Saturday 28 July 2012

New Potatoes

As well as my usual maincrop of Kestrel potatoes on the allotment, I'm growing spuds in sacks in the garden this year for the first time. I started the first ones - three 'Foremost' earlies - in late February, with a covering of fleece, against the wall of the house where it's a little warmer than in the open. They were growing by March 20th, when I sowed more 'Foremost' and some 'Charlotte' in two more sacks.

They all grew pretty well, and I earthed them up periodically until the sacks were full to the top. The foliage was so big and healthy I eventually had to stake it back to keep the walkway round the side of the house clear. But they took a long time to flower and I'm not even sure they all did - I blame the gloomy weather - and when I had a rummage around in the soil of my earliest-planted potatoes in late June I was dismayed that I couldn't find a single spud! Early potatoes are supposed to take 10-12 weeks from planting to harvesting - this was at around 17 weeks!

But I had broken quite a lot of the foliage off by accident when I was trying to keep the walkway clear, and realised that that first early planting wouldn't be able to grow much more anyway, so a couple of weeks later I gave in to curiosity and emptied the sack. I found the soil rather dry - apparently all the rain we've been having didn't reach them enough in the shelter of the house and didn't penetrate deep enough into the sack - but at the bottom of the bag I found several handfuls of beautiful firm white tubers. Phew! Some of them were tiny and I expect they still could have got bigger with more watering and more time (and without having their leaves broken off).

Fresh potatoes are so delicious, and we ate them up quickly in a Ligurian pasta dish with green beans and homemade pesto, and boiled and buttered with a pie. My faith is restored that something really is happening in the other sacks, and I quickly replanted the first with my last two 'Charlotte' seed spuds - I have ten 'Melody' spare too so I'll keep the cycle going when I harvest the others. Shrivelled-up seed potatoes that have been chitting since spring grow like the clappers - they were up in less than a week and growing at an incredible rate!

I'm a bit confused that all the potatoes harvested were right at the bottom of the sack - I thought the whole idea was that earthing up encouraged more tubers to form higher and higher up. I did find a tuber high up in another sack while rummaging, so this obviously can happen to some extent. But another piece of advice is to plant tubers in levels, so that you have more plants per sack, each producing tubers at different heights - I suspect this may be more productive and I think I'll try it next time...

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Perfect Paella

There's no cuisine quite as summery as Spanish food, packed with spice and summer vegetables such as peppers, green beans and tomatoes, and in my recent - and ongoing - efforts to feel summery no matter what the damn weather's doing, I've been cooking quite a lot of Spanish food lately. I've long been a fan of tapas, but one thing I'd never tried to make before was paella, so I gave it a try.

This is my first attempt. Meat and veggies plus short-grain rice, cooked in stock, with smoked paprika and chilli. What could be wrong? It was nice, but... it wasn't exciting. It was lacking something and I couldn't put my finger on what. So I made it my mission to find out a bit more about making the perfect paella... And three or four paellas later, I think I've cracked it!

The Pan
Paella must be cooked in a wide, flat pan, to make sure the rice cooks in a shallow layer and the stock reduces effectively. But if you don't have a proper paella pan, another large flat pan will do just fine - I made the recipe below in a 28cm saute pan (though a few cm larger would have made life a bit easier).

The Rice
Authentic paella rices are Spanish and include Bomba (the best!), Bahia or Calasparra, but you can use any short grain rice and Arborio - the Italian rice commonly used for risottos - is a pretty good option. (In fact, I preferred Arborio to Sainsbury's 'Paella Rice', the variety of which is unspecified.) These types of rice hold their shape by remaining firm in the middle, whereas long-grain rice goes soft throughout, and they absorb a great deal of flavour as they cook, increasing drastically in size.

The Sofrito
This is simply a paste of chopped onions and tomatoes, cooked down to a dark, rich reduction. It adds so much to the flavour and really transforms the dish - paella isn't paella without it.

The Saffron
I've never been much of a believer in buying massively expensive foodstuffs that don't last very long or go very far... But I was really glad I bought saffron for my paella - there isn't really a substitute for the subtle richness and aroma it adds. (And I hope to be growing my own saffron in the garden starting this autumn - woohoo!) Use it.

The Soccarat
Now here's something I really didn't know, and which many of the recipes you'll find online don't seem to know either; you mustn't stir paella after adding the rice and stock. This is for two reasons. First, stirring encourages rice to release starch, go gooey and lose its shape, and in paella you want each grain to keep its shape. And second, you want the bottom to brown lightly; the crispy browned layer of toasted rice on the bottom is called the soccarat and is considered the best part of the dish - and trust me, it really is good. To get a good soccarat, add the right quantity of liquid (just over one-and-a-half times the volume of the rice) and turn the heat up high for a few minutes after most of the liquid has been absorbed, until you hear a light crackling at the bottom of the pan. After this, the paella should be covered and allowed to rest for five minutes, to allow the rice to soak up the last of the liquid.

The 'Fillings'
A traditional Valencian paella is made with chicken, rabbit, butter beans and green beans, with a seafood mix replacing both meat and veg in coastal towns. But mixed paellas using virtually whatever ingredients are handy have become popular across Spain, and across the world, so while many Spaniards will scoff at the addition of, say, chorizo, if you fancy it I say chuck it in! However, paella is primarily (traditionally) a rice dish, so try not to go so overboard with additions that the rice fades to insignificance! As well as meat, I like to have a green vegetable and a 'meaty' vegetable, such as butter beans or artichoke hearts, plus peppers for that summery sweet flavour. Or of course you could go for a veggie paella with peppers, a variety of beans, peas, fresh tomatoes, aubergines, artichokes, and even some olives. (If you're not going to use chorizo in your paella, I'd recommend adding more garlic, chilli and paprika than in the recipe below, as chorizo adds sso much of these flavours by itself.)

Nome's Perfect Paella
(serves 5-6)
  • Heat a little oil in your pan and add 2 or 3 diced chicken breasts. Cook until they're just lightly sealed all over, and stir in 225g chorizo, diced or sliced, and a green and a red pepper, diced. Cook over a high heat for a couple of minutes until the oil starts coming out of the chorizo, then push it all to the outside of the pan or, if you don't have room, remove from the pan and set aside for a few minutes.
  • Add a large onion, finely chopped, to the pan, cook a couple of minutes until translucent, then add a 400g can chopped tomatoes, keeping a little of the liquid back. Keep stirring and cooking until it reduces and darkens, but don't let it burn. This is the sofrito and adds loads of flavour to your paella.
  • To the sofrito, add 2-3 cloves chopped garlic, 1 tsp mild chilli powder and 1 tsp smoked sweet paprika and stir in. Then stir the chicken/chorizo/pepper mix back in to the pan.
  • Add 300g short grain rice (see 'The rice' above) and stir quickly through the contents of the pan. Now put that spoon away - you're not going to be doing any more stirring.
  • Add 250ml dry white wine, 500ml light, quality chicken/fish/veg stock and about 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, soaked in a little hot water. Sprinkle on 200g frozen/fresh peas or chopped green beans. Give the pan a little shake to even things out, and bring to the boil.
  • Taste the stock to check the flavour, spice and seasoning. Adjust if necessary, but try not to disturb the rice too much. 
  • Reduce to a simmer and leave uncovered to cook. It should take around 20 minutes for all the liquid to absorb/reduce - check at around the 15 minute mark and if it's still very wet, raise the heat, or if it's dry already but the rice isn't tender add a little more stock. 
  • When the rice is tender and almost all the liquid is absorbed, arrange 225g cooked king prawns and a can of artichoke hearts or butter beans (or 100g dried butter beans, soaked overnight then simmered 40-60 minutes until tender) on the top of the paella to heat through.
  • Raise the heat to brown the bottom. When you hear popping and crackling it's happening - stick a fork down there and keep an eye on it as you want a good layer of brown but no black! When it's done, turn the heat off.
  • Cover the pan with a lid, foil or a clean towel, and let the dish rest for five minutes.
  • Sprinkle the juice of half a lemon and a couple of good handfuls of chopped fresh parsley over the paella, and serve, remembering to scrape the lovely soccarat off the bottom!

Saturday 14 July 2012

The Solution to World Hunger

Well, not exactly. But some interesting statistics came to my attention recently which really show how badly we're doing at looking after the world.

Let me start by introducing you to the Dervaes family, who live in Pasadena, Los Angeles. In their 8,700 sq.ft. (1/5 acre) property they grow 350 varieties of fruit, veg and herbs, and, though vegetarian, they raise chickens, ducks, goats and rabbits, for eggs, milk and manure, and they keep bees and run an aquaponics system which produces tilapia while providing extra nutrients for their plants. The four of them grow 75% of their own food (99% of their produce) and have plenty of surplus to sell on their porch stand. They achieve this using all-organic and natural growing methods, companion planting and polyculture, composting and caring for their soil, eating seasonally and saving their own seeds. Take a look around their website - I've been following them for several years and they really are an inspiration.

While their efforts and results are exceptional, the Dervaes family represent something which most of us veg growers already know - with a bit of practice and dedication, with careful intercropping and proper care for the soil, it's possible to grow huge, enormous amounts of food on a surprisingly small area of land.

The world's population is currently estimated to be around 7 billion, and we've been led to believe that this is too many - that we can't provide for everyone - that the planet can't support us all.

The numbers, however, suggest something different.

If we gave everyone in the world - not every family but every individual - a quarter of an acre (that would give the Dervaes family a whole acre - five times the land they have now) then 2560 people could grow more than enough for themselves in a square mile. It would take 2,734,375 square miles to provide for 7,000,000,000 people.

2,734,375 square miles...

Australia is 2,941,299 square miles. More than enough.

So, in theory, we could put all the people of the world just in Australia with 1/4 acre each, and the whole of the rest of the world would be empty of people...

I know what you're thinking. Most of Australia is desert, and across the world there are all kinds of habitats unsuitable for growing food. Deserts, wastelands, jungles, frozen tundras. How much agricultural-quality land is there in the world?

21,852,301 square miles, that's how much (an estimated 38% of the world's total 57,506,055 square miles of land). Eight times enough.

There are caveats, of course. Africa doesn't have enough agricultural land to support its huge population. Our cultural near-dependence on meat would have to change. But it's clear we could do better.

Vast, habitat-destroying, soil-draining, chemical-hungry grain monocultures don't work. What works is diverse, local, small-scale polyculture that works with nature instead of against it. (And don't get me started on GMOs, or how developed countries buy agricultural land for cash crops in Africa...) While chemical products and genetically-modified crops are touted as the answer to farming problems in arid countries (and everywhere else), the results consistently show otherwise.

We're not overpopulated. We're just rubbish. Whether you think it's by stupidity, by greed or by design, we're doing this aaaaaall wrong. 

Thursday 12 July 2012

Six Strategies to Cope With Persistent Rainfall

At the beginning of the season I wrote about strategies for coping with drought and hosepipe bans. Hmm. Now, after two record-breakingly wet months, and amidst what is likely to become a third, I think it's time to start calling summer in Britain 'the wet season' and adjusting our practices to match, don't you? I've already talked about flooding, here, but what else can we do in future to improve the health of our plants when the sun don't shine?

1 - Look after your soil
Organic matter is a must for healthy soil; not only does it retain moisture to protect plants from drought, but it improves drainage too, by providing a more open soil structure. Dig it in early in the season, or spread it on top and let the worms do the work. Organic matter is even more important in heavy clay soils, which waterlog easily. To improve drainage even more, create a lighter soil by adding sand.

2 - Plan for good drainage
Raised beds are the ultimate in improved drainage for veg crops - assuming of course they are filled with good, well-draining soil. It can also be useful to plant on mounds or ridges. Aerate soil by spiking it to help drainage and drying. There is debate about whether crocks or stones in the bottoms of pots actually help or hinder drainage - scientists say they hinder it - but one thing we must certainly do is make sure there are enough drainage holes in our pots and make sure they stay clear. Raising containers off the ground on bricks or stones will also help. If you have a serious problem, consider a drainage trench or soakaway, filled with rubble or gravel, to carry water away. You can leave it open or top it with plastic sheeting and cover with soil.

3 - Restore nutrients
Excessive watering can leach nutrients out of the soil and leave plants hungry, so be sure to feed them regularly. Liquid feed, though, may do more harm than good in a very wet container! Blood, fish and bone is a great all-round dry feed which you can just sprinkle on the soil and allow the rain to water in gently, or work into the top few inches of damp soil. Rock dust is a highly recommended soil 'remineraliser', which I've just begun experimenting with this year - they say it improves plant health and yields dramatically... Seaweed is another good all-round plant-booster, that stimulates and strengthens plants against all problems. It can be watered in or used as a foliar feed on dry days.

4 - Protect your plants
I know I'm always whinging about not having a greenhouse, but this year it would have been more useful than ever. Cucumbers and gherkins dropped dead in the gloom and even cool-weather peas and asparagus grew painfully slowly. A little cover to intensify what few UV rays we've had would probably have been a great benefit. If this wet-summer trend continues, I think growing under glass or plastic will become more and more important, and I will certainly try to grow my cucumbers under cover after this year. Others that would benefit from it are tomatoes of course, French beans, peppers and chillies, strawberries and asparagus. Rosemary hates being wet, and I have moved mine into the mini-greenhouse where my aubergines and West Indian gherkins are already thriving. Oh, how I dream of my very own polytunnel... On another note, just like mulch can help in drought conditions by preventing evaporation, it can help in wet weather by absorbing some of the water before it reaches the soil. Use an impenetrable mulch such as plastic over the roots of waterlogged plants, or something absorbent such as straw or newspaper as a general cover, and pull it back on sunny days to let things dry out!

5 - Defend against pests and diseases
Keep on top of pruning, staking and mulching to keep plants off wet soil and improve ventilation - this will lessen the risk of fungal diseases. And be prepared for slugs and snails, which thrive in wet conditions. Hand-picking, beer traps, barriers of copper/tinfoil/eggshell/ash/sand, decoy plants (French marigolds are good), wheat bran, nematodes and organic pellets are all methods worth considering, and a combination of several of these is best! Encourage natural predators such as ground beetles, amphibians, hedgehogs and ground-feeding birds (thrushes, robins, blackbirds, starlings) by providing food and undisturbed habitats for them. Perhaps there is an opportunity to alter your landscaping to draw excess water to a pond or bog garden, and make the most of the excess water to encourage wildlife! Slugs also struggle to feed on high-up plants, so climbing plants are less at risk, as are those on roofs and windowsills.

6 - Pollinate
Rain keeps pollinating insects at home indoors, and pollination of my tomatoes in particular has been very poor so far this year. Tomatoes and peppers are self pollinating and only require a shake or a flick on the back of the flower to pollinate them. Others can be carefully hand-pollinated using a soft paintbrush.

What about you? How do you plan to improve things for your crops if next season is as wet and gloomy as this one?

Monday 9 July 2012

Great Garlic

My garlic harvests to date have always been rather pathetic - small bulbs and few of them. But this time round I tried overwintering my garlic - planting it last autumn and harvesting, well, now, and I added a sprinkle of onion fertiliser to the soil before planting to give it a bit of a boost. It's been a great success!

The garlic (Provence Wight) grew strongly from the off and looked great by spring. Despite a bit of rust (no doubt exacerbated by the wet weather) they've been going for it all season, until recently when the leaves began to die off, signalling harvest time.

Digging veg up in the mud is never pleasant, but it became clear there was no point waiting for dry weather... When the sun came out late yesterday afternoon, we went for it.

Twenty minutes later, it was pouring again. Hmph.

But we were there by then, already getting drenched, so we dug the garlic anyway, and brought it home caked in mud. There were a few losses - some were just rotten and pests had moved in, others were pathetically small for reasons unknown. Some lost their protective skins as I dug them up and the stalk pulled off - is this because I left it a bit late to dig them, or because of the wetness and rot, or a combination?

But the vast majority are big, plump, firm, healthy bulbs - by far the best result I've had with garlic. Lots of them have a white mould on the outside - my first thought was the dreaded white rot, which I know I have in my soil - but the bulbs seem otherwise big and healthy and have good strong root systems so I guess that's not the case. Hopefully it'll just go away as they dry.

The whole house stinks of them!

After a couple of days indoors for the worst of the mud to dry off (I'm going to move them to a wire rack to improve ventilation), I'll hang them in the summer house to dry for a few weeks, then trim them and clean them for storage. I'm a garlic fiend, but this lot should keep me going for a while!

Monday 2 July 2012

Allotment update. Gah!

I'm finally starting to face up to the fact this is a bad, bad year for growing. Between torrential rain and scorching sun, and thanks to weeds thriving through the mild winter, we still haven't cleared enough earth to plant out our sweetcorn, beans, sunflowers and squashes, and they're languishing and potbound at home. Grass is taking over everything and slugs are eating everything else. We've had the worst asparagus crop ever, and the spring hail that blasted blossoms off fruit trees and bushes is going to mean a pretty poor fruit crop too. All my cucumbers and gherkins (at home) yellowed and died for reasons unknown - I suspect they just couldn't take the prolonged cold, wet, dull weather - cutworms (or something) mowed down 90% of my broad beans, and my shallots have inexplicably gone straight to flower without swelling to any kind of decent size.

At least the potatoes are doing okay.

The garlic is looking good and the onions are doing all right, albeit with rather liberal applications of (organic) slug pellets to try to keep it that way.

And despite a lot of slug damage and a few weeds as always, we're picking plenty of strawberries, which are always a joy.

We've achieved one of our allotment goals at least - we've finally planted up the corner patch we hardly ever use (hard, root-filled soil) with some artichokes, perennial cauliflowers and heritage kales - all planted through weedproof fabric to try to keep things under control...

I'm gradually covering it with stones to protect the fabric (it's gonna take a while!), and plan to plant some sage between the brassicas to try to keep caterpillars at bay - apparently cabbage whites hate the smell. I'll believe it when I see it...

At home, our tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, herbs, mangetout, chard and French beans are doing all right, I've resown a couple of cucumbers, and I might actually manage to grow some aubergines this year - they're loving the extra warmth of the plastic greenhouse - so all is not lost.

But I'm gonna have to accept we're just not going to get everything done on the plot this year. Sigh.
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