Cooking from the garden – roasted perennial (and other) root veggies

A large part of the value and purpose of my experiments with perennial vegetables is to make the most of my garden by producing food that is easy to grow, lasts year after year – and very importantly – tastes good!  I have used perennials alongside other veggies in salads and cooked meals but generally have not had sufficient amount and variety at any one time to form the basis of a substantial dish.  However for some weeks I have been aiming to concoct a roasted root vegetable dish using as many roots from the garden as possible.

Yesterday I set about garnering as much produce as I could for this purpose.  I went for the Jerusalem artichokes first and dug one plant that grew to a great height last summer – albeit at something of an angle due to its shady position.  This yielded 390 grams after removing part of two tubers that had sadly rotted.  This part of the garden is always very damp – so damp I think that there may be water rising there, so I know now not to leave Jerusalem artichokes in there too long if I put them there again.

Amongst the Jerusalem artichoke tubers were a few Chinese artichokes that had wandered over – they are part of the mint family and spread underground like mint does.  I dug up a skirret plant and took off a number of roots to eat and also another five to replant.  I put the original plant back where it had come from, noting that small green shoots are starting to form and planted the five roots elsewhere, hoping to make five more plants, but not knowing if this will work.

I have a few beetroot plants which I am inordinately proud of as most annual veggies just get slaughtered by the slugs.  I pulled two of these and also gathered some apples from the ground.  Shamefully they have been lying there since last autumn, I assumed they would have been nibbled or started to rot, but surprisingly I found quite a few that were whole and wholesome.  To add some greens to the meal I gathered some shoots from Asturian kale, 1000 headed kale and Sutherland kale.  Sorry about the glove in the picture below, I have tried to crop it but can’t get that to work.

The recipe is based on one in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg cook book, but starring the perennial roots from the garden:

  • Approximately 12 oca tubers from those previously harvested (sorry didn’t weigh these)
  • 390 g Jerusalem artichokes
  • 8 g (!) Chinese artichokes
  • 246 g beetroot
  • Approx 100 g skirret root (weighed but I forgot to write it down, may well have been more)
  • 1 mashua tuber (supplied by another grower)
  • 2 apples, skin on and sliced
  • Plus purchased ingredients:
  • 4 shallots
  • 2 sticks celery
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 parsnip
  • 1 slice butternut squash

The veggies were all cleaned (and peeled if necessary) and chopped / sliced into appropriate sized pieces.  Then they were put onto two trays with a dash of oil and a sprinkle of salt and freshly ground black pepper.  After 20 minutes at 180 degrees C the apple and a good handful of rosemary leaves were added.  Then back in the oven for another 20 minutes or so until cooked.  Roasting works really well to bring out the flavours of the veggies and there is no need for any additional flavourings.  We cook two portions of roast veg in order to use half another day mixed with cooked brown or green lentils and a salad dressing to make a really amazingly tasty salad dish.

I guess the list of ingredients above demonstrates that using what is to hand to make supper gives a less finely tuned recipe than one from a cook book but the satisfaction is immense both for the tummy and for the soul.

Birdsong, January sunshine and bright green leaves

Well the sunshine may have been short lived (now turned to drizzle) but the birds are still in good voice outside.  I have just spent a very enjoyable hour in the garden planting out Jerusalem artichokes and Chinese artichokes (no relation to each other or to globe artichokes).

Now I have spent a few years growing perennial veggies I am finding out what works best for me and growing more of them.  I have saved some Jerusalem artichokes from last year (in fact I have not yet dug them all anyway) but wanted more plants than my own saved tubers are likely to produce.  So I have bought another twenty and planted them out this morning.  They are in a sunnier spot that last year, amongst a whole variety of other veggies and pictures of how they get on will no doubt appear later in the year.

Likewise with the Chinese artichokes, I want to grow more and in a sunnier location.  I have dotted them in clumps all over the place; as always happens there were more than I had “room for”.  But room has been made in amongst other things and some have gone into pots and flower beds to see what happens.

I planted both of these sets of tubers by making only very small holes; deep enough, but not wide, quite like the way I plant daffodil bulbs.  In the process I cleared away some things that were in the way.  This included nettles which are my garden’s friend but they need to be kept in place or they become too rampant.

All the while I had the delightful accompaniment of heart lifting birdsong.  In the same spring like vein a number of plants are stirring.  These are mainly in the onion family – garlic, shallots, perennial leeks, three cornered leeks and others – they are all sending out bright green shoots.  There is also lamb’s lettuce which has been growing (self sown) since Christmas and we have been eating the thinnings for weeks, field beans are appearing and the greens especially the kales are looking grateful for the mild cool, damp weather.

Although there have been a few light frosts this winter continues to seem unseasonally mild, but at least it has been raining to replenish the soil water.  The mild weather has encouraged flowers to appear in unusual combinations and today there are winter jasmine, snowdrops, crocus, daffodils, primrose, camellia (!), hellebore and clove pinks all in flower.  I will leave you with a picture of the bright green of the lamb’s lettuce (with a shallot poking through the centre) and a robust nine star perennial broccoli!

Collecting as much food as I can from the garden (2)

Since resolving to maximise the food output of the garden (within the limits of the space currently available) I have realised there are quite a few aspects to consider:

  • I cannot expect all the food from the garden to look like it has come from a shop.  Appearance is not what counts.  It is vital that it is wholesome and nutritious but it doesn’t have to look the best, particularly before cooking.  Thus the leaf beet leaves I garnered a couple of weeks ago had been well and truly nibbled, nay munched – probably by slugs (ugh).  They had huge chunks taken out and some were more rib than leaf; however once chopped and cooked you could not tell and they tasted fantastic.
  • I try to eat as much as possible of each plant.  Not ever being able to abide waste I have always eaten the green ends of spring onions and leeks and the leaves and stalks of cauliflowers.  So with perennial kales I try the stems as well as the leaves; some are okay if the outer edge is peeled off, others are just too fibrous.  If the rocket is going to flower I eat the flower stalks as well as the leaves.
  • I need to be aware of what is growing all the time and when to pick or harvest it to make the best of the plant.  Leaving a perennial kale to grow bigger and bigger leaves only to find that they have actually become inedibly tough or actually started to moulder and the opportunity to eat that leaf has passed.  I am now getting better acquainted with my plants and have a better understanding of when to leave and when to pick.
  • I need to plan the polyculture patches using plants that I like and that like the garden, that will grow well and produce a good harvest.  Experience is vital as is record keeping and I am thinking through what this means in practice.
  • I also need to plan to maximise the seasons.  Food through the leaner times of winter and early spring is in a way more valuable than that which grows more readily through the summer.
  • I have tried to get some food out of the garden each day, and there has certainly been something that I could have harvested and eaten each day.  One difficulty that has occurred is again a planning thing – if I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark I have no chance to get anything from the garden, except by torchlight.  In practice this doesn’t often happen!  So I have to remember to pick plenty of wild rocket, land cress, lamb’s lettuce and three cornered leek to adorn my lunch time salads for three days on the day before I go to work.  The same goes for leafy greens to go with the evening meal.  Even though the best intentions don’t always happen I am determined to get into new habits eventually.
  • The other mistake I have nearly made but just got away with was not harvesting all the oca before we had some proper frost.  Earlier this week there were several days of hard frost that lasted all day in the north facing part of the garden.  With oca plants lingering there I was all of a sudden really worried about the little tubers as many are not far below ground and I did not know how susceptible they would be to frost.  The weather was warmer today and I managed to get most of them out this morning, with a few more to go tomorrow.  I was really missing the cold, bright, sunny and clear days of proper winter, but I must not risk the oca crop again like that.
  • I have to guard against being lazy and leaving things that could be picked.  The wild strawberries go on for many months, but yield very small pickings at any one time.  Even though I do love furtling about amongst their leaves for tiny berries it can sometimes feel a bit slow going when I am busy.  But to make the most of everything does mean everything.  Likewise I did not manage to get out and pick up all the apples that fell from the trees which I normally do.  We stew those that are damaged or nibbled so as not to let them go to waste and whilst we did get some last autumn it was by no means all of them.

There is clearly more to making the most of the garden than I perhaps thought at first.  Being aware, planning, using things to their best advantage, not being too lazy to pick things – it all takes time.  However the advantage I have is that there is relatively little cultivating to do.  I don’t dig, there is very little in the way of “weeding” and other maintenance tasks – giving all the more time to enjoy and to harvest, and then to eat!

Oca in a pot and in shade

Oca growing in a pot with some lathyrus tuberosus (earth nut pea) looked lovely during the summer and produced 401 g of tubers for a single plant.  What’s more they were packed into the pot like sardines and were all a good size.

When I ran out of obvious and sensible places to plant out the young oca plants last spring I resorted to less obvious and possibly less sensible places.  This included planting some in the shade alongside the garden decking (previously the shady home of nothing very much) with one plant at the end quite close to a hazel tree.  The picture below shows a mix of oca, scorzonera (spire at the back), herb Robert (growing up the fence), ferns, baby brassicas, clove pink, wild rocket, yellow pimpernel, wild violets, wild strawberry and the hazel tree at the back.  An apple tree is beside where the picture was taken and casts shade (as well as the fence), you can see evidence of it from the tiny fruits that had fallen to the ground.

The ground was not prepared in any way beforehand.  None of these oca plants were watered and only one received any additional fertility during the growing season.  The plant near the hazel tree had some mulch put round it from unwanted plants (otherwise known as weeds) removed from close by during the summer months.

I have harvested two plants – one from beside the decking produced 239 g of mainly small tubers.  The plant by the hazel produced an amazing 930 g!  Just beyond it I have piled up a lot of mulchy type materials when I ran out of other places to put them, so maybe it got its roots into that because it is so far easily the most productive plant.

Growing Oca (3) – and harvesting and eating it

There continues to be lots of interest on this blog in growing oca and I have been waiting to harvest my oca before putting on an update.  Oca tubers begin to form after the autumn equinox towards the end of September as the days grow shorter and the nights longer.  The top growth is killed by frosts but tubers continue to form for a few weeks after this point and I dug mine too early last year not taking advantage of the additional time for them to develop.  So this year I resolved to wait a full three weeks after the top growth died before harvesting any tubers.   However this autumn and the early part of the winter has been unseasonably warm, in contrast to last years sub zero temperatures from the end of November through to January.  This autumn / winter the garden does not know where it’s at and all sorts of things are growing or flowering when they would not normally be.  Yesterday I found a daffodil in flower hiding beside a Daubenton’s kale.

Anyway we have now had some light frosts; not enough to give one of those archetypal winter wonderland mornings but sufficient at least to kill the top growth of (most but not all) ocas.  Last summer was my second year of oca growing and I saved tubers and was able to plant more than the first year.  The saved tubers were a white variety and I bought a red variety as well.  Even giving some away I had more than I could reasonably manage to accommodate in the garden so some found themselves in places that were not planned.  I put the biggest into the prime spots and the smaller ones into other places and it is these that I have harvested first.

As well as planting some in the main polyculture beds others have gone into what was a flower bed and some into bags and a pot.  Whilst I do not have a great deal of room for growing in I am aware that some people do not have any actual garden and must use containers.  Therefore I have tried a number of perennials in containers and particularly wanted to try growing in bags as they are potentially easier to move about than pots.  I did not want to buy any custom made and expensive ones and used one large and one medium supermarket heavy duty shopping bags, each lined with a black sack with drainage holes in the bottom of the black sack but not the outer bag.  I used a good quality organic potting compost and the results in top growth were astounding.  I think that the plants responded particularly well to the depth of soil that was available to them in these bags.

This is the oca in the large bag planted also planted with some Cherokee Trail of Tears beans.  It is exuberantly lurching and spreading out of the bag in a fountain of growth.  The oca grown in containers were (of necessity) watered and fed, but those in the rest of the garden were only watered on very rare occasions if they looked wilted and unhappy.  We had a ridiculously dry summer last year and I am sure they would have appreciated more water but I am trying to find out what happens when nature is allowed to take its own course (as much as is practical).

When I harvest these and any other root crop I am very mindful to disturb the soil as little as possible.  Any disruption to soil kills untold numbers of beneficial organisms and as I really want a healthy soil and healthy garden I have no wish to do harm.  Therefore I do not dig as such to get the oca out, but rather explore with the end of a garden fork and a small trowel, pulling at the remaining top growth to liberate the plant and attached tubers, trying to make as little disruption as possible.  Afterwards I mulched the whole area with several inches of home made compost.  The plants harvested to date have yielded the following:

  • 682 g white oca from two plants in the medium sized supermarket bag
  • 182 g white oca from one plant in an unprepared (flower) bed with little attention bar some mulching during the summer
  • 185 g from one plant under the same conditions as above
  • 127 g from one red tuber under the same conditions
  • 154 from another red tuber as above
  • 97 g – unclear which plants they emanated from

This gives a total of 1427 g from 6 or so plants.  The white oca tubers seem to yield more than the red and the plants in the bag produced more and larger tubers than those in the polyculture patch.  I suspect this was because they had rather more favourable conditions.  It will be interesting to see what yields are obtained from plants grown in other beds and containers.

The plates below show the haul!  Red oca on one plate, on the left are the larger tubers from the bag and the right the smaller ones from the polyculture bed.

Some of the tubers were a little nibbled and one or two were bad inside, but most were very healthy.  Some of them came out as little more than slightly swollen stems and I have held on to these with the tiny ones and any that had turned green as part of the stock to replant next year.

Some of the remaining stems had tiny baby tubers beginning to form above ground and I have made a mental note to use plenty of mulch next year to build up round the plants, akin to the way potatoes are earthed up to see if that can help prevent getting greened tubers and maybe encourage the plants to produce more.

We have just eaten some of the oca tubers in curry, this is the recipe that my partner just invented and very nice it was too:

  • spice mix made from one clove garlic, 1 teaspoon coriander seed, 1 teaspoon cumin seed, a dash of ready prepared chilli in a jar, 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root, 1 stick lemon grass, 1/2 teaspoon grated fresh nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 4 cloves
  • this collection was mixed and mashed up together and gently fried with two chopped onions in a minimum of olive oil
  • to this was added a tin of tomatoes and a few spare fresh tomatoes and a little stock and left to simmer whilst
  • 500 g of oca was cleaned, cut into bite sized chunks and par boiled for 10 minutes
  • the oca was added to the tomato / spice mix together with a handful of fresh coriander leaf and about 150 g baby spinach leaves and then left to cook for another twenty minutes or so.
  • Next time a little lime juice is going to be added and also some squash.