Thursday 25 October 2012

Get Cape Gooseberries. Grow Cape Gooseberries. Fly

I was given some physalis seeds at the beginning of the year. Physalis is one of those fruits I buy occasionally and then never know what to do with them. They look little a small orange tomato, wrapped in a papery case, and I find it very hard to describe the taste - sweet and fruity with a tart note is about as much as I can manage. I didn't feel they would be very appetising cooked. I also wasn't sure why I might want them: physalis plants spring up self-seeded every year, germinating from the kitchen compost. 

So we buy them occasionally from the supermarket and snack on them. A few overripe ones get thrown in the compost and it is presumably these whose seeds germinate later on the allotment - often intermingled with some enterprising tomato plants which self-seed the same way. These 'volunteer' plants never seem to set fruit (the self-seeded tomatoes never seem to get blight, either).

Physalis are related - fairly closely - to tomatillos, and also to tomatoes and aubergines. They're part of the botancial family Solanaceae. Solanaceae is the nightshade family, but don't let that put you off. They're also known as Cape Gooseberries, groundcherries, Chinese Lanterns (usually the more non-edible varieties, grown for the lantern-like seed cases) and improbably enough, golden strawberries.

The one you'll most often see in British gardens iPhysalis alkekengi, which is hardy in winter and bears the bright orangey-red lanterns. 

The name Cape Gooseberry is often associated with the edible plant, Physalis peruviana - the 'cape' in this instance isn't a geographical cape harking back to the plant's origin, but the item of clothing, referring to the case which covers the fruit. They grow in sub-tropical and temperate climes, and, I have discovered this year, in a cold wet summer in London. I thought it might be interesting to grow some physalis on purpose and see just how many fruit we could raise. We were also growing tomatillos at the Secret Garden Club and I wanted to make a comparison between two such close relatives. 

I treated the physalis seeds as if they were tomatoes or aubergines: sowing them (a bit late) at the beginning of March, two to a small pot under a cloche, and leaving them to germinate indoors in warmth. The seedlings were up two weeks later, and grew quickly in their pots, uncovered, on a sunny windowsill - see above.

By the beginning of June, they looked as though they might need staking in their pots. I also desperately needed the windowsill space to bring on the pumpkin seedlings and so, despite the fact that it was pouring with rain every day, out the physalis had to go, transplanted to a sheltered, south-facing bed on the allotment (left).                                                                                                                    They grew on vigorously despite the inclement conditions, and yes, by July they did need staking. They also came into flower, the flowers closely resembling those of tomatillos. In fact the general growth habit of physalis and tomatillos are similar, although the physalis are sturdier. The tomatillo plants were almost flamingo-like with their long spindly stems supporting multiple branches. The downy heart-shaped leaves of the physalis are a darker green and wider than those of the tomatillo. 

Physalis flowers: much of the foliage shown here is actually of the neighbouring
comfrey plant. You can also see several immature green fruits developing.
The fruit starts developing inside the green cases in July/August. If you gently squish the green teardrop-shaped lanterns between your thumb and forefinger you can feel the fruit, at first just the size of a pea, then growing bigger and bigger. Unlike the tomatillo, they don't split the casing, but when the husk turns brown from green, the fruit inside is ripe.

An unripe physalis fruit in the foreground, with one ripening behind it.
Trying out the first ripe fruits, the taste was a revelation. Having never eaten a physalis that hadn't spent most of its days in a supermarket before, I was unprepared for any complexity or depth of flavour. But that ill-defined fruity-and-a-bit-tart is so much rounder and syrupy - and yet still with a threat of tartness. Now I can see why you might want to make jams or jellies (and definitely a pavlova) from them. If all physalis tasted like this, we'd do so, so much more with them.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Plums and pickles

With autumn bringing a bracing chill to the air even on sunny days, and even colder nights, it's time to accept that the summer crops are over. Whatever fruit they have produced, they won't be producing much more.

With that in mind, it's time to finish up the remains of some vegetables, and to deal with the gluts in other areas. This year, I've been making lots of simple pickles, experimenting with different flavoured vinegars and aromatics to give the preserved veg a bit of extra zing. Earlier this year I discovered using apple vinegar, thanks to Mia Christiansen and Anna Colquhoun, at their Nordic Cooking Class, and I've used this successfully as the base for pickled quinces and pears, and also pickled beetroot. Last year, I pickled beetroot in horseradish vinegar and while it was delicious, it was also hot enough to blast us from one end of the room to another. Apple vinegar - or cider vinegar, they're the same thing - has made a much softer, more rounded flavour to the pickle.

The beetroot are small, no more than the size of a ping ping ball, because the beets that go in the autumn pickle are the leftovers from the summer crop, the ones that for whatever reason, never really swelled and made it - too many of them the yellow Touchstone Gold variety this year as well. They're small enough to be pickled whole.

Pickled beetroot
Beetroot - about 10-12 small beets
Apple (or cider) vinegar
½ teasp Szechuan peppercorns
½ teasp coriander seeds
2 chillies
2 garlic chive flowerheads (optional)

Clean the beets and place in a large pan. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer until just cooked. Much depends on size, but ping pong ball sized beets should be ready after 20 minutes.

Drain and let the beets cool. Meanwhile sterilise a jar into which the beets will fit snugly.

When the beetroot is cool, slip off the skins and trim the root and stem. Pack the jar with the beetroot and aromatics.

In another jar, add 10g salt to every 400ml apple vinegar. Put the lid on and shake the jar vigorously to dissolve the salt. When ready, pour the vinegar/salt solution over the beets so that they are covered. Seal and store in the fridge.

Aside from the question of whether to cook the vegetables or not, the pickling method stays mch the same whatever you are pickling: bring vinegar, salt, and also sometimes sugar, plus herbs and spices to the boil. My husband can't tolerate the smell of boiling vinegar in the house, so I, a) wait until he's out for the day before doing any pickling, and b) heat the vinegar, salt and sugar up in the microwave, as it seems to contain the smell a bit better than on the open hob.

Pack a sterilised jar full of your chosen vegetables, then pour the hot vinegar solution over them. Seal the jar, let it cool down then store in a cool place.

I took much the same route with elephant garlic. These crop produced 4-5 mature bulbs, each with 7-8 mighty cloves; I think  the rest of the plants must have got waterlogged this year. After roasting one whole bulb to mash and serve alongside a Sunday roast, I was left with just enough elephant garlic to pack a 500ml Kilner jar.

Pickled elephant garlic
20 garlic cloves
500ml rice vinegar
1 chilli
2 kaffir lime leaves (optional – you could use bay leaves, or star anise, or nothing at all)
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
250 ml water

Have a sterilised jar ready. Peel the garlic cloves, leaving them whole.

Place the vinegar, water, salt, sugar and any aromatics in a large pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for five minutes then add the cloves. Bring back to the boil and simmer on for another five minutes. You can do this in the microwave if yours has a good simmer function.

Pour everything into the sterilised jar and seal.
If the elephant garlic has been disappointing this year, like so many other crops, it's also worth noting the successes. I have a very old plum tree - I say very old, but I've no idea exactly how old it is, as I inherited it from the previous allotment holder. Its branches are covered in lichen, and there is no sign of a graft at the base of the trunk so I assume it is self-seeded, or planted before grafting became the norm? 
Thanks to this blog, The Garden Diaries, I think I have identified the variety as a Warwickshire Drooper. Certainly the tree has a somewhat weeping habit, and the plums themselves are yellow, blushed pink where they are exposed to the sun, and also sometimes with a slightly mottled look to them - they are not smooth and supermodel glossy.

The tree is mainly notable for its prolific consistency. Since I started work on this particular allotment nine years ago it has produced an astonishingly large number of plums every single year - and this year it has surpassed itself. Every single branch is laden with fruit. I simply cannot cope with all these plums, and in addition to sheer numbers, this year the fruit has been entirely free of plum sawfly larvae. Most years, despite the greaseband around the trunk and despite the fly trap hung among the branches, a few get through and worm their way into the fruit. This year, none at all.

So, we eat plums straight from the tree. I've made plum crumble and an approximation of Chinese plum sauce. And every year I make up a big jar or two of pickled plums and we eat our way through them over the course of the following year. Tart and fruity and fragrant all at the same time, they go brilliantly with pork, with duck and game, with cheese, and perhaps a bit more surprisingly, they are fantastic with Thai fishcakes.

Pickled plums
40 plums - choose firm-fleshed ones rather than overripe specimens or windfalls
500ml white wine vinegar
600ml water
600g caster sugar
2cm root ginger, sliced (no need to peel)
4 star anise
4 cloves
4 hot red chillies
1 teasp salt

Put the vinegar, salt, sugar and aromatics into a pan and bring to the boil, making sure all the sugar has dissolved.

While the vinegar is heating, wash the plums, halve them and remove the stones. Pack the plums into 2 x 1 litre Kilner jars, which have been sterilised (40 halves per jar).

Once the vinegar mixture reaches boiling point, take it off the heat and pour over the plums, making sure that each jar gets an equal number of star anises, chillies, cloves, etc. (You could scoop out the aromatics before they boil and add them to the jars when they are about halfway full of plums.) Seal the jars and let them cool down at room temperature before transferring to the fridge.

These pickled plums last about 3-4 months (less if they were pretty ripe when picked) before going a bit slushy and syrupy.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

The great nasturtium caper

No matter how pressed for space I am, I'll always find room to plant a few nasturtiums. I think of them as a superplant, both ornamental and useful in a variety of ways. They will grow happily without much in the way of attention - they don't need fussing over. The flowers are prolific and beautiful, cheering up odd corners, patio pots, and the backs of the borders with vibrant orange, yellow, pink or red flowers throughout summer and into autumn. Their scrambling, tumbling habit means that they make good ground cover and keep the weeds down, and they'll also climb over posts, low walls and up trellises, softening the view of harsh backdrops. (Admittedly, they attract blackfly like a magnet, but we can't have everything.)

They are ridiculously easy to grow. Each year, around April (or May, at a stretch) I push a few seeds into the soil where I want them to grow and water them in. After that, I treat them with benign neglect and they seem to like it.

Nasturtiums are great in the kitchen too. Shredded, the leaves make a succulent, pungent addition to a salad. Or you can mash up some herby cheese and roll it up in a nasturtium leaf like a cigarette. The flowers are also edible, lending a delicate peppery taste and soft texture to a salad, or scattered around a whole fish in a centrepiece, or just as a beautiful garnish to a vegetable platter.

When the flowers finally fade, around now, they leave behind little green seedpods. Brush your fingers through a tangle of nasturtium plants and you'll see them drop to the ground, the size of peas and a pale jade green.

The seed pods look like little pale peas
These seedpods too are edible, if pickled in vinegar, and have long been called 'poor man's capers'. They mellow with keeping, with a nutty taste and firm not-quite-crunchy texture. Good enough for everyone, I'd say.

Nasturtium capers
Nasturtium seed pods, still green, to fill a measuring jug to the 200ml mark.
200ml white wine vinegar
A pinch fennel seeds
A pinch peppercorns
2 bay leaves
(The vinegar and salt gives you a basic pickling liquor; the exact nature and amount of aromatics can be played around with.)

Wash and pick over the seed pods, removing any dirt, chaff, blackfly, whatever. Give them a good final rinse and dry on kitchen paper.

Sterilise a jar that will fit the nasturtiums snugly – a complete dishwasher cycle should do the trick, or wash in very hot soapy water, then dry by placing the jar upside down on a rack in an oven heated to 120 degrees.
Rinsing the seedpods prior to packing in a sterilised jar.
Put the bay leaves in the bottom of the jar and fill up with the seed pods. Bring the vinegar, fennel seeds, peppercorns and salt to the boil. I do this in a jug in the microwave – the vinegar smell is less pervasive. Then pour the liquid and aromatics over the seed pods in the jar. Seal and let the jar cool before storing in the fridge. They’ll keep for a good six months if kept chilled.