Monday, 31 March 2014

Veg Patch Confessions Part 43b - New Zealand Spinach

There's no recipe today; instead it’s this year’s first dubious tale from the neglected veg patch.

Spinach is a very useful vegetable to have growing in your garden in my opinion. Even if you don’t have much space to grow a lot of plants, a couple of handfuls of the leaves can be really useful to add to curries, pasta, fish or whatever you fancy. The problem is that if you’re away from home or if you’re just too busy to get out to your plants, then things start to go wrong. Like most vegetables, spinach doesn't take kindly to near complete neglect, especially a lack of watering.

On the other hand, there is a useful little plant that has survived a serious amount of neglect in my veg patch: New Zealand Spinach (tetragonia tetragonioides). It might not be as prolific or as large as conventional spinach, but any vegetable that can survive both drought and my incompetent gardening has got to be a good thing.
New Zealand Spinach
You may know this plant by a different name. For instance, in Australia and New Zealand I'm told that it’s known as Warrigal greens. In France it’s called t├ętragone and elsewhere it’s sometimes called sea spinach for reasons that I don’t really understand. Whatever you call it, though, it really does taste and behave like spinach once cooked.

If you're not familiar with this plant and you might be tempted to try growing it, here are a few things I've discovered about New Zealand spinach that the seed packet might not tell you.
  • Snails and slugs don’t seem to like it much and will only nibble it if desperate.

  • As far as I know, there are no named varieties and so there’s no reason to go shopping around for a particular variety of seed – they should all be the same.

  • It’s best if you pick the leaves little and often. Once blanched they do freeze well in the same way as normal spinach. If you don’t pick regularly, the plants can become quite large and ungainly. This might not be a major problem unless they outgrow their space and swamp nearby smaller plants.

  • Don’t plant it directly in the ground if the soil is still cold – it will sulk and fail to germinate. On the other hand, it germinates really well in pots on a windowsill, although it’s best to soak the seeds in water overnight before planting.

  • In their raw form the leaves do contain quite a high concentration of oxalic acid (as does sorrel) and this would be unhealthy in large doses. Although eating raw leaves is not recommended, the acid is largely removed by cooking or blanching. Spinach, chard, kale and rhubarb (amongst other foods) also contain oxalic acid, so I don’t think that there’s any reason to worry about this plant in particular.

  • The flowers are small and yellow and it’s almost impossible to stop the plants flowering, especially if you don’t pick the leaves regularly. It doesn’t really matter if they do flower, though, and they will self-seed, so you may never need to buy another packet of seeds.

  • The plants will usually be killed instantly by the first frost.
March in the Garden
While I've got my battered gardening hat on, I feel the urge to mention chervil again. It’s not that easy to find on sale in supermarkets but it’s a useful, decorative and easily grown herb. Some of last summer’s plants set seed in my garden and, as a result, some young plants survived the mild winter and are producing an excellent spring crop.
Now I really must get around to cooking something.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Cardamom and Lemon Apple Jelly

I've wittered on about making savoury apple jellies before, but I don't care, I'm going to do it again. They've become one of my essential store cupboard items and, following the superb crop of apples in England last year, I was given plenty of cooking apples with which to experiment over the autumn and winter. This jelly won the award for best newcomer.

It's more fragrant and a little less punchy than some of the others that I make but it’s certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to flavour. The cardamom is the main taste but it does need the lemon to provide a lift. It’s excellent served with cured or smoked salmon or used as a glaze when roasting salmon fillets. It also works very well with lamb and cold meats and adds an extra depth to vegetable dishes. Mixed with white wine, lemon juice and olive oil it will create a fine marinade or glaze for chicken or pork and it's useful for adding extra flavour to quick, weekday curries. You can even use it to flavour sweet dishes but, if you want a truly sweet jelly, then swap the vinegar in the recipe for more water.

Although this may sound like quite a few apples, it will only produce roughly three small jars. It might seem like a lot of effort for not much reward but a little does go a long way and will provide a big flavour boost whenever you fancy it.
Cardamom and Lemon Apple Jelly
For the first stage:
     1 kg cooking apples (Bramleys are the obvious choice, but other varieties will be fine too)
     500 ml white wine vinegar or cider vinegar
     500 ml water
     2 unwaxed lemons
     40 (or so) lightly crushed cardamom pods

For the second stage:
     450 g granulated sugar for every 550 ml of liquid that dripped through the jelly bag
     Seeds of around 30 cardamom pods, lightly crushed

It’s probably easiest to make the jelly over two days so that it can left overnight, but, failing that, allow at least 3 – 5 hours between stages one and two.

For stage 1, wash the apples and make sure that there are no damaged bits on them. Chop the apples roughly without peeling or removing the pips. Place the apple pieces in a preserving pan together with the vinegar and water. Cut the lemons in half and add them to the pan. Stir in the cardamom and place the pan on the heat. Bring to the boil, squeezing the lemon halves with the back of a wooden spoon to make sure that juice escapes. Put a lid on the pan and simmer the mixture until the apples have collapsed and become mushy. This probably won’t take more than 15 minutes, although it will vary a little depending on the variety of apple you’re using.

Put the contents of the pan into a jelly bag (or you could use fine muslin) and leave it to drip through into a clean container.

When you awake refreshed the next morning or when you just can’t wait any longer, measure the liquid that’s dripped through the bag, pour it back into the cleaned preserving pan and add the appropriate amount of sugar for the second stage. (Don’t use sugar with added pectin – there’ll be plenty of pectin in the mixture from the apples and lemons already).

Put the pan on a medium heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat, bring to the boil and skim any unpleasant looking foam or scum from the top. Boil until the jelly reaches setting point. These days I've learnt to trust a jam thermometer and the way the jelly looks to tell me when that point has been reached. There’s always the old wrinkle test as an alternative, though: chill a saucer in the freezer, put a small dollop of the jelly on the saucer, wait a moment or two and if the jelly wrinkles when you push it with your finger, then it’s ready.

As the jelly starts to cool, it will begin to thicken. At this point, stir in the cardamom seeds, which should remain suspended in the jelly. If they sink to the bottom, let the jelly cool a little more and stir again. Pour the jelly into sterilised jars and seal. I tend to get through the jars of jelly quite quickly but they should keep for about a year unopened if stored in a cool, dark cupboard. Once opened, store in the fridge, where they should last for at least six weeks.