How To Grow Your Own Thai Curry

I’ve been interviewed in the May edition of Vegetarian Living Magazine on how to grow your own curry paste, so I thought I’d repost the article exploring how I grow and cook with Thai Curry ingredients from the allotment, the garden and with my house plants. The magazine is available in shops now 🙂

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Dogwooddays

Kaffir lime leaves from India, chillies from Zambia and lemongrass from Thailand – although I love cooking food from all round the world, I’m sometimes dismayed at the air miles which an international meal requires. So last year I decided to have a go at providing most of these ingredients from my own garden and allotment, without resorting to lots of produce from overseas. I’ve had fun growing lemongrass and chillies from seed, trying Kaffir lime and vanilla grass as house plants, substituting lime balm and lemon verbena for lime juice and experimenting with Vietnamese coriander, garlic chives and vegetables for the base of the curries.

DSC_0046.JPG Home grown ingredients ready for blending into a green Thai curry sauce

Here’s the recipe for aromatic Thai green curry which serves 4 people, to prove that anyone can grow their own Thai curry at home:

Ingredients

1. Kaffir lime leaves – 2 leaves

I’ve been growing…

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Book Review: James Wong’s ‘How To Eat Better’

On Tuesday evening, David’s Bookshop in Letchworth hosted a talk by botanist, writer and broadcaster James Wong on his new bestselling book. As usual James gave a lively and interesting talk in which he demonstrated a broad knowledge of the scientific data behind the ideas in the book. How To Eat Better is a cookbook with a difference. Inspired by scientific data, James discusses how to SELECT, STORE and COOK food in ways which maximise its nutritional value. The recipes are fresh and simple with old favourites like ‘One-Pot Mac and Cheese’ and new ideas such as ‘Blueberry and Chilli Cheese Toastie’ and ‘Double Sweet Potato Pie’. I rate my recipe books based on how many pages display the evidence of the meals I’ve made with them. So far for How To Eat Better it’s looking good – not only has it been fascinating reading outside the kitchen, but at least two pages are now indelibly marked with tomato juice and mustard – not bad for a book I bought this Tuesday!

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I wasn’t that impressed with purple sweet potatoes last time I tried them, but this orange and purple sweet potato pie looks delicious and I’ll definitely be trying it (image from the book)

Coming from a family of scientists (although I sit on the fence with a literary and horticultural background), some of whom work in science communication, I find James’ evidence-based approach to nutrition refreshing in a world where ever-changing sensationalist headlines inform many people’s food choices. Rather than beginning with nutritional rules and then searching for data with which to support these ideas, it seems sensible to start with the data and see what it tells us. I particularly liked the table explaining ‘The Hierarchy Of Nutritional Evidence’ which explores systematic reviews, clinical trials, observational studies, animal studies and test-tube studies considering the methodology of each type of research and the strength of the evidence each provides. This knowledge allows a greater understanding of the ways in which scientists reach conclusions, helping people ‘sift through fact and fantasy in the next nutritional headline’. I was also impressed, although not surprised, by the non-dogmatic approach to the selection, storage and cooking of the foods studied in the book. James explained that the methods suggested should be viewed as ways of ‘tweaking’ what we already do in the kitchen – small, practical changes rather than a radical overhaul of how we view our food.

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Choose red chillies and peppers over green and yellow to up carotene and polyphenol levels by up to 5 times

The kids were fascinated by the idea that fruit and vegetables are living organisms which are affected by the chemical changes initiated by different storage and cooking methods. Although this seems like a rather obvious point, we do have a tendency to consider these foods as somehow unaffected by their environment once they are no longer growing on the plant or in the ground. I already keep our tomatoes out of the fridge as this allows the fruit to ripen, become sweeter and develop twice the levels of lycopene, but I wasn’t aware that the shape of a tomato is important in terms of its phytonutrient levels too. These chemicals are largely concentrated in the skin of the fruit, so baby plum tomatoes with their high ratio of skin to flesh, pack a denser phytonutrient punch than beefsteak tomatoes. The book also explains that lycopene levels almost double again upon cooking – another easy way to increase the nutritional value of these popular fruits.

The colour of fruit and vegetables is another interesting topic explored in some detail in the book. I love growing different varieties of colourful crops (‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes, ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots, ‘Kohlibri’ purple kohl rabi), so the fact that most colourful varieties (the book discusses pink grapefruit, purple cauliflower and black rice among others) contain higher levels of nutrients than their white counterparts means that growing these types of fruit and vegetable makes good nutritional sense as well as being engaging for both children and adults.

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The darker the carrot, the more polyphenols it contains

Cooking is another area where science offers interesting data about our food and whether nutrient levels are higher (and more available for our bodies to absorb) when fruit and vegetables are eaten raw or cooked in different ways. Broccoli, for example, is better eaten raw if you are after higher levels of beneficial isothiocyanates as cooking destroys the enzyme responsible for producing these chemicals. However, a team at the University of Reading found that adding a tiny amount of powdered mustard seeds can reverse this process as they contain a heat-resistant form of the enzyme which allows the reaction to occur. Magic! And raw broccoli chopped finely and left for a couple of hours contains more isothiocyanates, making it even better for you. Unlike broccoli, evidence suggests that blueberries are more phytonutrient rich when lightly cooked in the microwave for 3 minutes.

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Purple Sprouting Broccoli is best as fresh as possible

Some sections of the book confirmed what I already do in the kitchen (like rushing the purple sprouting broccoli in from the garden and lightly steaming it) whilst other information challenged my preconceived ideas about food (that buying local always means fruit and vegetables are better for you). But what is most refreshing about How To Eat Better is that it isn’t an instruction manual on better eating, but a way of transferring ideas based on scientific research into practical advice for the kitchen. To what extent you choose to adopt changes to selecting, storing and cooking food is up to you, but you’ll end the book more knowledgeable about the biology and chemistry behind your food. You’ll have a range of tasty, healthy recipes to inspire you to eat more fruit and vegetables however you decide to select, store or cook them and because James is donating all the royalties from the book to UNICEF, you’ll also have helped fight hunger across the world too.

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Green tomatoes like ‘Green Zebra’ contain high levels of tomatine which may inhibit cancer cell growth

The book is currently available on Amazon for £7.99 for the Kindle edition or £6.99 for the hardback (a good discount on the £20 RRP) – to order a copy, click on the image below…

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If you’d like to read more of the book reviews in Write Plant, Write Place, you could take a look at the following articles:

Around the World in 80 Plants

The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

Of Swings And Daisies

What is a garden? An ever-changing expanse of blue, lightness, the rush of air, freedom and energy. Swinging aloft, earthly concerns forgotten in the airborn joy of movement. In childhood days I thought little of seasonal changes, of buying plants or raising vegetables from seed, of compost, plant labels and copper tape as hosta protection from the ninja slug brigade whose mucilaginous forays even surmount the uppermost greenhouse shelving. There was no thought of gardens as outdoor rooms for entertaining, no knowledge of how to design herb wheels or construct fruit cages as I picked fresh peas, discarding any maggoty pods as I went. Behind the vegetable beds a shed, no pots or tools committed to memory, only scratched legs from wading through a sea of raspberry canes to emerge, variously reddened at the shed door with its rain-softened label marking the secret meeting place of myself, my brother and our friends.

The garden was a place of physical intensity and a portal to other realms – the immeasurable expanse of sky or the miniature world beneath my feet. Hours spent stretched on the grass amidst the daisies, reading, eating, revising and playing with the cat, grass blades tickling my feet, the whole world buzzing and vibrating with insect turmoil. Flower borders mattered little, but the mesembryanthemums fringing the beds, opening and closing their candy petals marked the passing of summer days in a wash of colour.

These peripheral details seem outside my adult experience of the garden as I hurry from shed to greenhouse, from washing line to flower border proceeding along task-oriented lines. Or as I view the garden from an upstairs window whilst watering seedlings, writing articles on how to extend the strawberry season and when to plant new potatoes. From my elevated vantage point I can appreciate the developing maturity of the fruit trees, the seasonal highlights of bulbs, blossom or annual flowers, but distance and haste detract from my physical relationship with the garden. 

I don’t have time to swing with the kids for as long as I’d like, watching the sky with the childlike fascination which contemplating the immeasurable so easily engenders, but I would do well to remember my childhood experience of a garden and pause for a while in wonder. Just to be, in a garden, at times should be enough.

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What’s In A Name? Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

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Ophiopogon in my gravel front garden

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, also known as black lilyturf, black mondo or black dragon, is an evergreen perennial native to Japan. Despite having a grass-like appearance, it is a member of the Asparagacaea family, as is the similar grass-like Liriope muscari. ‘Ophiopogon’ comes from the Greek ‘ophis’ meaning ‘serpent’ and ‘pogon’ meaning ‘beard’. The name presumably alludes to the linear leaves being the beard of the snake or dragon. ‘Planiscapus’ refers to the flattened scape or flower-stalk ending in a loose raceme of lilac flowers and ‘Nigrescens’ to the black colour of the foliage and scapes. In summer, after the flowers fade, blue to deep purple berries develop leading to the French name ‘Herbe aux Turquoises’ also referred to as the ‘barbe de serpent noire’.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ can be a tricky plant to use in a garden situation. Its deep purple/black foliage when used sparingly or dotted through planting can look straggly and disappear into the undergrowth. At its best, en masse, it is an attractive groundcover plant adding a deep saturation of colour to a design and setting off brighter, lighter colours well. It makes a pairing with plants with silver foliage like Stachys byzantina or, in my garden, Lychnis coronaria and Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tormentosum) and looks stunning alongside plants with orange foliage such as Libertia peregrinans and Carex testacea.

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Used as an edging plant in Regent’s Park

Ophiopogon also works well in erosion control, binding soil with its rhizomatous roots, and it thrives in containers. I’ve used it successfully in pots with dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’) and white violas as a winter combination and last year I underplanted my French lavender (Lavandula stoechas) with ophiopogon, then dog violets also colonised the pot. A rather random combination, but the silver and black foliage alongside the purple flowers looked attractive and the ophiopogon is increasing, a sure sign that it’s happy in its environment.

Containers with ophiopogon in my garden in autumn, spring and summer

Ophiopogon prefers full sun to partial shade, moist but well-drained soil and likes neutral to acid soil (but it seems to do fine in my alkaline front garden). So whether you want some foliage interest in a container or larger scale groundcover impact, the black serpent’s beard with flattened scapes is a good way to add some lustre to your garden this year.

More images of ophiopogon in Regent’s Park border designs

Greenfingers Charity Re-leaf Day

thumbnailGreenfingers is a national charity dedicated to supporting the children who spend time in hospices round the UK, along with their families, by creating inspiring gardens for them to relax in and enjoy. So far Greenfingers has created 51 inspiring gardens in children’s hospice around the country and has a waiting list of other hospices which need help.

I first heard about Greenfingers when I found out they are currently building a garden at our local children’s hospice – Keech Hospice in Luton. I often visit the shop in Hitchin town centre and the charity is regularly the focus of local fundraising efforts, so it’s lovely to think that children at the hospice, and their families, will soon be able to access a new garden for therapeutic rest and relaxation.

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Work begins at Keech Hospice in early February 2017

Over the next few months the charity is organising several fundraising events and the first takes place in Cambridge on Re-Leaf Day, 17th March.  The Great Garden Re-leaf Walk involves a 10/20 mile walk from Scotsdale Garden Centre in Horningsea to Great Shelford, where hundreds of energetic supporters including Scotsdale Garden Centre staff, Peter Jackson, BBC Radio Cambridge gardening expert, local residents and gardening industry professionals from all across the country will be enjoying a Spring walk through Cambridge to raise fund for children’s hospice gardens.

Gardening experts from Mr Fothergill’s Seeds, Newmarket and pot and container experts from Cadix and Elho as well as gardening glove experts Briers, will be on the walk ready to talk gardening advice with all walkers. SBM Life Science, Cambridge who market well-known ranges of garden fertilisers and control products will be sponsoring the walk and providing 200 commemorative medals for all fund-raising walkers.

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Some of last year’s Re-Leaf Day walkers

Members of the public are welcome to join the walk free of charge – as long as they sign up to personally raise funds for Greenfingers Charity. At the end of the walk there will be tea and cake, a barbecue and a chance to watch Triathlete, Heidi Towse, complete a 20 mile row on a static rowing machine at the finish line. Thanks to Young’s Coach Company, Ely, the day will start with a luxury free ride from Scotsdale Garden Centre at Great Shelford to the start point at Horningsea.

In 2016, Greenfingers Charity benefitted by more than £140k from Re-Leaf Day, the most successful appeal so far and the hope is that this year will break that record and enable more gardens to be built for hospices currently on the waiting list. If you can’t make the walk, there are lots of other activities you could support. Alan Down, owner of Cleeve nurseries, Bristol, will be opening the gates to his private collection of Hellebores to a small group of gardeners to raise funds.

Before and after – Bluebell Wood, Sheffield, completed in October 2016

Garden centres and nurseries all around the country are participating in the 24hr plant-athon (to find your nearest, use the area search), including Aylett Nurseries, St Albans, who are having a Mad Hatter’s Day with a talk from Pippa Greenwood, Squires Garden Centre, Hersham with an Afternoon Tea Party and Millbrook’s, Gravesend, who have a whole weekend of activities planned (children’s activities, Our Amazing Animal World Experience, planting demonstrations, a coffee and cake morning and an evening with plant hunter Tom Hart-Dyke described as the ‘new David Bellamy’) with all proceeds going directly to Greenfingers.

Little Havens Hospice Garden in Essex

With so many exciting gardening activities going on up and down the country on Re-Leaf Day, there should be something for everyone to join in with, or you can hold a Char-i-TEA Garden Tea Party in your garden, allotment or work in the summer – anything from a simple cake sale, to a cuppa with a slice of homemade cake or even an elaborate high tea worthy of Downton Abbey. With fundraising kits available to help hosts with everything from tickets to cake recipes, it couldn’t be easier to get together and raise funds for new hospice gardens. To find out how you can get involved, you can contact Greenfingers by email: Teaparty@greenfingerscharity.org.uk or call the fundraising team on 01494674749.

Nationwide Plant-athon activities in 2016

It’s also possible to donate to Greenfingers Charity via JustGiving by following the link at the top right-hand side of their homepage. Greenfingers aims to build four new gardens during 2017 and, subject to successful fundraising this year, to plan and complete a further three next year. The locations will stretch North from Luton to Loch Lomond and west from Grimsby to Oxford. Creating inspiring gardens for life-limited children and their families to enjoy is such a important and worthwhile cause – I’ll be donning my apron when warmer weather returns to bake some gluten-free cakes for my friends and family in a FUNdraising effort to support the work of this marvellous charity.

Images courtesy of Greenfingers Charity.