Welcome to James Wong's Tips...
BBC TV's award-winning gardening presenter James Wong is on a mission to tempt "grow-your-owners" into becoming more adventurous.
The renowned, gardener, designer, broadcaster and natural remedies obsessive says grow-your-own doesn’t have to be all about cabbages and caulis and wants to encourage gardeners to explore exotic edibles that can grow and flourish in the UK climate.
James will be giving regular monthly advice slots along with recipes from his exotic harvest.
Find out more about James at www.jameswong.co.uk
The Edible Garden Show is almost here!Open Close
I can’t believe there are only days to go before we’re back at Stoneleigh for The Edible Garden Show 2013!
I am gearing up with a whole new set of talks, revealing more weird and wonderful crops beyond spuds, sprouts and swede. Laying out the ‘Homegrown Revolution’ campaign to exotic crop newbies, my morning talk will give an express introduction to the vast array of foodie treats that can be grown outdoors in the UK, from Shark’s Fin Melons to Cucamelons.
A couple of hours later, I’ll also be running a talk called ‘No Garden, No Problem’ to highlight the enormous variety of fancy fruit & veg, from Kaffir Limes to Cardamom that can be grown as edible houseplants right through the year. These talks’ll run everyday throughout the show, sandwhiched in-between a whole program of exciting events and demos from my buddies Alys Fowler, Bob Flowerdew & Pippa Greenwood, amongst many others.
I’m also really excited to be teaming up with Suttons Seeds again to launch my all new range of plants, from Wasabi to Green Tea to complement the seed range that we worked together to create – introducing everything from Quinoa to Cucamelons to UK gardeners. If you fancy picking up a book, or just asking a question, I will be on their stand for most of the day to help you out with anything you need. I’ll even be joining the panel for a special edition of Gardeners’ Question Time, recorded from the showgrounds. Phew! I’m exhausted just thinking about it. See you in a couple of weeks!
Tips: February - Growing and eating New Zealand YamsOpen Close
Tired of watching your spuds getting clobbered by blight? Well fear not. Introducing New Zealand Yams, the delicious & super easy-to-grow spud substitutes that come complete with an iron-clad blight resistance. Hooray!
What are New Zealand Yams? Oxalis tuberosum
Despite their (rather confusing) common name, New Zealand yams actually hail from the highlands of South America where they have been cultivated since Incan times & held in roughly equal esteem to the common spud.
In fact it's really only historical fluke that has seen potatoes (also originally domesticated by the Inca) become a global staple, while these delicious little yams remain a well kept foodie secret. If the right conquistador had picked these guys up, fish & chips could look very different indeed. :)
As far back as the Irish potato famine these tasty, multicoloured tubers were tested out as a disease resistant alternative to spuds in an age when it seemed that the potato's ridiculous susceptibility to blight in our mild, soggy climate would soon make it commercially extinct. Tried growing spuds over the last 2 summers? Sound familiar?
So, why the name New Zealand yams? Well those kiwis are known for being far more excited and adventurous about alternative crops than us Brits and in the last 30 years they have risen quickly to become a standard supermarket vegetable Down Under.
How to grow New Zealand Yams
Extremely closely related to wood sorrel (a common UK garden weed) New Zealand yams are a cinch to grow even in our less than idyllic climate. You see the Inca were rather genius agriculturalists, with many of their prized crops domesticated from pernicious weed species - thereby creating super-vigorous, low-maintanence veg that would thrive through pretty much anything that is thrown at them.
In fact, they are already being cultivated on a commercial scale in Norfolk by my twitter buddy Jonathan Pearson @Freshfromthefen. The only thing they they really dislike is excessive and prolonged hot weather. Not sure that is going to be a problem any time soon.....
Unlike spuds, there is no need for dodgy chemical spraying or laborious earthing up & they even have tasty Bramely-flavoured, shamrock-shaped leaves - meaning two harvests from the same plant. Neat huh?
There are only two golden rules to bear in mind. Firstly much like regular potatoes, New Zealand yams benefit from being tricked into growth early indoors (i.e. what plant geeks call 'chitting'). I like to do this buy potting them up in a seed compost on a sunny windowsill in late March or early April, then planting established plants out after all risk of frost has past in May.
Secondly, it is important to leave these little guys in the ground for as long as possible - until a good 2 weeks after the first hard frosts cuts down their foliage. This is because the plants only begin to kick out tubers rather late in the year, so the longer you leave them the better your yields will be. If you are keen on growing these in the far North or a freakishly early frost is forecast a simple tip to up your yields is to pop a couple of cloches over your plants as the nights begin to draw in in Autumn.
How to cook New Zealand Yams
Way more versatile than the humble spud, New Zealand yams are delicious both raw and cooked - roasted, chipped, mashed, boiled & baked in all the same ways as a really good new potato. Raw they have a crisp apple-like texture and tart Bramley flavour which makes them used much like a fruit in salads & coleslaws.
Once cooked however, their sharpness transforms into a mild tanginess that is off set by a rich, waxy classic Jersey Royal flavour & texture. Being such a unique ingredients, I don't like to mess around with them too much, serving them in super simple, fuss-free dishes like these paprika & mint wedges. Yum!
New Zealand Yam wedges with Paprika & Mint
The ultimate comfort food in the dark days of winter, these surprisingly healthy wedges as as delicious as they are easy-to-make.
Step 1. Kick off the proceedings by preheating your oven to 200C. Then give 1kg of yams (about 1-2 plants worth) a really good scrub & slice them in half.
Step 2. Scatter the sliced yams into a roasting dish, cut sides facing up. Then sprinkle over some really good quality smoked paprika, drizzle over a little over oil and season well with salt & pepper. Pop in then oven for 20-30 minutes or so until the yams are golden and cooked right the way through
Step 3. Scatter over a few torn mint leaves & tuck in! Lovely as a substitute for spuds with a Sunday roast or just as they are, dunked in a herby sour cream dip. God bless carbs!
Tip: January - Growing Anise HyssopOpen Close
With all the flavour of sweet aniseed, although far easier to grow and an awful lot better looking, the aromatic leaves and edible blue flowers of anise hyssop are a must for any ardent Ouzo fan.
Native to the dry scrub and fields of North America, these hardy, low maintenance plants are perfect for growing in sunny gravel or Mediterranean-style gardens - with their beautiful powder blue flowers making them able to easily hold their own in the ornamental border.
Unless you are already gardening on a particularly sandy soil, dig in plenty of grit to ensure there’s good, fast drainage and place it in the sunniest site possible to ensure the strongest flavour. Start plants off from seed in early spring or alternatively get a head start by picking up small plants rather cheaply in the herbaceous perennials section of the garden centre. Once you have got an established clump going, you can propagate these by lifting them, dividing the cluster up into smaller sections and planting these baby plants back out, spaced about 30cm apart.
With its intense aniseed aroma that combines hints of mint and eucalyptus with a faint lingering sweetness, the fragrant leaves will work well with any dish that would benefit from a liquorice uplift. Prolonged boiling however evaporates off the aromatic chemicals that provide this flavour, so in general the leaves should be added near the end of cooking time or in dishes that only need a quick flash in the pan to cook them through.
I like to chop them finely with other summery herbs like chervil, parsley and dill and stir the whole lot into omelets, filled with a sprinkling of grated gruyere, or in pancake batter to roll up, fill with ricotta and douse in a fresh tomato sauce for a delicious unbaked cannelloni. A few leaves blended up in a regular pesto mix, adds a brighter, sweeter note that works wonders tossed through hot pasta.
They are lovely raw too, with a few leaves adding an aniseed note to both crisp green and fruit salads, where their innate sweetness really shines, or lightly bruised and popped into summer drinks and cocktails (think of how refreshing sweet liquorice scented mojito would be). Perhaps the simplest and most delicious way to serve them is as an infusion, either on their own sweetened with a little honey, or added to a steaming pot of homegrown green tea. Marvelous.
Recipe: December - Making Inca Berry JamOpen Close
With their delicious tropical fruit flavour of ripe pineapples mixed with fresh kiwis, you might think the shiny golden fruit of Inca berries might be terribly tricky to grow in the UK, requiring fancy heated greenhouses and teamfuls of staff. However despite their exotic appearance, each coming wrapped in its own paper lantern, & chefs penchant for using them to garnish chic patisserie and posh cocktails, I believe the plants have to be the most overlooked and easiest to grow of all annual fruits.
Sown just like their relative the tomato in March or April and planted outdoors when all risk of frost has past, these make sup-productive, fast growing plants that require none of the slavish devoting to feeding, watering & training that their cousins do, yet will provide you with a crop that's twice as expensive to buy in the shops. Drought tolerant and resistance to most pests and diseases (including the dreaded blight), come late September you will be rewarded with handfuls of sticky sweet berries for little work in return.
Given just a little coddling the plants can often prove hardy in most parts of the UK, with my 3 plants kicking out hundreds of fruit every year despite having been left to fend for themselves outdoors over two of the coldest winters in a century. Not bad for a fruit we usually fly in from Colombia hey? Give ‘em a sheltered spot & a nice thick mulch (an insulating layer of compost laid over their bases) and they should pop back up each spring after being knocked down by December frosts.
Don’t believe me? Well Inca berries, under the name ‘Tipparees’, were once a common outdoor crop all over the UK in Victorian times. Mrs Beeton even made jam out of them! Here's my simplified twist on her classic recipe.
Buttered Inca Berry & Pineapple Jam
My twist on a Beetonian favourite. Wonderful on whole grain toast, baked into jam tarts & truly sinful atop vanilla cheesecake.
Ingredients - makes 1 Jar
- 40 inca berry cut in half
- 1/2 tsp butter,
- 100g caster sugar,
- 1/2 cup pineapple juice (or water if you don’t want to distract from the flavour of the inca berries)
- Pop all the ingredients in a pan, bring to the boil and simmer over a medium heat for 15 minutes stirring occasionally.
- After simmering you should have a pan of softened fruit with wrinkley skin in a syrupy liquid.
- Mash the inca berries with the back of a fork and whisk briskly with a fork to combine.
- Pour into sterilised jars (just run them through the dishwasher to do this) whilst still steaming hot & seal the lids. Don't worry if this is still a smoothie-like consistency, it will soon set on cooling.
Tips: November - Growing Popcorn ShootsOpen Close
Pick up any book or magazine about getting kids into ‘growing you own’ and what are you faced with? Infinite recommendations for super quick-growing crops like mustard, radishes & cress, repeated over and over again. Considering the average 4 year olds attention span, this seems pretty logical right? Well I’m not so sure…
Apart from being -let’s face it- hardly the most exciting of veg, these crops are packed full of bitter, peppery flavours which the palates of children are hypersensitive too. A crisp, red radish really does taste objectively far more pungent to a 4 year old than a 40 year old due to the totally different arrangement of taste buds on young palates – hence childhood veg phobias.
Make one simple change though and ‘cress’ can miraculously be made sugary sweet with no bitter flavour what-so-ever: it is as simple as swapping the seeds you sow for popcorn kernels (Yes the exact same ones that are probably sitting in your kitchen cupboard right now.)
Taking State-side foodie culture by storm, “popcorn shoots” are the just emerging sprouts of popcorn kernels that are sowed in shallow seed trays after being soaked overnight just like cress – but with one key difference. Instead of basking on a sunny windowsill the trays are simply shoved in a cupboard and left to sprout in the dark. This absence of light prevents the little plants from producing any tough fibres or bitter chemicals, and as they grow they become sweeter and sweeter as the stores of starch in the kernel are converted into sugar.
After just 3-5 days you will be left with a lush ‘lawn’ of canary yellow leaves (another side effect of growing in the dark) that are so sweet they taste like they have been injected with sugar, with an intense flavour of popcorn. A quick snip of a scissors later these can be stuffed into sandwiches and wraps, tossed into salads or even scattered over desserts (yet they are that sweet).
Cheaper, quicker, easier and of course far tastier than boring old cress, I don’t know why popcorn shoots aren’t compulsory in every kids science / cookery lesson. Don’t believe me? Go on an give them a go!
Recipe: Japanese Mashed Potato Salad with nasturtium flowersOpen Close
Be it TVs, cars or cameras, the Japanese are the masters at taking a Western invention and somehow perfecting it & potato salad is no exception.
Somewhere between a tangy potato salad and creamy (cold) mash, this curious Eastern reinvention combines roughly broken spuds with quick-cured cucumbers, carrots and a sweetened, tart mayonnaise to create a delicious fusion that is at once creamy, crunchy, sweet, and savory. Add a good fistful of orange nasturtium blossom for a summer treat infinitely more refined than a tub of the supermarket stodge at any picnic or BBQ.
What you will need:
- 1 medium cucumber, peeled
- ¼ onion, peeled
- 1/2tsp + ½ tsp of salt
- 800g floury potatoes
- 1 medium carrot
- 6 heaped tbsp mayonnaise
- 1 large handful of nasturtium flowers
- 1tbsp + 1tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tsp sugar
What to do:
1. Slice the cucumber and onion into thin slivers, the finer the better and combine them in a small bowl with a ½ tsp of salt & 1 tbsp of vinegar. Stir well and set aside.
2.Tumble the nasturtium flowers into a blender or food processor with the mayonnaise, sugar and remaining vinegar and salt & blitz for a minute or so to create a creamy dressing flecked with orange.
3. Peel the carrots and potatoes and chop in cubes the size of a monopoly dice (about 1.5cm).
4. Tip these into a pan of briskly boiling water and simmer until the potatoes are very soft and beginning to lose their shape, about 10-15mins.
5. When the potatoes and carrots are cooked, drain and place them in a large mixingt bowl while still piping hot with the nasturtium mayonnaise mixture. Using a large wooden spoon stir everything together really well to combine, roughly mashing the potatoes as you go.
6. Finally use your hands to squeeze as much liquid out of the onion and cucumber mix as you can—the more water you remove, the crunchier the vegetables will be. Stir these into the potatoes and leave to chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours or preferably overnight.
Tips: October - Edible NasturtiumsOpen Close
Despite being possibly the most flavorful & versatile salad crop that can be grown on our blustery little island, this exotic Incan vegetable has nevertheless been unfairly relegated to the flower border for over a hundred years. Yet give it a chance in the veg patch and it will adorn your beds with an almost inexhaustible supply of peppery leaves, watercress flavored flowers and crisp seed pods for literally months on end.
Nasturtiums are one of the easiest edible plants to grow from seed, by simply sowing them1.5cm (1/2") deep in a finely prepared bed of well drained soil where they are to flower.
Once the seedlings are up, which can take 1-2 weeks, thin the plants to achieve a final spacing of roughly 25cm (10"). You can use any spare plants to fill the spaces in the bed.
For earlier crops, plants can be started off earlier in the year by planting them indoors on a sunny windowsill or greenhouse, sowing 2-3 seeds in little pots. Once these are up and growing they can be planted out in the garden after all risk of frost has past.
The plants look great billowing out of tubs and pots or draped over trellises, performing their best in full sun on sandy, relatively poor soils, as high amounts of fertilizer can cause them to produce large amounts of leaves at the expense of flowers.
A distant relative of crops like watercress and horseradish, nasturtiums have a similar peppery flavor, which is created by the mustard oil found in the cells of all these three species. All parts of the plant is edible from their succulent lily pad-like leaves to the colorful flowers and even their crisp seed pods, adding a spicy, nose-tingling warmth to salads and sandwiches.
Chuck a cup of the fresh green seed pods to the left over vinegar from a jar of dill pickles and leave them to cure in the fridge for a week or two, to create delicious, homegrown faux capers – with not a single food mile attached.
The flowers can be individually stuffed with cheese then battered and deep-fried to create a really decadent summer treat, or whizzed up in great handfuls with a clove of garlic and a little olive oil in a food processor and strained through a sieve to create a peppery herb-infused oil with a beautiful orange hue.
Tips: September - Join the Revolution!Open Close
Over the past 2 years I have been obsessively working away on a brand new project to push back the boundaries of the whole concept of ‘grow your own’. Called ‘Homegrown Revolution’, I hope it will push back the boundaries in our minds about all the weird and wonderful edibles that can be grown in the UK, opening us allotmenteers up to a world of exciting flavours. Maybe even converting some non plant geeks to the fantastic ‘grow your own’ cause.
For any of you that have come along to my talks at The Edible Garden Show you will be familiar with my mantra that homegrowers should be planting crops that are expensive to buy and tricky to track down in the shops rather than the same staid 10-15 staples crops – you know, spuds, sprouts & swedes, that we have been limited to growing for the last 60 years.
Despite what many people might think, you don’t need a greenhouse or a team of gardeners to get away with these crops, as most of them come from cool, wet (and let’s face it) rather miserable climates that are just like the UK. In fact with potatoes hailing from the steamy cloudforest of Peru, pretty much all of my crops will stand a better chance in on our blustery North Atlantic island than the traditional spud – yet offering up a reward that is so much more exciting!
I have personally trialled over 200 crops on my tiny suburban former front lawn, ruthlessly dismissing anything that wasn’t at least as easy to grow as a cabbage, but looked, yielded and tasted much better and was far more expensive and tricky to buy – even in a fancy London food hall.
Starting this week I will be kicking off a nationwide ‘Homegrown Revolution’ tour of talks & publishing my findings in a brand new ‘Homegrown Revolution’ book (full of foolproof, geek-speak-free instructions & super simple recipes). In the next few weeks a series of YouTube vids & a blog (all shot in my front garden) will come online to. So what on earth is stopping you??
Check out www.jameswong.co.uk/homegrownrevolution
Recipe: Salsify and Saffron SoupOpen Close
A great brunch or lunch dish, and perfect served alongside a few crisp rashers and a fried or poached egg. Makes six fritters.
- 700g salsify
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- 2 tbsp of butter
- 1 bulb garlic
- 2 large shallots
- 1tsp light brown sugar
- ½ cup of white wine
- 2 large pinches of saffron
- 1 litre chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 litre milk
- Double cream – for serving
1. Wash and peel the salsify and plunge it immediately into a bowl of cold water with the lemon juice. This will prevent it from going brown (like an apple) when in contact with the air.
2. In a large saucepan gently fry the garlic and shallots in the butter over a very low heat for 10 -15 mins until the cooked shallots turn translucent.
3. Sprinkle over the sugar and continue to cook gently until the mix begins to caramelize & deglaze with the white wine.
4. Chop up the peeled salsify into rough 1inch sections and tip this into the pan along with the bay leaves, saffron and chicken stock & simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes or so until the salsify is extremely soft.
5. Remove the bay leaves and blitz the whole mix together with the milk and return to the stove to heat through.
6. Serve in warmed bowls with plenty of hot crusty bread and a generous swirl of double cream.
Tip: August - Growing SalsifyOpen Close
Combining the sugary flavor of roast parsnips with a silky creaminess that is altogether more rich dairy treat than dusty old root vegetable, this old-school Victorian favourite should be mandatory growing for any rookie allomenteer.
Infinitely easier to grow than carrots, parsnip or pretty much any other root veg, the plants are as generous as they are resilient, offering up a delicious side-line harvest of tender spring greens, followed by stunning (and edible) pink blossom in their second year. Plant a couple of rows of this undiscovered foodies gem and you’ll wonder why you ever even considered boring old carrots.
Once out the ground the roots can be used in pretty much any way that a parsnip or potato can be used. Try them peeled and roasted in a little olive oil and garlic or blitzed up into a creamy soup with buttered leeks (instead of the more boring potatoes), they even make a spectacular mash scattered in crisp, fried onions. The only thing to be careful of is to plunge the roots directly into a bowl of cold water with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice added as soon as they are peeled, to prevent them from going from creamy white to muddy brown in contact with the air, just like what happens with apples. The blanched leaves meanwhile can be steamed to create a delicate asparagus-like vegetable, served with a hollandaise or fresh parsley sauce and tossed uncooked into spring salads
Tip: July - Rat's Tail RadishesOpen Close
Imagine a radish plant pretty enough to blend seamlessly into the flower border, only twice as productive & truly foolproof to grow. Then crank up its fiery mustard flavour, combine it with a crisp, green bean-like crunch and wrap the whole lot in delicate chilli-shaped pods & you’d have a remarkable exotic veg known (rather unfortunately) as rat’s tail radishes.
Hailing from exotic Java, the crisp seed pods of these ‘aerial radishes’ are none-the-less no newcomer to the British table, having once been a favourite crop on our shores since the early 1800’s. Delicious, unusual, yet surprisingly versatile, the pods are produced by the dozen in great bunches right through the summer. But until the fancy supermarket deli counters catch on, and trust me they soon will do, if you want to try them, you’ll just have to grow them yourself!
How to grow them:
Growing rat’s tail radishes couldn’t be easier, simply scatter the seed thinly over finely raked soil in a sunny spot at any time between March and August & water in well. The first shoots should spring up in a week or two, at which point you should thin out the forest of little seedlings to leave 5cm between plants. The tender young leaves of these thinnings make an excellent addition to a salad incidentally, simply tossed a little vinaigrette or stuffed into sandwhices. I like to sow mine in small batches at two week intervals to ensure a constant supply throughout the summer, instead of one enormous (although delicious) glut. Keep well watered and within 8-10 weeks you should see your very first flush of pretty white flowers, swiftly followed by crop of tender radish pods. Keep these coming right into the Autumn by harvesting the pods regularly, as the more you pick the more they will produce. If only all things in life worked that way!
Harvesting and eating:
The pods are at their best when they are crisp and green and roughly pencil thick, becoming increasingly pungent and fibrous as they get older.
Despite having all the characteristic radish fieriness, the pods have an altogether more delicate, refined flavor & a juicy chili pepper texture that’s far infinitely more exciting than any root radish.
Amazingly versatile the pods are delicious both raw or cooked. Toss a handful direct from the garden into a fresh tomato salad, pickle them, stuff them into a cheese sandwhich or flash fry them in garlic butter and serve them like green beans – lovely spooned over mushroom risotto. They are delicious blanched for a just a few seconds and added to pasta, scattered over pizzas before baking or simply sprinkled with salt and eaten with beer as they do in Munich (hence their variety name ‘Munchen Bier’). Once cooked their pungent kick mellows into a sweet nuttiness making them a fantastic addition to stir fries and creamy curries. They do cook up in mere seconds though, so only toss them in at the very last minute before serving to keep their vibrant, fresh flavor intact.