Why the grow-it-yourself gourmet has nothing to lose

From courgette flowers to turnip tops, gardeners grow delicacies you won’t see in shops, says Kitty Scully.

There are so many incentives for growing your own fruit, herbs and vegetables, but needless to say, the number one bonus has to be eating them.

When it comes to flavour, nothing quite compares to the delicate, delectable and innocently sweet taste of garden fresh.

A pea popped straight from the pod, a freshly dug crispy carrot, a spicy sprig of rocket, an aromatic bunch of basil, a mouth-watering salubrious strawberry, need I say more? The results surely vindicate the drudgery of digging, weeding and the stressful struggle with slugs.

So between the hard work of growing your own and the bounty comes one last important step – harvesting.

By harvesting correctly at the right time and making full use of all parts of edible plants, home growers are guaranteed to maximise the fruits of their labour. After all it takes to grow crops, it is really important that everything grown is used to its full potential.

My advice is to harvest plants as soon as crops are ready so as to enjoy fresh and tender returns. Vegetables are not monuments. They are grown to be harvested, consumed and enjoyed.

Some crops such as white turnips and kohl rabi will lose flavour and become tough and stringy if not used at the appropriate time. Others like peas, beans, courgettes and certain herbs will actually be encouraged to produce more by harvesting.

Home-grown vegetables march streets ahead of their supermarket counterparts that unfortunately are mostly selected for easy packaging, storage and display.

They often are far removed from their original parent plant. For example, beetroot is sold leafless and usually peeled and pickled; turnips are sold without their tops; Brussels sprouts are removed from their stem and courgettes come deprived of their flowers.

Home growing allows you to become accustomed to plants as a whole and so benefit from all their edible parts.

Here are a few tips to make some of your garden delights go further:

Beetroot

Beetroot is in the same family as chard and perpetual spinach and, like its relatives, its leaves and stems are edible.

Young leaves are delicious in salads and the older leaves can be cooked. Densely-sown beetroot can be managed by harvesting the thinnings as baby beets and leaving the rest to grow on, thus extending the harvest season.

Turnip, Radish & Brussels Sprout Tops

Most people identify the turnip root as its edible part but overlook the top leafy portion of the plant and wrongfully presume that it is indigestible.

These greens are actually bursting with vitamins and easily steamed or boiled so they can then be served up as a tasty side dish with your meal.

The same is true of radish tops. Interestingly, the chefs in Airfield actually find the flavor of Brussels sprouts tops to be superior to the sprout themselves.

Take note that harvesting sprout tops will reduce yields but encourages the plant to produce sprouts faster.

Courgette Flowers

These delicate flowers are prized by most chefs more than the courgette itself and are best served stuffed, battered and deep-fried.

If used as a garnish, these brilliant yellow flowers never fail to brighten up a platter. Courgettes produce male and female flowers and both are suitable for eating. The male flower is much larger that the female flower which will have the immature vegetable attached.

As the courgette grows the female flower shrinks, so if you wish to eat them attached, pick them when the vegetable is still small and tastes sweet and delicious with the flower still at its best.

Nasturtiums

These are one of my all-time favourite edible flowers as they are super easy to grow and all parts are edible (leaves, flowers and seeds). Nasturtium leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads or put in vinegar or oil for flavour and colour.

Their seed pods can be blanched and pickled and are sometimes referred to as ‘poor man’s capers’. Nasturtiums are notorious self-seeders, so plant once and enjoy for years to come.

Peas

All parts of the pea plant are edible. Pea shoots (top growth including one set of leaves) are tender, crisp and tasty and can be harvested every three to four weeks once the plant is established.

The curling tendrils that the pea plant uses to hold on to supports make a delightful garnish and often appear on plates in Asian restaurants and trendy establishments.

Pea flowers are also tasty but I wouldn’t go too mad picking these as, remember, they will eventually form your peas. Pea shoots and tendrils may sound and look exotic or sophisticated, but even gardeners who can’t grow peas to maturity can grow these.

Vegetable tops and tails

The discarded parts of a vegetable can be boiled up to make a vitamin-packed veggie stock — leek tops, onion peel, tops of carrots and parsnips, tough stalks of cabbage etc.

Throw them all into a pot with some aromatic herbs and follow your basic stock recipe. As the old adage goes, waste not, want not.


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