Fresh vegetables can be a bit thin on the ground at the moment. I am digging the last leeks, the winter cabbages are starting to bolt (throw up flowers stems) and the Brussels sprouts are looking a bit tired and not very appetising. The last beetroot in store are getting flabby and the last squash are starting to rot so it is the time when we really relish any new veg that will add variety to our meals. It will be a few more weeks before the first asparagus and I must admit that I have not planted any here. It is not that I don’t like it, quite the reverse – I love it, but although I have planted it many times I have never picked any. This is because it takes several years to crop after planting and I have either moved or had to give up allotments. I have grown it from seed and bought plants and many people have benefited from my industry, but now I am rather superstitious and I will have to be very settled before I plant more. Perhaps I will put some in a window box when I get up from my plaid armchair in the old people’s home.
But despite the lack of choice, March brings us one of the most delicious vegetables of the year. Sprouting broccoli, whether purple of white, is one of the joys of the veg garden and worth growing if you have the room. Just now it seems ridiculous to think of any bad things about this delicious vegetable but it has to be said that this is a large, long term plant that is not really worth the space in a small garden. Modern varieties are more compact than traditional sorts and many produce a large, central head, followed, a few weeks later, by smaller sprouts. My plants were sown last April and planted out in June. They need protection from pigeons and, of course, are prone to all the typical brassica problems such as whitefly and caterpillars. But the rewards just now are delicious and if you pick just the very tops they are tasty raw. Even so you get a lot of plant for the crop so they are not for everyone. But I am finding a way to get more from my plants. Although we do not usually eat the leaves of broccoli there is no reason why we shouldn’t because they are closely related to cabbages. I have just treated myself to a slow juicer to try to up my ‘greens’ intake and I have been picking all manner of ‘irregular’ brassicas to push into the rotating screw and apart from when I put just too much of this and parsley in the machine the flavour was well hidden by the apples and the juice looked ridiculously healthy – deep green with a frothy head, like a vegan Guinness!
The plant I have been talking about is sprouting broccoli, and if you are going to grow it choose the purple-sprouting which I think tastes better than the white and is better for you because of the red pigments. You can also buy seeds of a ‘Summer Purple’ variety that does not need the usual winter chilling to initiate flowering. It sounds like a good idea but I find it is generally disappointing with an irregular crop of small ‘spears’ on ugly, scruffy plants. I would rather grow summer calabrese.
Now to avoid confusion, calabrese is the stuff that supermarkets sell as broccoli. The two plants are very different despite the incorrect naming. Calabrese is not frost hardy and is a vegetable from Italy originally – Calabria I would suggest. If you have a small garden this is the one to grow because the plants are compact and they mature in about 3 months, sometimes more. You can (and I have) sow the seeds, in a greenhouse, in March and plant out the seedlings in late April for a crop in June and if you sow a range of varieties and at different times, you can have a crop from June to October. Most varieties only grow to about 40cm high and can be spaced at 40cm too and once the main ‘head’ is cropped most produce many secondary stems which are just as tasty. We all know how good this veg is for us and it is easy to grow, much easier than cauliflowers and, being green, better for you too. Just make sure they have rich soil and plenty of water when they are growing – if they are in dry poor soil you will only get small, stringy produce. I would suggest that these are worth growing in a patio pot and the seedlings are edible too.
But it is among the Oriental greens that you find real versatility. Most of these, which are sometimes a bit confusing, can be eaten at every stage, from seedling to flowering stems. Most prefer growing in cool conditions and should not be sown until July or they are likely to run to seed and not make much leaf but this makes them incredibly useful to sow after early veg have been cropped – maybe to follow on from peas and broad (fava) beans.
Mustard ‘Red Frills’. I have finally got to the point of this post, because I picked some for my tea, which I will cook or eat raw when I send this into the ether. I sowed this pretty plant last August (just sow thinly where you want it to grow) and it survived the winter virtually unscathed and is now sending up myriads of thin flowering shoots. Oriental mustards are most often seen as purple-leaved plants and they are beautiful. Their leaves have a peppery taste that increases in cool weather and is strongest in the bigger leaves. In fact the peppery taste almost gets to pepper spray intensity and I think they can be too hot to eat with much pleasure. ‘Red Frills’ is, apparently, an old Japanese heirloom variety but whatever its origins it seems to have come to notice only recently and it is a real gem. Other frilly mustard greens originated in Northern India.
When the plants are young they are mounds of thread-like, purple leaves and these can be picked individually or sheared off – the plants will send up fresh growth. But now the plants are running to seed and I am picking the tender shoot tips to eat raw or to steam. I will leave a few shoots to bloom because the yellow flowers are quite attractive, though not as big as most Oriental greens. But they should appeal to any early bees anyway so I will leave them for a while and maybe collect seeds.
Easy, tasty and pretty, this mustard is also incredibly good for you. As well as being rich in minerals and vitamin C it contains sinigrin (the mustard taste in brassicas that may have anti-cancer properties) and gluconasturtiin (the pungent taste found in horseradish and watercress, which also has anti-cancer properties). I think its mustard-taste makes it the perfect complement to eggs and my favourite way to use it is in egg mayo sandwiches where you would otherwise use watercress. It is a perfect leaf to grow in a pot or in growing bags and would look fabulous with some orange flowers. I would suggest pot marigolds or Californian poppies except these drop petals and they are fiddly to extricate from the frilly leaves (I found out the hard way last year) so I would go for French marigolds instead.
‘Red Frills’ is readily available from seed companies including:
Marshalls seeds e2.45 for 2000 seeds
Dobies £1.25 for 600 seeds
DT Brown £1.69 for 350 seeds