, shallow-rooted weeds out of the ground, which will be very therapeutic.

Potato plants surrounded by very tall weeds

And finally, an overview for you. I thought you might be wondering how it all fits together. My plot is everything you can see up to the plastic ground covered area. It’s hard to tell the weeds from the plants at this point, which bothers me. Those weeds are so persistent. I turned my nose up at all my neighbours’ ground coverings but by the end of my first summer, I’m seriously considering it.

Foreground, L-R: manure pile leftover from spring; weed patch, small enclosure with brassicas and chard; row of potatoes; weed patch.

Background, L-R: squashes; cherry tree (the birds ate all the cherries before we got a look in. next year we’re netting it up); strawberry/beet patch; grassy area; potato row; kale row; potato row; beans row; large enclosure with brassicas and killer rhubarb.

Click on the image to see it full size.

Allotment overview sept 2011 564

Midsummer allotment update

In the new clearing I planted out sprouting broccoli and some tomato plants which my dad had found growing wild on his allotment. Oh I also planted some cabbage seedlings my dad had going spare too.

You can see how big those rhubarb leaves are getting here.

Young tomato plants and sprouting brocolli plants next to a big rhubarb

In the smaller enclosure where my chard is growing strong (and peas didn’t) I planted my kale and brussel sprout seedlings. I also planted a butternut squash and some tomatoes.

Photo of young plants growing under netting

I put some courgettes and butternut squash into a little patch of not-very-well-dug-earth left by the last (attempted*) occupiers. *My plot is ‘half’ a full length plot, which was given up when the previous occupiers realised it was too much work to do the whole thing. There’s 3 of them splitting their plot, so I guess I’m doing well to have almost half my allocation in operation.

Courgette plants with baby cougettes on them

I managed to find a spot at the end of a potato row to plant out a couple of the kale plants earlier, and they’ve come on really well already. Proves that keeping the seedlings in the modules too long stifles their development. Since the potatoes aren’t fenced off I just made individual enclosures for these plants. Don’t laugh, you should see the state of the brassica’s my neighbours didn’t net up!

Two little kale plants in chicken wire enclosures

The beans have climbed right up their stalks in the 4/5 weeks since I pointed them out next to the new clearing. In the foreground here are Romano beans grown from my dad’s seed. I’ve grown up on these beans but it is hard to find them in the shops so I’m so glad to have my own source now. At the other end of the row are some runners which Gill gave me and some spinach plants in between them.

Tall green beans

In case you don’t think all the wonderful things I’ve harvested are motivation enough, I also get to enjoy this beautiful view from the entrance of the allotment.

View over the allotments and fields with electricity line running overhead

This is looking south-west over the countryside between us and Milton Keynes. The allotments run down the right-hand side of this path up to the electricity pilon. The little tank about half way down the path is where the water tap is.

First summer vegetable pickings

Although there is still a lot of work to do (largely because it is my first year), the early/middle summer time is rewarding because we’re starting to harvest the vegetables I’ve grown.

Here’s my first potato!

Freshly dug potato with plant still attached

Not that it is hard to grow potatoes: I found one plant growing in a bag of stones I’d cleared away when digging.

Potato plant growing in a bag of stones

We were already eating our potatoes but the most exciting moment came when we pulled up and cooked the beetroot. They’re an interesting tubular shape instead of the typical round ones.

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One of our favourite dinners, which Han originally drew my attention to in The Cranks Bible, is grilled beetroot and halloumi with steamed green beans. This every day dinner became quite the celebration the day we made it with our own beets. The dressing is balsamic vinegar, olive oil, roasted cumin seeds and a drop of tabasco, in case you want to try it yourself.

Our own green beans weren’t ready yet (a long way off) so these were shop bought, along with the halloumi (goat rearing and cheese making are even further away!).

Plate of beetroot, green beans and grilled cheese on a table

The next thing we harvested, and which kept on coming until December, was Swiss and Rainbow chard. I first discovered this vegetable thanks to the Hackney Growing Community‘s veg box we used to get. Here are my first pickings of leaves lying on the netting which is suspended over the plants to protect them from birds.

Rainbow chard leaves lying on green netting

One of the dishes I love to make with chard is this tart, from a recipe on Helen Graves’ food blog. That delicious looking crust is made from carrots and oats (see my comment for the amendment I make to use olive oil instead of butter).

Close up photo of a crusty tart

Weeding, clearing and the reason for fencing

There is still a LOT of work to do during the summer. Those little brassica seedlings I was growing on my windowsill at home are quickly outgrowing the modules and I need to clear some more ground to put them in.

The problem isn’t actually so much the clearing of the ground, but the fencing it off to protect it from the little animals who want to dig under the veg, and so that you have something to attach netting to, to prevent birds pecking at the plants from above. I learnt this was necessary from my allotment neighbours, and from my own observations, evidence shown later in this post.

I recruited North to help with the job of clearing an area which had become overgrown with weeds since we rotavated. I guess we didn’t spread the manure thick enough.

Here’s just some of the weeds we cleared: some piled up in the unused quarter of the allotment (left) and others dumped on top of the manured but unused corner eighth (right) .

Pile of weeds in long grassesPile of weeds on top of manure

Between us, in a few hours, we had this 3m2 area weeded, cleared of manure and fenced in. In the middle of that little pitch is a rhubarb plant which survived us rotavating over and ignoring it for a while since it was hidden amongst weeds.

To the right of the new clearing is a row of beans that are just starting to climb, and then 3 rows of potatoes.

Square pitch of soil enclosed by green fencing

I didn’t bother to fence or net up the potato plants because I didn’t think any thing liked to eat them. Turns out this is true, but it doesn’t stop them digging under the plants anyway.

Something dug this big hole in my potato plant ridges, found a potato, had a little nibble and discarded it. I filled the hole in but it dug it out again and once those potatoes were gone it found another row to dig under. I have no idea what it was. Rabbit? Fox?

Photo of a hole dug under potato plants

Something else liked to dig between the stawberry plants. Well I’m guessing it was smaller, since the hole was. Later in the summer I found these little woody pellets around the hole. They were dry and broke up into sawdust like stuff.

Photo of a whole in between strawberry plants

Any ideas for what they are or what deposited them? Please add your suggestions in the comments.

Dusty pellets on soil

My first spring term at the allotment

I’ve decided to move my blog posts about the allotment from my Moving to the Country blog, to my personal one. I’ve written a lot about cooking here and it seems appropriate that I blog about my food growing here too. To catch up with the story so far, read We’ve been Alloted.

Lesson 1: Discovering the therapeutic benefits of digging

The ground was so hard. Remember that rotavator we had to take back because it was broken? I think maybe we broke it trying to break into this insanely hard soil. I learnt after the rain finally came months later that the soil can be nice and easy to put a fork into, but I didn’t have the luxury of waiting, as I had seedlings to get in the ground, so I would do this crazy dance balancing on top of the fork until it sunk into the ground (and then another to lever the rock-like earth out of position). Then I’d bash it a bit with the fork and leave it for a few days to get softened by, failing rain, a little bit of exposure to sun and wind.

See those ‘rocks’ of earth? They told me to plant out into “finely raked soil” on the back of the seed packet. Well that didn’t happen, I tell ya.

Fork dug into soil

Lesson 2: Patience

Digging was taking such a long time, and I was impatient to get things into the ground. But work was pretty stressful at the time and I found that after couple hours on the allotment digging work felt like a distant memory. So I learnt to have patience.

First 2 rows dug. Potatoes went in there.

First dug rows

Lesson 3: Start those seedlings early!

Growing brassicas at home on the window sill. These were actually my 2nd round of seedlings. The first round included chard (swiss and rainbow), peas, beans, radish and spinach. Potatoes and beetroot were sown direct in the ground.

Kale spouts

Lesson 4: Pause for the sunset (and hurry home!)

Sunset. One of the rewarding things about my evenings on the allotment is watching the sunset over the field. I just have to pop through the trees to the next field to see this view. And this was at 9:30pm. Of course I should be heading home by this time but there was always something else to do – or I simply hadn’t got down there early enough. There’s been a couple times this summer I’ve been planting out seedlings using my night vision!

Sunset over the field

Fiddlehead Ferns

I was very excited to find these unusual vegetables on sale when we were in Vancouver in May. I first discovered Fiddleheads when I lived in Montreal. They are a traditional dish in Quebec and the Martimes, as well New England in the States.

Fiddleheads packaged for a grocery store

Fiddlehead ferns are the unfurled fronds of ferns, but you can’t just pick any old fern, like these freshly furled ones we saw on our hike up High Creek Falls. I’m guessing we don’t have the right type of fern growing in the UK to harvest Fiddleheads since we don’t get them there (though we have plenty of bracken). Or could it be simply that no one knows which or when to harvest them?

Ferns out in the wild

Fiddleheads aren’t cultivated here so you only get them in season and they aren’t cheap, but they are well worth spending money on. Their taste is somewhere between asparagus and artichokes, and like those, they are delicious served with lemon and butter.

Fiddleheads prepared

To prepare, brush off any loose brown leaves and give them a good wash. Then trim the woody or brown ends off the stalks. To cook them I would recommend steaming them until tender. Then serve tossed with a dob of butter, a good squeeze of lemon juice and seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Fiddleheads served

Welcome to Chicago

We flew into Chicago on Tuesday evening, after catching a midday flight from Seattle (where we’d spent a few days visiting our friend Ted).

View from plane, somewhere over Canada.jpg

I got a window seat which was very cool. I love aerial views. I’m always trying to remember what I learned in geography, like oxbow lakes (formed when a meandering river takes a shortcut).

Hazy Chicago skyline.jpg

I also got a good sense of how Chicago is laid out from above.

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Lots of trees.

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Couple super tall buildings. You can just see the top of the Hancock building, the black blob peeping out above a white building on the left, and the Sears’ Tower, the big black blob on the right. We’re looking towards the east in this photo.

Bus-ing over highway in an aeroplane!.jpg

Once we had taxied over the train and car highway (very bizarre) we were quickly off the plane and greeting Duncan by the baggage collection. Then we went to get on the “L“, (equivalent to the Underground), which mostly goes overground or above ground here – L standing for elevated.

Transport highway.jpg

The line which runs out to O’Hare airport runs up the centre of a 4 lane highway. It is a bit full-on standing in the middle all that.

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And here is a detail of Duncan’s goofy wave in that last photo.

It is hot here in Chicago. Actually a bit hotter than usual for May, though June through August is always hot and humid. It’s been around 27 degrees celsius the last few days, reaching a staggering 30 this afternoon. Thankfully, our hosts, D&J, have air conditioning throughout their house. It’s like magic!

Here’s their house.

D&J's house.jpg

They just bought a new rocking bench for the porch there, which is lovely to sit in and watch the street or read a book. They live in the Albany Park neighbourhood. It is in the north of the City of Chicago, and is “one of the most ethnically diverse in the United States”.

Appropriately then, we went out to a Columbian place for dinner when we arrived, just round the corner from D&J’s house.

Grilled steak and chicken, Columbian food.jpg

This was the grilled steak and chicken dish (meant for one? we shared between 2!), which was deeeelicious. That’s a yummy empanada (top left) which we had as a starter, next to the green garlicy sauce, cilantro [fresh coriander will be known thus, while I am here ok!] and/or parsley, we weren’t sure. There’s a fried plantain on the plate too.

The next couple days we all had work to do, so we got on with that. This is me working in the dining room which has a mirror at the end, reflecting the lounge and its windows which look out onto the street.

Dinning room office.jpg

We did explore the local neighbourhood, taking a walk, checking out the local shops. I also went to the lovely Bloom Yoga studio in Rockwell for a class one evening. On the way home I made a little video of the “L” level crossing.

I was intending to take a photo of the station but my phone camera was on video so I got video instead. Out here the tracks run along street level or a bit higher, so there are lots of level crossings. I was in the middle trying to take my photo, when the bell started ringing, and I didn’t fancy being in the middle of the tracks when it went by. So the video starts with me dashing to a safe position behind the barrier! Hang on in there for the bit with the train rushing past.

There was more excitement to be had on my way home, as I saw a couple rabbits hopping around the wide grassy area between the pavement and the road. Chicago turns out to be ‘green’ down on the ground and not just from the air, which makes wandering about this neighbourhood very pleasant.

Okay I’ve run out of time – the new (gas) BBQ which North assembled in the garden today needs some food putting on it now. So I will have to save my impressions of downtown, which I explored yesterday, for next time. I’ll leave you with a little taster though – the view of downtown Chicago from Millenium Park.

Downtown from Millenium Park.jpg

Fusion stir fry with tofu and brussel sprouts

I love brussel sprouts but when they’re not being served with a turkey (i.e. when they’re being served in my house, as I leave the turkey cooking to the experts) and I’ve already sautéd them up with chestnuts and bacon a few times, I’m looking for something else to do with them. Enter (yet another) Yotam Ottolenghi recipe.

Ingredients part 2

This recipe demonstrates why Ottolenghi is such a king of Fusion cuisine. A spicy chinese stir-fry with brussel sprouts. And it has maple syrup in it too. Brilliant. The tofu is marianted in the maple syrup along with chilli sauce (I used chilli bean sauce as that’s all I had, seemed to do the trick), soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar. If you can get the firm tofu from a chinese supermarket which comes in water (like I did), you need to drain and press this first so that it will suck up the marinade.

Ingredients part 1

I even treated myself to including the fresh shitake’s as suggested in the recipe. A treat because I had to go to Fresh and Wild Wholefoods to find them (and so it goes without saying: paid silly money for them). I think you can find them in Sainsbury’s sometimes but that was not an option for me this time.

Middle of stir fry

I used little over half the amount of brussel sprouts recommended as that was all I got in my veg bag (once I’d peeled off the outside leaves which were looking a little worse for wear after waiting a week to be eaten!). I think these proportions were just fine.

End of stir fry

Looks alright doesn’t it?  Tasted absolutely fabulous. We had it with plain white rice.