As the spring broad beans and peas begin to appear at market you might expect me to be regaling you with stories of abundance on the allotment by now. Well, it doesn't work quite like that. Some domestic growers do manage to bring in Spring crops early, but that's because they've raised their plants under glass before planting out. For those of us who have to sow our seeds directly in the ground things happen a little later, especially if the weather is as unreliable as it has been this year. For biodynamic growers there is the added complication of planting to the biodynamic calendar in less than ideal conditions. Generally, the best guide for starting to sow can be taken from the weeds. Once they start to appear you can start to plant the hardiest of your seeds - broad beans, peas and spinach.
The positively hot weather in early April saw me sowing seeds for three types of spinach. All grew happily through a cool, wet May and are currently my only harvestable crop. A first planting of broad beans and peas the second week in April is just flowering, so I'm a little behind. The next few weeks should be much more productive with Charlotte potatoes, broad beans, peas, onions, shallots and garlic all growing well. My gooseberries will soon be ready for a first picking and the blackcurrant bushes are laden with unripe fruit. I'm determined to get the currants before the birds strip every last one, as happened last year. Pink Fir Apple potatoes, carrots, parsnips, Borlotti beans, courgettes and squash have now been planted and my nursery bed of brassicas is, as yet, untouched by slugs, flea beetles or pigeons. I'm particularly looking forward to my Long Red Florence onions which I grow from seed. Harvested when thick-necked, they are gorgeous to the eye, sweet in flavour for salads and silky in texture when gently fried.
|Purple artichokes with black olives|
Artichokes are a crop I've never tried to grow as they are perennials which need quite a bit of space. If you have the ground to devote to them, they require very little attention. Plant rooted offsets in spring rather than seeds which can be very variable. The deep purple varieties are, unfortunately, not very hardy. Cover the crowns with dried leaves in winter to protect from frost. You should divide the plants every three years to keep them healthy. Growing them in a flower border is a good option as they are tall, stately and compact with blue-grey thistle-like leaves. Leave a few unpicked and purple thistles heads will appear from the choke to add a bit of drama to your planting. As well as the main heads they produce smaller satelllite buds which are perfect for the recipe given here.
While I wait for my own vegetables, I couldn't resist buying some of the beautiful egg-sized Italian purple artichokes pictured above. The heads were tightly closed indicating freshness and their small size meant they had very little hairy choke. I wanted to serve them as simply as possible and this recipe is based on one in 'Chez Panisse Vegetables' by Alice Waters. I piled the stuffed artichokes onto salad leaves for a light lunch but they make a good accompaniment to roast or grilled lamb. They would probably be good with green puy lentils. You can keep them in the fridge for a couple of days in the cooking juices.
Purple Artichokes with black olives(Serves 2)
6-8 small purple artichokes
A handful pitted black olives
1 garlic clove
A few parsley sprigs (plus the stalks)1 Bay leaf
A splash of white wine
A splash of good olive oil
Salt & pepper
A little lemon juice or vinegar
Salt & pepper
A little lemon juice or vinegar
Strip off the outer 2-3 rows of leaves (more if the artichokes are larger), trim the stalk end. Slice off the top third of the artichoke and use a teaspoon to remove the hairy choke from the centre. Artichokes contain tannic acid so, once prepared, stop them turning brown by popping each in a bowl of cold water with a good squeeze of lemon juice or a tablespoon of vinegar while you prepare the filling.
Chop stoned black olives, a clove of garlic and a few parsley leaves, mix together and stuff the artichokes.
Put about 1 inch of water in a pan, add a splash of white wine, the parsley stalks and a bay leaf and add the stuffed artichokes, standing upright. Season and pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil over. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Serve at room temperature with the juices spooned over. A few parings of parmesan on top would be a good idea unless you want to keep it totally vegetarian.