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.
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:
1. Kaffir lime leaves – 2 leaves
I’ve been growing Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) in the kitchen for the past 3 years and it is thriving. I have two pots (I repotted the small seedlings I received into 2 groups when they arrived). I water them regularly and feed them with liquid citrus feed over the summer. The fresh leaves are amazingly aromatic and are far better than dried leaves in my opinion. For very little effort, these plants are a lovely addition to my curry collection and they are very cost effective as 1g of dried leaves can cost upwards of £2!
2. Vietnamese coriander – a handful
I bought my Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata) recently at Hampton Court Flower Show and it beats growing regular coriander which I found tricky to harvest before it bolted, not to mention the necessity to repeat sow throughout the summer. It will need overwintering in a heated greenhouse – or in my case I’ll be putting it on the spare room windowsill with the chillies and lemongrass. I love the fact that it’s perennial, so no need to sow each year. It tastes remarkably like ordinary coriander too and is a pretty prolific grower.
3. Lemongrass – a stick or a few leaves
I love growing lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) and this is the third year I’ve sown from seed and had a good success rate. This year I’ve used the leaves in cooking as harvesting a whole stick would decimate the plant, but last year I was able to pull the whole stick off my 2 year old plants and still leave a sizeable plant to produce more offshoots. Unfortunately a cold spring this year was the final straw for last year’s plants, which died in the cold. Next spring I’ll be much more careful about temperatures when returning the lemongrass to the greenhouse.
4. Garlic chives – a small handful
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are a lovely addition to the herb border. They have beautiful white flowers in the spring and can be grown just like ordinary chives. They have a mild garlic/onion taste and are great in salads.
5. Lime balm and lemon verbena – small handful of each
I’ve been growing lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) for a few years and it never fails to please me with its sherbet lemon scented leaves. I have propagated plants for friends and my original plant overwinters successfully in the unheated greenhouse every winter. I always think it has died, but without fail, each spring it sends up new shoots and flourishes. Lime balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Lime Balm’) is a new plant this year and combined with lemon verbena it makes an alternative for lime and lemon juice in curries and salads. It is best grown in containers as, like its relation lemon balm, it has a tendency to be vigorous (aka. invasive). It has a lovely lime fragrance and can also be used in teas, ice creams and as an insect repellent.
Lime balm and lemon verbena ready for harvesting
6. Chillies – 1-4 chillies to taste
This year my chilli obsession has got a bit out of hand and the most recent count reached 39 plants of 14 different varieties: ‘Cayenne’, ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Purple Gusto’, ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’, Rocoto – Alberto’s Locoto, Hungarian Black, Numex Twilight, ‘Aji Limon’, ‘Joe’s Long’, ‘Habanero Red Devil’, ‘Habanero Big Sun’, ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘Piri Piri’ and ‘Alma Paprika’. I love eating them for suppers stuffed with cream cheese and baked. Now the kids are getting a bit older we can finally introduce a bit of heat into family meals too. For this recipe I used ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Aji Limon’ and ‘Purple Gusto’ because they happened to be available, but any chillies would be fine and the variety can be adapted to suit the level of heat required.
7. Garlic – 2 cloves
I’ve been growing garlic for a few years in large potato containers after we got white rot in our garden soil. They seem to thrive and give relatively big crops for very little work. I grow ‘Early Purple Wight’, ‘Red Czech’ and elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) which is, as the name suggest, enormous and with a very mild flavour. I save some cloves each year for planting the next which makes this crop cost effective. We also get to eat the garlic scapes or flowering stalks in early summer, so get two crops for the price of one.
8. Mint – small handful for the salad
I’m also a bit of a mint fanatic, because it’s so easy to propagate. I have 12 varieties at the moment – orange mint, banana mint, berries and cream mint, grapefruit mint, apple mint, peppermint, garden mint, basil mint, lime mint, ginger mint, Corsican mint and Indian mint. It all started last year as a plan to create an interesting collection for the school plant stall, but since then I’ve become fascinated by all the different tastes and uses. Watch this space for a post soon on the different varieties and their uses.
9. Seasonal vegetables – potatoes, kale, broad beans (enough vegetables to feed 4 people) carrots and cucumber (3 carrots, 1/2 a cucumber)
I would just use any vegetables for the curry and salad which are available from the garden or allotment at any given time. At the moment this includes new potatoes ‘Lady Christl’, broad beans and kale (Cavolo Nero) for the curry, and carrots and cucumber for the accompanying salad. That’s the beauty of recipes like this – they allow you to celebrate whatever’s in season and try different combinations throughout the year.
10. My prize coconut tree – 1 coconut (or a 400ml tin of coconut milk)
Every summer I send the kids up the coconut tree with small woven baskets to collect the coconuts to crack open for curries…
OK – so this is one ingredient I can’t grow in the UK and thus should be taken with a large pinch of salt, which incidentally, is another ingredient not harvested from our garden/allotment, along with sesame oil, 200ml vegetable stock (either made with with left over vegetable cooking water or vegetable stock powder and water) or chicken stock (either from boiling a roast chicken carcass with bay leaves or ready made) and fish sauce (nam pla). Leftover roast chicken is good added to the curry if it is available.
If anyone knows of a home grown alternative to coconut milk, (or has a tree with coconuts on it in the UK!) I’d love to hear from you.
To make the green curry sauce I blend the garlic chives, lemon verbena, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, Vietnamese coriander, lime balm leaves, chillies, garlic and a 2cm piece of ginger in the food processor and then add the cold stock, a few drops of sesame oil and a splash (2-3 tsps) of fish sauce to allow the mixture to be completely blended. I find if I try to make a green Thai curry paste (without the liquid) with these ingredients, it tends to end up with stringy bits throughout. Then I add the sauce to the pan, add the coconut milk and begin to heat it gently.
Next I add the vegetables, suiting the cooking time to the type of vegetables I’m using. With the new potatoes I added them for 15 minutes until soft and then added the broad beans and kale for a further 5 minutes until all the vegetables were cooked.
Serve with rice (yes, I know, not many rice paddies in Hertfordshire) and a Thai salad.
Recently I’ve been adding a few vanilla grass leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius) to the rice as I boil it to add a subtle vanilla flavour. This lovely houseplant has been happy in our bathroom for the past 3 years and only needs rainwater and ericaeous feed in the summer to keep it producing leaves for the kitchen.
For the salad I usually shred some of our carrots, cucumbers and/or courgettes, spring onions or chopped chives, chopped mint, lime balm and Vietnamese coriander. Then I add chopped chillies, crushed garlic, a pinch of salt, a few drops of sesame oil and a squeeze of the honey produced on a neighbouring allotment to mix with the raw vegetables.
How do you create international dishes with local ingredients? If you grow other useful ingredients please leave me a comment as I’d love to broaden my range of different ingredients and different cuisines. I’m hoping to grow Japanese hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga) on the allotment next year so I’ll be able to add that ginger tang to my curries. I’ve also grown Thai basil from seed in previous years and used it successfully in curries, so I’ll be sowing it again next year to add extra depth to the flavour – and thanks to the reader who suggested this lovely ingredient ☺
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Next I’m planning more mouth-watering summer recipes for gluten-free scones with homemade redcurrant and strawberry jam. (Our favourite jam and very useful if you’re struggling with a glut of redcurrants!)