From Jerusalem artichokes to sweet potatoes, there’s a choice of new gourmet vegetables on the market. Take your pick and try something a little unusual on your vegetable patch this year!
Growing Jerusalem Artichokes
Something of an acquired taste, Jerusalem artichokes are easy to grow and eat – it’s the after‐effects that deter many people!
Why bother? Because Jerusalem Artichokes are delicious! Cooked in a soup with parmesan and leek, or baked in a potato gratin to add flavour, they’ll enhance your culinary repertoire. They’re also very easy to grow, and the tall plants create a natural windbreak for your vegetable patch.
How do you grow and cook them? Jerusalem Artichokes don’t mind shade, and the root system copes with any soil type – in fact the roots will improve the soil for future crops. Because it can be difficult to make sure you’ve dug out every tuber, it is a good idea to give the patch an extra year to reveal any lingering spares. Plant the tubers any time from late winter to spring, eyes facing upwards, about 15cm deep. Earth up the stems once and then pinch out the growing tips in July to encourage the plants to return energy to the tubers. Stake the plants to avoid damage from winds, if you’re in an exposed spot. When the leaves die back in winter, you can harvest the crop or leave in the soil until required.
The best way to cook Jerusalem artichokes is in a gratin – parboil equal quantities of sliced artichoke and potato, then layer with salt and pepper in an ovenproof dish. Cover with a mixture of ½ milk and ½ cream, cover with foil, and bake for about 1 hour at 180 degrees C.
Growing Borlotti Beans
Favourites such as soy beans and chickpeas don’t take well in our climate. But if you’re keen on beans, join the gourmets who are growing Borlotti. Borlotti beans are popular in Italy, where the fresh, mottled pods are sold loose. They’re suited to our climate and make a nice change from runners and broad beans…
Why bother? Borlotti plants are very beautiful, with flowers followed by extraordinary mottled pinky‐purple pods. The seeds – the part you eat – look similar, with streaks and mottling that vanish on cooking. Unlike runner beans, borlotto needn’t be consumed on the day you pick them. You can leave some on the plants to dry out and then store just the podded beans in an airtight jar. Treat like dried beans by soaking overnight before cooking.
How do you grow and cook them? You grow them just like runner beans. Prepare a bed with plenty of organic matter – kitchen scraps in a trench below the surface will be perfect. Start Borlotti seeds indoors to give the plants the best chance against slugs. Sown from April onwards, the seedlings can go outside after the last frosts. Protect them with slug pellets, nematodes or copper rings. Provide canes for the beans to grow up, and ensure the soil does not dry out. You will be enjoying beans from July onwards. Simmer podded borlotti with softened onion and chopped tomato, then season with lemon juice, salt, pepper and coriander and eat with crusty bread.
Growing Sweet Potatoes
Although sweet potatoes are usually grown in South America and the Caribbean, it’s now possible to buy a hardy variety that will grow in the British climate.
Why bother? Sweet potato – a tuber related to morning glory – is loaded with fibre and vitamins A and C. The sweet, starchy taste makes them appeal to children and they’re delicious simply roasted and dotted with butter!
How do you grow and cook them? Sweet potatoes aren’t frost tolerant, so you will need to start the cuttings (or ‘slips’) in pots indoors or in a greenhouse. Putting a plastic bag over each pot will help the cutting to take. Harden off the plants and transfer to their final position in early June. Sweet potatoes grow best in a greenhouse, or protected by a cloche or polytunnel, but modern varieties are hardier than the Caribbean types. All the same, sweet potato plants like temperatures of 21‐26 degrees C, and need plenty of water to form the starchy roots. The tubers will be ready about 4‐5 months after rooting.
How should you eat your harvest? Sweet potato pie – an alternative to pumpkin pie – is popular in the southern States. You can try mashing cooked sweet potatoes, dotting with marshmallows, and baking until golden on top – a traditional Thanksgiving accompaniment! But we think the nicest way to eat your crop of sweet potatoes is to cut the tubers into chunky wedges, toss with chilli powder and salt, and rub with olive oil, then roast at 180 degrees C for 25‐35 minutes.