Vegetable of the Month!

April – Rhubarb

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Rhubarb is technically a vegetable as we eat the lovely pink stalks but we use it in cooking like a fruit. It is a great fruit (or vegetable) and is ready to harvest at a time when there is no other fruit available.

A short history of rhubarb

Rhubarb is thought to date back to as early as 2700 BC in China where it was originally used as for its medicinal properties. From China, rhubarb was taken to Europe most likely for trade and was even written about by Marco Polo.

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Rhubarb wasn’t eaten as food until the 18th century. Image credit: BBC Good Food

It was until the late 18th century that rhubarb was written about as a food source, where it appeared in recipes for pies and tarts much like how we use rhubarb today. From Europe, rhubarb also made it across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas and was in popular use by the early 19th century.

In the UK, forced rhubarb production dates back to the 1800s by many small farmers and growers. Forced rhubarb production became much more extensive towards the late 19th and early 20th century especially in a 30 square mile area in Yorkshire (between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield) which became known as the Rhubarb triangle. After the second world war, rhubarb popularity declined due to the availability of more exotic fruits.

Why should we eat Rhubarb?

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When we talk about eating rhubarb we are talking about the stalks of the plant. You can’t eat the leaves of Rhubarb as they are toxic. This is due to the high levels of oxalic acid which is nephrotoxic (toxic to the kidneys). Oxalic acid is still present in the stalks but in much lower quantities so is not harmful but does contribute to the sour acidic taste of raw rhubarb stalks.

However, there are health benefits to eating rhubarb. The vegetable contains a lot of water so is only 21 calories per 100g. They are a good source of fibre and an excellent source of vitamin K which is vital for proper clotting of the blood and has been shown in studies to have a neuro-protective effect against diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It also contains a good source of Vitamin C as well as being a source of calcium and manganese.

How to grow Rhubarb

Rhubarb is relatively easy plant to grow and care for. In my own experience, it is not massively demanding.

Plants are normally bought from suppliers as crowns. Dormant or bare-root crowns can be planted in Autumn and early spring whilst pot grown crowns can be planted at any time.

The ground should be prepared before planting by thoroughly weeding and working in organic matter such as compost and/or well-rotted manure. Dig a hole where the rhubarb will be positioned, and if bare root, spread the roots out in the hole with the crown just poking above the top. Back fill the hole with compost and soil and firmly press the soil around the base. If the plant is pot-grown then dig a hole slightly bigger but not deeper than the pot and transplant the crown into the hole. Back-fill and press the soil firmly down around the base. Water the plant well and continue to water it to help it get established.

The rhubarb should be left to grow and you shouldn’t take any stalks from the plant in the first year. If you do this will weaken the crown and it won’t establish well. If left alone, the plant will grow and produce food and energy which will be stored in the crown. In the second year, it is best to also leave the plant alone but if you just can’t wait then taking a few sticks shouldn’t hurt it too much. In the third year you can start to harvest more and by the fourth you can crop it continuously form March until the end of June taking up to half of the stems. Never pick all the stems from the plant, always leave some behind. From July onwards, you should leave the plant alone to recover and build up energy stores once again in its crown.

Every year, the crown should be mulched well with organic matter before the buds begin to open. The plant is susceptible to hard frosts and will lose it’s foliage over the winter. Remove dead leaves so they don’t rot on the crown.

You can force rhubarb to give you an earlier crop but this will sap the crown of its energy so once you have harvested the forced stalks you should leave it alone for the rest of the year and you shouldn’t force it again for another three years.

Forcing is relatively simple. You cover the crown with a large bucket or forcing jar in January to ensure that no light is reaching the plant. Any hole is pots should be covered with brisks or stones. The stalks and leaves will grow long searching for the light and you will be rewarded with tender pink stems which are typically ready three weeks before the normal harvesting season.

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Rhubarb has been forced by covering with a large container and a rock to cover the drainage hole.

Harvesting rhubarb is very simple. Pull the stems from the base of the plant by pulling and twisting. Don’t cut the stalks off as this can leave a wound were disease and infection can set in. Cut of the leaves and put them in your compost bin. Then take home your lovely rhubarb stalks!

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Some lovely forced rhubarb which has been harvested!

Rhubarb problems

Rhubarb doesn’t have many problems but do watch out for pests such as slugs, snails and aphids. Slugs and snails don’t tend to go for mature rhubarb plants but may attack young seedlings (if you grow from seed). The other problem to watch out for is crown rot. You can avoid this by maintaining good hygiene practices such as clearing up dead leaves and stalks promptly, harvesting stalks properly and when mulching don’t cover the crown as this can aid the onset of rot, mulch around the crown and avoid letting the mulch touch the crown.

How to cook rhubarb

Rhubarb is definately much better cooked with sugar. The sugar mellows the acid taste of the rhubarb. Rhubarb can be baked, poached or stewed and can be made into a variety of sauces, compotes, pies, tarts and crumbles. It can also be used in jams and chutneys.

  • To bake rhubarb cut it into chunks, scatter with sugar, cover with foil and bake in a medium oven for about 15 minutes until soft.
  • To poach rhubarb cut into sticks, scatter with sugar, add a splash of water and simmer gently for 8 minutes until soft and longer to cook it to a puree or compote.
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Poaching rhubarb with sugar.

Rhubarb recipes

Rhubarb and Custard cake

rhubarb and custard cake

Rhubarb Tatin

rhubarb-tatin

Rhubarb and Date chutney

rhubarb and date chutney

Rhubarb Fool Trifle

rhubarb fool trifle

References

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Vegetable of the Month

January – Parsnips

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One of my favourite things about winter are being able to harvest sweet parsnips to go with my filling and hearty roast dinners! I certainly believe these delicious roots have a place in every allotment or veg patch!

A short history of parsnips!

Parsnips have long been high regarded as a food source and are thought to have been eaten since ancient times. By the time, the Romans were on the scene, parsnips were widely cultivated throughout Europe.

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Parsnips were originally used as a sugar source in bread, cakes and jam before the introduction of sugar cane and sugar beet and were the main starch source in people’s diet until the wide culitvation of the potato by the mid-19th century. As well as a food source, the parsnip was thought to have medicinal propertoies too with the root often being used to treat stomach upsets, toothaches and swollen testicles!

Unfortunately with the introduction of sugar and the potato, the cultivation and use of the parsnip has greatly declined!

Why should we eat parsnips?

parsnip-nutrition

Parsnips are sweet succulent roots which are closely related to the carrot. It has a relatively high sugar content compared to other vegetables with 75 calories per 100g. This is similar to some fruits such as bananas. That being said parsnips are an excellent source of soluble and insoluble dietary fibre which can help to reduce cholesterol. Adequate fibre in your diet will help with any constipation probelms you might have!

Parsnips are also a source of anti-oxidants such as falcarinol, falcarindiol, panaxydiol, and methyl-falcarindiol which have been shown in scientific studies to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory functions.

Overall parsnips have good levels of vitamins C, K, E and the B vitamins as well as a good dose of a variety of minerals including manganese, copper, iron, calcium and phosphorus. The high level of potassium in parsnips acts as a vasodilator and reduces blood pressure and stress on the heart which is key to a healthy cardiovascular system.

And whilst there is a higher sugar content than other vegetables, it is still a low calorie alternative to potatoes and can aid with weight loss. They also help to prevent the release of ghrelin which is a ‘hunger’ hormone keeping you feeling fuller for longer!

How to grow parsnips

Pasrnips seeds have a short viability so when growing parsnips you should use fresh seed every year and they are best sown straight outside between April and June. Parnsips like to be sown into well-prepared ground that doesn’t contain large lumps. Like carrots, if the roots hit a stone or large lump the root is likely to fork. If you add organic matter to the soil, it might be worth sieving it first to remove the larger lumps. Germination can be slow and can take up to 28 days but this can be dependent on the temperature and the time of sowing.

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Tiny parsnip seedlings emerging from the soil!

When the seedlings are large enough to handle, normally when their first true leaves come through, thin out the seedlings within each row to 7cm  apart or 10cm apart if you want larger roots. Once the parsnips have germinated, I find that they don’t require much attention except to ensure that the soil is kept moist by watering regularly. Keep the bed free of weeds to prevent competition for nutrients.

Parsnips can be harvested when the roots are big enough but if they are left until the first frosts, the roots will be sweeter. Parsnips can be left in the ground until needed but after winter they will start to regrow leaves (and flower) and the roots start to become woody!

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Parsnips harvested in the middle of winter!

Problems with parsnips

There are two major problems with parsnips. The first is carrot fly which causes the same damage to parsnips as they do to carrots. The carrot fly lays eggs on the soil near carrots and parsnips and the larvae burrow into the root until they pupate. The best way to tackle carrot fly is preventative. Thin parsnips in the evening to avoid the scent of parsnips attracting the little flies and put up barriers to stop the flies reaching the crop in the first place.

The other problem with parsnips is canker. Canker is caused by a variety of fungi which causes the parsnip to rot. The rot  starts at the crown and is often caused by damage to the parsnip. You can buy canker resistant cultivars. Remove and destroy affected material and rotate your parsnips every year to avoid build up of this problem.

How to cook parsnips

Parsnips are a versatile vegetable and can be used in a variety of ways not unlike potatoes. They can be eaten roasted, boiled, mashed and can be added to stews, soups and casseroles. They are often relegated a s a side dish but can easily be made the highlight of any meal with the right recipe. I recommend the salted caramel parsnip recipe below!

Parsnip recipes

Parsnip Hash Browns

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Spiced Parsnip and Cauliflower Soup

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Salted Caramel Parsnips

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References

 

 

This Week’s Harvest – 2017,Week 1

My harvest this week!

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Brussels sprouts (yield: 246g) for our Sunday Roast, a leek (yield: 98g) for dinner tonight (Chicken, leek and ham pasta – yummy!) and Kale (yield 444g). We harvested all the usable kale (much of it had been eaten by slugs – little blighters!) at once because I needed the bed to plant strawberry runners. Now I just need to figure out what to do with it!

 

 

Vegetable of the Month!

NOVEMBER – CARROTS

I love carrots and a roast dinner is just not complete without them! As November is starting to get really cold and extremely wet, it is now that we  turn to comforting, filling warm winter food – casseroles, stews, roasts all containing the humble carrot! It is a vegetable that is definitely worth celebrating!

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Image credit: Mr Fothergills

A short history of carrots!

Reports suggest that the ancestor of the carrot originated from central Asia from it’s ancestor, the wild carrot (also known as ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ and ‘Bishop’s Lace’). The carrot was originally grown for its scented leaves and seeds rather than its root as the root was thought to be bitter and woody. Carrots were known to be eaten by the Romans as a root vegetable possibly as early as the 1st century. Carrot roots were originally purple or white. In the 17th century, dutch farmers cultivated the first orange carrots from yellow rooted varieties (a subspecies of the purple carrot thought to have lost its purple pigmentation). This orange carrot was thought to be developed as a tribute to the ‘House of Orange’ which ruled at the time. Continued cultivation of the carrot led to the sweeter, less woody roots that we now know and love!

Why should we eat carrots!

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Carrots are best known for the large amounts of beta-carotene, a known  anti-oxidant and also include other anti-oxidants such as Vitamin C and other phytonutrients which are important for fighting oxidative stress in the body and boosting your immune system. Research has also shown that anti-oxidants in carrots and other vegetables have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system with one study showing that those that had a high intake of carrots had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Purple carrots have large quantities of anthocyanin, another anti-oxidant.

Beta-carotene (provitamin A) is also important in vision and eye health and is partly metabolised in the liver to produce vitamin A. Whilst important for eye health, the saying that carrots help you see in the dark is actually a myth and was made up during the second world war to account for Britain’s pilots success in night raid to cover up improvements in radar technology. Vitamin A is also important for growth, development and reproduction.

Carrots provide only 41 calories per 100g and are a source of dietary fibre and contain no cholesterol and negligible fat – good for anyone on a weight loss or low cholesterol diet. Can’t really see a reason not to eat them!

How to grow carrots!

Carrots are best sown direct into the soil than planted into seed modules. Whilst you can sown into seed modules or buy plants in modules, you may end up with a higher proportion of roots that have forked. You can now get carrot mats and tapes which hold carrot seeds in a biodegradable material at the right spacing to reduce the need for thinning!

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Image credit: Carrot museum

If you are sowing your seeds direct, carrots prefer a well draining soil which is free of lumps. Add lots of organic material to your compost but avoid freshly manuring you soil as carrots don’t tend to like this. Any lumps, large stones or clay can result in stunted or forked carrots.

Make drills in the soil and sow your carrots very thinly. The more thickly you sow the carrots, the harder it is to thin them out. The more thinning out you do, the more likely you will attract the dreaded carrot root fly! When sowing your seeds you are aiming for a depth of 1 cm with a spacing of 30cm between rows. Draw the soil back over your carrots making sure they are well covered and water well! Germination can take between 10-20 days.

When your carrot seedlings are large enough to handle, they will need to be thinned out. This allows each carrot room to grow into the lovely big roots we want. Thinning out can be done in stages if you wish or you can thin out to the final spacing of 10cm. By thinning out in stages, you have spare seedlings should slugs attack! For the first thinning aim to leave one seedling every 2-4cm, pulling out any in-between. About four weeks later you can further thin your carrots to the final spacing of 10cm.

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Image credit: diynetwork.com

Carrots should be kept weed free as they are growing and once established, only water when the ground is dry. I water the carrots once a week with a really goos soaking! If the tops of your carrots poke through the soil you can earth up around them to keep the tops from going green. Carrots can be harvested in approximately 10-12 weeks from sowing and will keep well in the ground until you need them or can be pulled and stored for months in damp sand boxes.

Problems with carrots!

The major problem you get with carrots is carrot root fly. The female carrot fly is attracted to the scent of the carrots and will lay her eggs on the surface next to carrot seedlings. The larvae then hatch and burrow into the carrot tunneling through. The larvae then pupate in the soil and when the time is right hatch into flies and the cycle starts all over again. There is no chemical control against the larvae and the best means of preventing root fly is biological.

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My carrot harvest – slightly damaged by carrot root fly

Carrot fly are apparently weak flyers and can’t fly higher than 6 inches off the ground so barriers of enviromesh or fleece should be able to stop them. However, my carrot planters are 3ft high and I still get infestations so it might have only limited effectiveness. Covering the tops of crops with enviromesh might be better than vertical barriers.

There are now semi-resistant varieties to carrot root fly such as ‘resistafly’ and ‘flyaway’. I will be trying this varieties next year so will let you know how they go. The adult females are attracted to the scent of carrots and crushed foliage so carrots are particularly vulnerable when you are thinning the carrots. Where possible, carrot thinning should be done in the evening when the fly is less active and the thinning should be disposed or burnt immediately. You can also confuse the adult female by planting chives around the carrot seedlings as they don’t like the scent of alliums.

You can also get a nematode now which can be applied to the soil which will infect and kill the larvae from ‘Nemasys’. This is also something I plan to try next year!

If your carrots do get a root fly infestation – don’t be disheartened. If they are not to badly damaged, you can pull all your carrots and scrape away the damaged areas with a vegetable peeler, then cut your carrots up, blanch them and freeze them. If they are really badly damaged, you just have to cut your losses and throw them away!

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Carrots once the damaged parts had been removed. I then chopped them up, blanched them and froze them. They will be saved for Christmas day!

How to cook carrots!

When it comes to cooking carrots, they can be cooked in many ways. The can be boiled, roasted, steamed or sliced and added to stir fries. They are also lovely eaten raw whether that is as crudites with a lovely houmous dip or grated onto a salad. There so many ways to use carrots! I hope you enjoy some of the recipes below and let me know what your favourite recipes are!

Carrot recipes!

Yummy Scrummy Carrot Cake

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Carrot and coriander soup

carrot-and-coriander-soup

Honey-glazed Roast Carrots

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References:

Vegetable of the month!

October – Pumpkins!

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Image credit: Everfest

Because it’s Halloween this month, I thought I’d celebrate the pumpkin! I think in the UK, it is a very under-rated vegetable which we should do more with than just carving scary faces in them!

Pumpkins are actually squash and belong to the same family as the butternut squash! In North America and the UK, a pumpkin is a squash that is orange and round and if it is not orange and round then it is a winter squash. However, the terms are used interchangeably as in Australia, the name pumpkin is used for all winter squash no matter there shape or colour.

A short history of pumpkins

Pumpkins are thought to originate in the Americas with the oldest evidence of pumpkin seeds being found in Mexico from between 7000-5500BC and have continued to be cultivated in North America ever since. It is generally accepted that pumpkins were given to English colonists who had arrived in the ‘New World’ by Native Americans. The pumpkin’s ability to store well over winter is what made them a staple crop especially in the hard winters.

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Image credit: Design bolts

And we can’t have a history of pumpkins without the story of the jack o’lantern. The practice of making jack-o-lanterns came from an Irish myth.

” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.

Soon after, Jack died. God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since.” Source: https://extension.illinois.edu/pumpkins/history.cfm

This figure was referred to as “Jack of the lantern” and originally turnips, large beets and potatoes were used to carve scary faces, placing them in windows to ward away wandering evil spirits. Immigrants in the United States started using pumpkins to make Jack-o-lanterns. As pumpkins are synonymous with the autumn season and easier to carve, it wasn’t long before jack-o-lanterns became part of the Halloween celebrations.

Why should we eat pumpkins?

pumpkin-nutritionPumpkin is a low calorie vegetable offering only 26 calories per 100g. This makes it an excellent substitute for potatoes in calorie controlled diets. It also has no saturated fats or cholesterol. Pumpkins are also an excellent source of vitamins including vitamins A, C and E. In fact it can give you 246% of your RDA in a 100g serving. Vitamin A is extremely important for eyesight and the immune system and vitamin A deficiency causes devastating effects with 1 in 5 children thought to be vitamin A deficient worldwide!

Pumpkin seeds are a great source of fibre and mono-unsaturated fatty acids which are good for bowel and heart health!

How to grow pumpkins

Pumpkins are a tender plant which can be killed by frosts. They have a creeping vine habit so need plenty of room to grow and sprawl.

Pumpkin seeds can be sown indoors from mid March – May. Seeds should be sown 2 per station into a pot of compost, with the seeds placed on their sides to allow water to run off them. If seeds are planted flat they can end up rotting. Pumpkins need warmth when germinating so place in a propagator or place a polythene bag around the pot. Seedlings should germinate in 5-7 days.

Grow pumpkins on for about 4 weeks before transplanting them outside in mid-late may after the risk of frosts have passed. For some regions, this may mean you can’t plant out until June! Gradually accustom young plants to outside conditions by using a cold frame.

If you want to sow pumpkin seeds direct, you should sow from mid-late May when the soil has warmed and all risk of frosts have passed. Pumpkins are hungry greedy plants and require nutritious soil which will have had a good does of well-rotted manure or compost worked into the soil before planting or sowing. Plant pumpkin plants in a sunny site that ideally gets 6 hrs of sunlight a day and plant your plants at least 3ft apart. Plant each pumpkin plant on top of a mound to ensure good drainage and keep them well watered until they are established.

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Image credit: lovethegarden.com

Feed pumpkins with a general fertilizer regularly and water well in dry periods.Flowers on pumpkins are either male or female with the female flower having an embryonic fruit behind it. Flowers are normally insect pollinated but if you notice that fruit is not setting then hand pollinate. If you want very large pumpkins then you should limit the number of fruit that set to no more than 3.

Pumpkins will at first be green until they have reached their final size then the fruit will start to ripen and the skin will turn orange. If necessary place the fruit on a bit of cardboard or straw to protect the fruit from contact with wet soil. Pumpkins should be left for as long as possible in the sun for the skin to cure and ripen and should only be cut off the plant and brought indoors if there is a risk of frost. Pumpkins should then be placed on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse to allow their skins to cure. Curing of the skins allows the pumpkin to store for 3-4 months.

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Image credit: mother earth news

Pumpkin problems!

The two main problems seen with pumpkins is powdery mildew and fruit not setting. Powdery mildew are a group of fungus which is seen as a white powdery coating on the leaves of plants. This is often seen in plants that are water stressed and therefore more prone to infection. To avoid powdery mildew, keep the water around the plant moist. Fruit not setting is often related to cooler temperatures and lower insect activity. If cool temperatures are a problem then you may need to hand pollinate your plants.

How to cook pumpkin

Pumpkin can be roasted or boiled and can be used in numerous recipes from soups and pies to stews and curries. You can even use a hollowed out pumpkin as a cooking bowl. To roast pumpkin, cut into pieces and lay on an oven tray. Spray with cooking spray and sprinkle with salt. Roast in the oven for 30-40mins at 200C until the pumpkin is soft.

Pumpkin recipes

Pumpkin Soup

pumpkin-soup

Pumpkin Biryani

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Pumpkin Pie

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References:

Vegetable of the Month!

This is rather late due to me being away so much in September and although it is now currently October, I thought I would still put up my vegetable of the month for September!

September – Tomatoes

Tomatoes! A staple of the garden and the kitchen! I am sure that nearly every gardener has tried their hand at this vibrant red fruit whether it’s in a greenhouse or tumbling from baskets! Tomatoes are such a staple ingredient in so many different dishes in my kitchen that I am really not sure what people did before them?

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Image credit: http://www.lifestyleuncut.com/green/how-to-grow-your-own-tomatoes.html

A short history of tomatoes

Tomatoes are originally native to the Americas and were part of the diet in Meso-American cultures.Tomatoes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th Century after the discovery of the Americas. Originally regarded with suspicion, the tomato was shunned as many people though it was poisonous since it was a member of the deadly nightshade family. The tomato thrived easily in the warm Mediterranean climate and eventually by the 18th century, tomatoes were rapidly being incorporated into daily cuisine across Europe!

Why should we eat tomatoes?

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Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene which is thought to have anti-oxidant properties and, along with other flavonoids (of which there are quite a few present in tomatoes), can play a role in bone and heart health. The anti-oxidants generally found in tomatoes are thought to play a preventative role against cancers including colon, prostate, breast and lung cancer. Nutrients in tomatoes are also thought to help regulate fat in the blood stream. They are low in fat, zero cholesterol and only 18 calories per 100 grams. which often leads to them being recommended as part of weight and cholesterol control programs.

Tomatoes also provide a generous source of Vitamin C contributing 21.5% to your recommended daily value per 100g and 28% of your recommended Vitamin A.

How to grow tomatoes?

Tomatoes require a long growing season in our cooler climate and are tender plants which require frost protection. Tomatoes can be grown both indoors and outdoors depending on the variety and as a rule, indoor grown tomatoes will be ready approximately a month before their outdoor cousins.

Depending on your variety of tomatoes, you can sow seed from mid-January until April but always read the sowing guide on the back of the packet. Fill a tray or pot with seed compost and sprinkle your seed thinly over the top. Cover the seed with a fine layer of the same seed compost or vermiculite and press down well to make sure the seed is in contact with the soil. Water well and cover the tray or pot with a clear plastic bag or polythene cover if necessary. This creates a warm humid atmosphere for the tomatoes to germinate (I like using a heated propagator). You can leave them uncovered but make sure the soil stays moist and they are kept in a warm place. The seeds will take 7-14 days to germinate.

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Tomato seed sown in a heated propagator!

Once true leaves have started to develop, you can transplant your seedlings into larger pots. If growing outside, tomatoes should be planted in their final growing positions after all chance of frosts have passed. If growing in a greenhouse or polytunnel they can be planted into their final positions once they are about 15-18cm tall, however, you should still keep an eye out for any  frosts and make sure the plants have adequate protection. A late hard frost in April one year killed all my tender plants in the polytunnel!

Tomatoes can be planted into the ground, into grow bags or can be grown in large pots. Most importantly is knowing if your tomatoes are indeterminate (grown as cordons, will need support) or determinate (forms bushy plants that don’t need support). If your plants are indeterminate, you will need to provide support in the form of bamboo canes or some other training system (of which there are many!). Tomatoes will need to be tied into your supports as they grow to stop them breaking under the weight of the fruit they produce.

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How they grow tomatoes at Victoriana Nursery!

Side shoots should be pinched out as they develop and the tops of the tomatoes should be pinched out once 6 trusses of flowers have set. As the fruit develops, leaves below the first truss should be removed to improve ventilation and prevent diseases from taking hold. Removing some leaves can help the fruit to ripen by increasing the access to light although some people don’t like to do this.

Tomatoes should be fed at regular intervals to encourage flowers and fruit to form. A good quality general tomato feed will be sufficient.

Tomato problems 

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Tomato blight (image credit: RHS)

Tomatoes, like potatoes, can be infected with blight. Blight is a fungus, Phytophthora infestans, which attacks the plant starting in the leaves and then travelling through the rest of the plant causing it to rot. Growing tomatoes indoors can help to reduce the chances of blight infestation and good horticultural practices such as providing adequate ventilation, watering at the roots and not on the leaves, removing debris can also help to prevent its spread.

Greenhouse grown tomatoes can also suffer from whitefly or green fly which are aphids that suck the sap of the plant and can spread diseases. Insecticides can be used to control these aphids or using companion planting or organic gardening will attract natural predators of these pests.

Problems with the fruit include splitting , blossom end rot and blossom drop all of which is cause by irregular watering. Ensure that you water well and regularly to avoid this problem.

How to cook tomatoes

Tomatoes can be eaten raw or cooked and is a staple ingredient in many Italian dishes. Tomatoes can be grilled, roasted or chopped up and boiled down in their own juices as the base for many sauces. They are incredibly versatile and their uses are endless. Below is a selection of recipes that use tomatoes.

Tomato Soup

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Tomato and Thyme Cod

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Stuffed Tomatoes

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Tomato, Cucumber and Coriander Salad

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References:

September Recipes – Making Mincemeat and Christmas Cake

I haven’t done much cooking this month as I have mostly been away but I am trying to be super prepared for Christmas this year! Gift lists have been drawn up, Christmas day veggies in the ground and growing nicely and I have been making my homemade mincemeat and Christmas Cake so I thought I’d share with you my recipes for these Christmas goodies so that if you want to have a go – you have plenty of time to get them made!

Mincemeat

I make mincemeat early because I like to give it time for the flavours to meld together in the jar! I also use rum instead of brandy for my mincemeat. I don’t like the taste of alcohol but if I have to use it I generally prefer to use rum (this comes from my love of rum truffles!) My recipe is based on Delia Smith’s recipe but have changed the method slightly and added a few extra ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • 450g apples, peeled, cored and chopped into small pieces
  • 50g flaked almonds, roughly chopped
  • 4 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 100ml rum
  • 225g shredded suet
  • 350g raisins
  • 225g sultanas
  • 225g currants
  • 225g candied peel
  • 50g glace cherries, chopped into small pieces
  • 350g soft dark brown sugar
  • grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
  • juice of 2 oranges

Start by combining the raisins, currants and sultanas in a bowl. Pour over the rum, orange juice and add the zest and juice of the lemon. Mix together thoroughly.

Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave the dried fruit to soak in the liquid for 1 hour.

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Meanwhile, mix the shredded suet, candied peel, glace cherries, spices, almonds and sugar in a bowl. Mix thoroughly.

Once the dried fruit has been soaking for an hour, chop the apples and add the the ingredients together mixing thoroughly. If you chop the apples to early they can go brown very quickly so I prefer to chop them just before they need to go into the mincemeat. You know the mincemeat is thoroughly mixed as the sugar will dissolve into the liquid and all the ingredients should be evenly coated.

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Pack the mincemeat into hot sterilised glass jars and store in a cool dry place until needed.

I will share my mince pie recipe with you nearer Christmas!

Christmas cake

My Christmas cake recipe is a recipe from Mary Berry and can be found here. Again I have substituted the brandy for rum!

Ingredients:

  • 175g raisins
  • 350g natural glacé cherries, halved, rinsed, and thoroughly dried
  • 500g 2oz currants
  • 350g sultanas
  • 150ml rum, plus extra for feeding
  • 2 oranges, zest only
  • 250g butter, softened
  • 250g light muscovado sugar
  • 4 free-range eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tbsp black treacle
  • 75g blanched almonds, chopped
  • 250g plain flour
  • 1½ tsp mixed spice

Place all the dried fruit, including the cherries, into a large mixing bowl.

 

Pour over the rum and stir in the orange zest. Cover with clingfilm. Mary suggests leaving to soak for three days but I left it for 5 days. Ensure you stir daily

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Grease and line a 23cm deep, round tin with a double layer of greased greaseproof paper. Preheat the oven to 140C.

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Measure the butter, sugar, eggs, treacle and almonds into a very large bowl and beat well . Add the flour and ground spice and mix thoroughly until blended. Stir in the soaked fruit.

Spoon into the prepared cake tin and level the surface.

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Bake in the centre of the preheated oven for about 3-4 hours (Mary suggests longer but I think you should check it regularly), or until the cake feels firm to the touch and is a rich golden brown. Check after two hours, and if the cake is a perfect colour, cover with foil. A skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should come out clean. Leave the cake to cool in the tin.

 

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When cool, pierce the cake at intervals with a fine skewer and feed with a little extra rum. Wrap the completely cold cake in a double layer of grease-proof paper and store in an air tight container for up to three months, feeding at intervals with more rum. I store mine under the bed!

I shall ice and decorate the cake a few days before Xmas and will post an update then!

August recipes

The month of August has been a bit of a lazy month when it comes to cooking! I haven’t put much effort in and to be honest it has mainly been baked potatoes!

Jacket Potatoes!

We have had some absolute stonkers when it comes to potatoes this year. We haven’t had a high yield of second early potatoes but the ones we did get (that weren’t speared with a fork) were very large. As we have been enjoying jacket potato quite a a lot for the last month I thought I’d share with you our top five baked potato fillings. They are quite simple but classically delicious!

1. Tuna, sweetcorn and mayo

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Image credit: Tesco.com

This is Sam’s favourite – he has this every time! He simply combines a tin of tuna with two tbsps of extra light mayo and two tbsps of sweetcorn. Simple!

2. Beans and Cheese

This is my favourite filling and you can use any beans you want whether its baked beans or a five bean chilli. Just add the beans, sprinkle some cheese on top and serve your JP with a crispy salad!

If I am using baked beans, sometimes I like to spice it up a little and will add some paprika or Worcestershire sauce. If I am making a five bean chilli, quite simply drain one or two cans of five bean salad (can easily get these from Tesco and most supermarkets) and tip into a saucepan with some passata with garlic and herbs. The add one or half a sachet of fajita seasoning depending on how many tins of beans you have opened. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes making sure all the beans are tender and then serve over your JP!

3. Sausage and roast veg

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Image credit: waitrose.com

This is essentially a quick ratatouille-esque meal. Simply chop up the veg you want to use and put it into an oven tray that has been sprayed with a low calorie cooking spray. I use a combination of white and red onions, pepper, courgette, tomatoes, sweetcorn, green beans and aubergine but you can add anything to this. Season the veg well and cook in the oven for 15 minutes at 200C. Take out the tray and check the veg which should have softened, then add 2 tbsps of passata to the tray and thoroughly mix the veg. If your passata doesn’t have herbs in, you can sprinkle some dried herbs overs the veg. Cook for another 15-20 minutes and add to your JP. Add some lovely juicy sausages from your local butcher or if you are vegetarian or looking for a low calorie alternative try Quorn sausages! You can cook them separately or add them to the roast veg pan!

4. Lentil Ragu/Beef ragu/Bolognese

I use this filling if I have made spaghetti bolognese and have some bolognese left over. It’s a great way to use up that last little bit rather than throwing it away. Sometimes I replace the beef in my bolognese with lentils for a healthier vegetarian version.

You can find a good bolognese recipe here.

5. Prawn Marie Rose

I love prawn marie rose as a filling and it is very simple to make. The Marie Rose sauce is made by combining equal amounts ketchup and extra light mayonnaise (2tbsp of each is sufficient for 1 pack of fresh prawns but you can add more if you prefer it to be a bit more saucy!) Mix together well and then add a sprinkling of paprika (or cayenne pepper if you prefer a bit of heat). Mix with the prawns and serve atop your JP!

Houmous!

I also have had a large number of runner beans from my few plants and have been trying to find ways to use them so decided to have a go at making runner bean houmous – which turned out quite nicely! This is a low fat healthy version if, like me, you are trying to eat healthy!

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Runner bean houmous:

Ingredients:

  • 400g can chickpeas, drained
  • 200g (or more if you like) runner beans, cut into chunks
  • 2 tbsp 0% fat natural yoghurt (you can use normal or low fat if you prefer)
  • 2 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • salt

Firstly, put the runner beans in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Heat the runner beans on high until boiling, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are nice and tender. Remove from the heat, drain and then pat dry the runners beans with kitchen towel. (Boiling the runner beans first allows the beans to take on some water which, when added to the blender, gives the houmous a good consistency). Add the chickpeas, runner beans, garlic and natural yogurt to a food processor or blender and blend until it is smooth. Tip the contents into a bowl and mix in the lemon juice. Add salt to taste.

 

 

Vegetable of the Month!

AUGUST – SWEETCORN

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Sweetcorn cobs straight off the plant are definitely a luxury. They are so sweet and juicy and there is a real excitement in pulling back the layers on an ear of corn to see the perfectly filled kernals underneath.

The sweetcorn we grow in our gardens and allotments is not the same as the corn growing in the farmers field! The corn grown in fields (maize) is grown as a grain whilst sweetcorn is a mutation of maize which enables it to have the high sugar content is has – hence the name ‘sweet corn’.

A short history of sweet corn

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Image credit: emaze.com

Sweet corn is unique in that it does not exist naturally in the wild and is in fact human invention from crossing  two wild grasses. Sweet corn was originally from Central America, believed to have been created some 7000 years ago, and was a core part of the diets of the indigenous people of the time. The cultivation of sweetcorn grew through out the Americas, extending both North and South becoming a core component of the diet for indigenous peoples of the Americas.

European settlers were given this crop by native tribes of the Americas and soon became a favourite in the United States and Europe although was treated with some suspicion when first entering Europe.

Further breeding of sweet corn led to the vast number of cultivars we see today and leaps forward in science has allowed us to understand the mutations which have occurred that give us sweetcorn.

Why should we eat sweetcorn

sweetcorn

So why should we eat sweet corn? Well despite it’s relatively high calorie content, it is a gluten free cereal and contains a fair amount of fibre. According to one site (www.whfoods.com), the fibre in our corn helps to nourish the friendly bacteria in our lower digestive tract. These bacteria produce short chain fatty acids which give an energy supply to the cells in our intestine not only allowing them to be healthy and function well but can also lower our risk of colon cancer.

Sweet corn contains no cholesterol and is also a good source of phyto-nutrients for the body as well as helping with blood sugar control in diabetics. It is a good source of B vitamins and vitamin C, all essential for healthy immune system!

How to grow sweetcorn

So now we know why we should eat it, how do we go about growing it?

Sweet corn is a tender crop and will be killed by frosts so it is best to either start your seeds off indoors or wait until the last frost in May to sow seed direct.

Another fact you need to know about sweetcorn is that it is a wind pollinated plant and to get good pollination you should plant sweetcorn in blocks rather than rows. These plants grow tall so, where possible, site them in a sheltered place so they are not broken by strong winds.

Sweetcorn like a well-draining nutritious soil, so it is always good to add some fertiliser or well rotted manure/compost to the soil. Sweet corn seed kernals can be sown directly by simply pushing the kernal into the soil where you want it to crop or can be sown indoors. If you are sowing indoors, sow into root trainers, toilet tubes or individual deep pots in April. Sweetcorn doesn’t like too much root disturbance  when it is transplanted so to minimise this root trainers or toilet roll tubes (which can be planted directly into the soil) works well. Fill the pots with a good multipurpose compost and push the kernal into the soil.

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Image credit: growyourown.info

Seedlings take about 14-21 days to emerge and should be grown on until the risk of frost has passed and then planted out into final growing position. Water consistently throughout the season and this is especially true during the time that male and female flowers are developing. Corn cobs which develop will have green fibres protruding from them called silks and when a cob is ready to be harvested, these silks will go a dark chocolate brown colour. To test ripeness, pull back the husks and pierce a kernal with your fingernail. If the liquid is a milky colour, it is ripe!

Sweetcorn doesn’t tend to suffer from many pests and diseases during it’s season unless you live somewhere where sweetcorn smut is prevalent – places with higher humidity. Thankfully, those of us in the UK don’t tend to have to worry about that! However, when your corn is ripe, you will not be the only one who wants to eat it! So will the rats! Protect your crops by putting up barriers to the rats and/or traps. (Two years running I have lost at least half my sweetcorn to these little blighters!)

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Rat damage! (Image credit: Riverford.co.uk)

How to cook sweetcorn

If your sweet corn survives the rats and you get to harvest them, sweetcorn is very easy to cook. It should be cooked as close to harvesting as possible as it can lose its flavour quickly. If you have a lot at once, you can blanch the cobs for approximately 3 minutes, cool rapidly and freeze in packs of two for cooking later on.

If you want to eat the corn on the cob, you can either steam or boil it for 3-6 minutes depending on the size. You can also roast the cobs in the oven or on a barbecue which will take anywhere between 7-15 minutes depending on size.

If you want just the kernals, simply slice the kernals off the cob with a sharp knife keeping the blade as near to the cob core as possible and cook anyway you fancy.

Sweetcorn recipes

Mexican corn on the cob

mexican corn on cob

Corn Relish

corn relish

Corn and green bean cakes

corncakes

References:

Preserving the harvest: Part 1 – Freezing

If you grow your own food then you will invariably get gluts – too many courgettes, too many runners etc, it all seems to come at once. July, August and September are, for me, the months where I have never ending veg and not enough meals in the day to use them. For those things where the season is relatively short, tomatoes, strawberries etc I always want to find ways to preserve the season so I can enjoy them for longer. But at the end of the day we have a finite length of cropping time on our fruit and veg if we want to eat it fresh and if, like me, you try to eat as seasonally as possibly , you don’t want to be eating strawberries in winter, grown in Egypt!

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Image credit: BBC Good Food

Not only does knowing how to freeze veg benefit the home-grower with storing their harvests, it can benefit anyone who buys veg too. Knowing how to properly freeze fruit and veg means you can make you food last longer saving money on your food bills!

There are lots of different ways to store fruit and veg but this first article is just focusing on how to freeze your fruit and veg in the best way so that you can enjoy a little bit of summer even in the winter.

We are lucky that we live in today’s modern society where we have the advantage of being able to freeze things. Freezing produce is probably dependent on the amount of storage capacity you have. Those of us who have room for large chest freezers will be able to freeze more but some of us have tiny iceboxes at the top of our refrigerators so freezing would not be so much of an option and we may need to look at other methods of preserving and storing. One thing to consider, is that if you are aiming for better sustainability and to reduce your carbon footprint, running a large chest freezer is not always the best thing to do and will certainly increase your electricity consumption (unless you can make energy saving changes elsewhere to compensate!)

You can freeze most fruits and vegetables in my experience (there are a few exceptions) – it’s just about knowing how to freeze them properly. You should only freeze clean fruit and veg and they should be frozen when at their best i.e. when they are ripe. Don’t freeze veg that are past their best as the results may be less than desired. If I ever buy reduced veg that I want to freeze, I make sure the quality of the veg is still good.

Basically, the main technique you need to know about is open freezing. This is a process of laying out your fruit/vegetables individually on a baking sheet and putting them into the freezer to freeze individually. Once they are frozen you can then bag them up and put them back in the freezer. This process stops the fruit/vegetables from freezing together in a clump so you can then take out as much or as little as you want to use at a time. I still freeze some fruit in clumps, but this fruit is normally specifically used for cooking with, such as making jams or pies/crumbles where a large amount of fruit is cooked down.

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Lay fruit out individually on baking parchment and place in freezer to free individually!

The next question to ask is whether you freeze your produce raw or you blanch it first. Mostly, for fruit you would freeze it raw but in some cases you may want to cook it first. I certainly stew apples and rhubarb and then pop it in a container and freeze it that way for using in crumbles during the winter months. Apples are one fruit that tends to go brown when you freeze it raw so it is best to cook it first and use it in desserts.

For fruits such as berries it is very easy to open freeze them. If you have larger fruits, top, tail, core, de-stone and cut up first and then lay them out on a baking sheet. I cut the tops off of strawberries and the quarter them as you can see in the picture below.

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Strawberries have their tops cut off and are quartered, washed, patted dry and then layed out on a baking sheet for freezing.

You should also make sure you wash any fruit first but be sure you pat it dry before freezing otherwise you get lots of ice crystals forming. Fruit will go a bit mushy after defrosting but I love adding some frozen berries to my bran flakes in the morning. I just take out the fruit about 15 mins before I am going to eat it so it has softened slightly when I add the bran flakes and yoghurt!

Bananas are also good for freezing and frozen banana makes a delicious and healthy alternative to ice creams – just remember to take the skin off before freezing!

For vegetables, you will mostly blanch them before freezing. This is not always the case and some people prefer to just freeze everything raw – you will have to determine whats best for you! The main reason people blanch is that the temperature destroys enzymes that can degrade the quality of the vegetable. It helps the vegetable to retain flavour and colour. If you do blanch first, here is a link to an excellent guide to blanching times! http://www.halfyourplate.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/CPMA.Freezing_Guide_Fresh_Vegetables_EN.pdf

Blanching means to cook rapidly and you do this by heating a pan of boiling water on the stove. The water must be at a full rolling boil and then you quickly add in the veg. I have a timer nearby so I can start that as soon as the veg goes in. Once you have reached your allotted blanching time you then have to stop the cooking process which is achieved by rapidly cooling the veg. Before you start the whole process of preparing your veg and blanching it – you should place a bowl of cold water into the freezer to allow it to get really cold. Alternatively add ice cubes to a bowl of cold water to bring the temperature down. I have the reusable plastic ice cubes to cut down on my water usuage and I just add these to a bowl of cold water which I keep stored in the freezer whilst I am blanching. I strain the veg into a colander or sieve and then immediately dump the veg into the cold water which will stop the cooking process. You can then strain the water off and turn out the veg onto some kitchen roll and thoroughly pat the veg dry! (Remember you can compost down this used kitchen roll so don’t let anything go to waste!) All you then do is open freeze and then pop into freezer bags.

There is one other way to freeze your fruit and veg and that is to process it first for later addition to meals. Tomatoes are a good example of this, as one of the things I make with tomatoes is passata. Passata freezes well and is a good way of using up a glut. They can simply be added to any tomato based sauce you are making. For beetroot, I cook it and then puree it which can then be added to cakes and desserts and courgettes can be grated up and then frozen into ice cube trays. I then add these ice cubes of grated courgettes to cakes and scones etc.

There are some exceptions to the general rules above. Some fruit and veg can’t be frozen; cucumbers generally don’t freeze well (see pic below) and neither does lettuce, beansprouts and radishes. They have a high water content and when this freezes the ice crystals that form inside the cells destroy the structure and you are just left with mush when you defrost them.

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Image credit: International produce training

Potatoes are a veg I have had trouble freezing with. In my experience, they easily turn to mush if frozen in the ways described above. I once tried to make frozen chips, cut the potatoes into thin fries, blanched them and froze them. When we got them out to cook with, they went black! Essentially, I find that potatoes should be cooked fully and then frozen and the best results so far are when blanching/cooking with oil, especially if making chips, wedges or hash browns. Mashed potato can easily be frozen as it is cooked and processed first.

To be honest, if you store potatoes correctly then you should never need to freeze them so I  only freeze if I am making chips, hash browns or wedges in advance and want to save time on the day of eating! From information found on the web, most people suggest that you can freeze from blanching but I have had difficulty with this – although I could just be doing it wrong! (If anyone has any more tips on freezing potatoes or potato products then I would love to here from you!)

I have found that knowing how to freeze fruit and veg properly means I can make my shopping last longer too. If I buy some veg and I don’t use it all or have bought it because it was reduced, then I can easily freeze it and use it at a later date rather than having to buy fresh every time – it saves a bit of money too!

I hope you have found this article useful and helps you to make the most of you fruit and veg gluts! If you want to find out more about freezing your produce then check out these links below:

http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/top-tips-freezing-food

http://www.growveggies.net/harvesting_and_storing/freezing_vegetables_a_to_z/

http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/freezing/freezing-vegetables-zm0z13aszsor.aspx?PageId=1

http://www.ipt.us.com/produce-inspection-resources/inspectors-blog/produce-storage-and-transport/freezing-problems