Chilli and tomato relish with goji berries

tomato, chilli and goji berry chutney

When you’re of the foraging persuasion, you find yourself constantly on the lookout for new produce to plunder. It’s surprising what you see growing right under your nose if you keep your eyes peeled. Just round the corner from us, someone has hops growing in their front garden. On the shortcut we take to our local Aldi, there are grapevines, elder and goji berries. All this, within just a few hundred metres of our house.

I was vaguely aware that goji berries can sometimes be found growing wild in the UK, but this was the first time I’d found them and was curious to see what I could use them in.

Despite the more familiar dried berries being thought of as a sweet snack food, fresh goji berries are apparently often used in savoury dishes, and I decided to put them in this relish. (Or is it a chutney? After a bit of Googling I’m still none the wiser.)

Goji berries 3

Ingredients

  • 12 ripe, normal sized tomatoes
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 2 onions, peeled and chopped roughly into large chunks
  • 6 or 7 red chillies (deseeded or not, depending on your preference)
  • Fresh (not dried) goji berries, washed (I picked about 70g, but as many as you can get your hands on)
  • 200ml white wine vinegar
  • 200g caster sugar

Cut the tomatoes in half and place cut side up in a roasting tray (without adding oil). Cut the tips off the garlic, brush them with oil and nestle them among the tomatoes. Roast in the oven at about 180°C for half an hour to 40 minutes, until the tomatoes look nicely softened and are starting to colour a bit. Remove and leave to cool.

Once the garlic cloves are cool enough to handle, slip off their skins.

Whizz the garlic, onions, chillies and goji berries in a food processor until they form a fine mush. Scrape out into a large pan, then thoroughly whizz the tomatoes as well and add these to the pan too (you might need to do this in batches).

Add the vinegar and sugar to the pan and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer, stirring constantly. You want this to get to a nice sticky chutney consistency, which could take a while so be patient. When you can scrape a spoon over the bottom of the pan and leave a clear line, you’re pretty much there.

Divide into hot sterilized jars and seal.

This made 4 small-ish jars. It can be eaten as you would any chutney or relish – I think it’d be ideal dolloped in a burger.

Kent Wildlife Trust ‘Wild about Gardens’ award scheme

I began turning our bare concrete balcony into a garden in spring 2010. We’d moved in the previous November and I saw the potential to create a garden which, although only measuring one metre by three, could be an enjoyable space and attract wildlife.

I brought in various different containers, hauling them up the stairwell and through my flat to the balcony, and gradually covered the concrete with greenery. At some point around this time, a colleague mentioned to me that the Kent Wildlife Trust were advertising a gardening award scheme, and half-jokingly suggested that I should enter it. So I did.

Fast forward to this week, and I’ve just managed to win a gold award from the ‘Wild about Gardens’ scheme for the third year running. I should mention here that they give out lots of awards in each of the gold, silver and bronze categories, but I’m still chuffed to bits to have achieved the hat trick. In 2010, I also won the first prize in the ‘Best balcony, container or small garden’ category and was presented with a big metal plaque along with my certificate and smaller plaque given for the gold award.

The idea of the scheme is to encourage people to adapt their gardens to attract as much wildlife as possible, as well as conserving water and generally being environmentally friendly. Volunteers come out to look round the gardens which have been entered, and give advice as well as judging the competition. They look at the plants that have been grown to attract wildlife, provisions for birds (such as feeders and baths), what habitats have been created (such as ponds, log piles and bird and bat boxes), how wisely water is used and how compost waste is used. Obviously I can’t really install, say, a pond on my tiny balcony, so they take into account the resources available and how well gardeners have maximised the potential. They also look at how entrants have documented the wildlife visiting their garden.

I know my awards aren’t exactly up there with winning first prize at the Chelsea Flower Show, but it’s still worth remembering the importance of keeping green corridors open to wildlife. Even if all you have is a window box or a tiny balcony like mine, with a bit of imagination you can still make a difference.

So, in celebration of my achievement, I thought I’d post some of my favourite photographs from my balcony garden this year:

Snake’s head fritillary- one of my favourite flowers.

Unidentified caterpillar

Borage

Coriander flowers

Dill flowers

Rose hip syrup (and jelly)

I’ve occasionally wondered what rose hip syrup would taste like, but had never got round to foraging any rose hips to make it. While visiting my dad this week, I realised that one of the bushes in his front garden was laden with rose hips, so thought now was as good a time as any to give it a go. My dad’s garden has proved useful to me in the past when it comes to making preserves, which helps make up for the fact that I don’t have a proper garden of my own.

Rose hips are rich in vitamin C, and people were apparently encouraged to make rose hip syrup during the war when citrus fruit wasn’t readily available. This was confirmed to me by an elderly gentleman who happened to walk past my Dad’s garden when I was collecting the rose hips for this recipe – he asked me if I was going to make syrup and said he used to collect them when he was a child.

I don’t want to get all ‘Nigella’ about this, but aren’t these the most beautiful Christmassy crimson colour?

After having a look at various different recipes online, I decided to follow roughly the following ratios of ingredients:

  • Rose hips (I had about 450g of them)
  • Water (about 1.5 litres per 500g of rose hips- I used 1.25 litres)
  • The same weight of sugar as rose hips (I used 300g of caster sugar because I only made two thirds of the liquid into syrup and the rest into jelly-see below)

The rose hips I picked were ripe, but not too squishy. I didn’t bother topping and tailing them or anything like that- I just gave them a good rinse and drained them. This is the method I used for the syrup:

Put your water in a pan and heat it up. Put your rose hips into a food processor and whizz thoroughly. (If you haven’t got a food processor, you could chop them up but this could take a while.) Scrape the rose hip mush out of the food processor into the pan as quickly as possible. I say as quickly as possible because apparently the vitamin C begins to oxidise as soon as the rose hips are damaged. I’m basing this on advice from the internet, which also suggests that despite the boiling process, much of the vitamin C will be retained. If anyone out there is scientifically minded, please feel free to confirm or refute this information…

Allow the water and rose hip mixture to come to the boil, stirring often. Once boiling, allow the mixture to simmer for about five to ten minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the mixture to steep while it cools.

Once cooled, put the mixture in a jelly bag or muslin and allow it to strain through into a bowl. Normally, I’d say don’t be tempted to squeeze the bag or you’ll end up with cloudy syrup, but this came out quite cloudy anyway. Incidentally, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce the set up I use for straining things through muslin- it’s a wooden stand I persuaded my dad to make to my own specifications and it’s brilliant. He’s very good at this sort of thing, as well as having a garden which provides inspiration and ingredients for cooking projects:

Once the mixture had strained through, I had about a pint and a half of liquid. I decided to make some into syrup and some into jelly.

For the syrup, I added a pint of the strained liquid and 300g caster sugar to a pan and heated it gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar was dissolved, I decanted the hot syrup into sterilized bottles.

For the jelly, I added half a pint of the strained liquid and half a pound of jam sugar (with added pectin) to a pan and boiled until it reached the setting point (about 104⁰C). This filled about one and a half sterilized jars.

Apologies for the hotchpotch of metric and imperial measurements by the way, but maths isn’t my strong point and this just made it easier for me to work out.

The verdict

It’s always a worry when making jams, jellies and syrups that the flavour of the fruit will be lost in among all the sugar. I could still taste the rose hips in this syrup though- they have an unusual taste which to me had a hint of tomato or perhaps physalis about it (I could well have imagined the bit about the tomato flavour…)

As for how to use it, I’d suggest drizzling it on ice cream, pancakes or porridge, using it in cocktails or topped up with champagne, or just taken by the spoonful when you’re feeling under the weather or a bit hungover.

Entropy and my balcony garden

In the TV programme Wonders of the Universe, Professor Brian Cox demonstrated how entropy works using a sandcastle in the Namib Desert. It’s all about the order of things and how everything eventually descends back into its chaotic natural state (or something- I don’t think my PHD is likely to arrive in the post any time soon). Anyway, this is basically what has happened to my balcony garden. Honestly- just look at the state of it:

The plants are neglected and dried up, there is bird food absolutely everywhere, the pigeons (and a squirrel) have knocked over pots of soil and it’s essentially just a mess. I know it’s nice to let nature take over but this is ridiculous.

So over the next few weeks I’m going to try to get it nice and clean and tidy ready for the Winter. I can then start planning what I’m going to plant in the Spring…

The orchid experiment

Orchids are one of my favourite flowers, and up until now I’ve had three orchid plants living with me in the flat. Two of them are phalaenopsis plants which I bought when they were reduced to about a pound each in Homebase because they’d finished flowering (I’m such a sucker for a slightly sad looking plant that’s been reduced because it looks like it’s past its best). That was a couple of years ago and I’ve had loads of flowers from them since. One of them has actually been in bloom for about three months now- they must just really like that spot on my windowsill. I also have what I believe to be a dendrobium orchid, which was a keiki taken in 2007 from a plant my mum had. It’s struggled along ever since, and I’ve had to rescue it from near death a few times by removing it from the orchid compost it was potted in and just leaving it in a jar of water. This seems to have worked as it’s now grown lots of healthy looking roots and I’ve planted it back in a pot of orchid compost. Fingers crossed it’ll finally get settled!

Keiki taken from my mum’s plant in 2007.

People often seem to think that orchids are difficult to look after, but I think as long as you put them in a place they like, they pretty much look after themselves. Phalaenopsis orchids in particular make good houseplants.

One of my phalaenopsis orchids.

Being an orchid fan, I’ve been particularly enchanted by the orchid section of the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens on the two occasions I’ve visited. On my most recent visit there, I was inspired by the orchids growing on bark and branches to have a go at trying something like that myself at home. I realise I’m being a bit ambitious, bearing in mind I don’t have a special conservatory with regulated temperature and humidity like Kew Gardens does. However, the seed was planted (no pun intended) in my mind so I sourced the necessary items online:

Clockwise from top – large piece of cork bark, LEGO Boba Fett to show scale, raffia, sphagnum moss, dendrobium taurinum keiki, white dendrobium nobile keiki. (Large portion of optimism not pictured.)

I bought two keikis to attach to the bark. The dendrobium nobile came from Ashford (which is half an hour’s drive from where I live) and the dendrobium taurinum came from Malaysia (which is a 14 hour flight from where I live). I was actually surprised at how well the dendrobium taurinum had fared on the long journey here, but I’ve still decided to put it in water for a bit to promote the root growth before I transplant it onto the bark as it wasn’t quite as healthy looking as the other one:

This is the finished product with the other keiki attached to it, the idea being that the roots will grow into the fissures of the bark over time:

And this is an example of an orchid display at Kew Gardens which inspired me to embark (again, no pun intended) on this project (which looks a lot more spectacular than the example above!):

While the bark of trees is an orchid’s natural habitat, a first floor flat in Kent is not, and I haven’t really thought through where to put the bark now I’ve attached the orchid. There is a fine line between having a beautiful display of orchids growing happily on bark and a weird looking thing cluttering up the living room, so I’m hoping it doesn’t look too tacky…

Growing lemongrass and tamarind

A quick Google search will give lots of ‘how to’ guides on growing your own lemongrass plant, so I won’t go into masses of detail here. Basically you just get a stalk of lemongrass, put it in water until it’s grown roots about an inch long, plant it in a pot and leave it in a sunny place to carry on growing. I did this a while ago and I now have a lemongrass plant with three stalks. It was getting a bit pot bound so I’ve potted it up today in the hope it may sprout some more stalks- I’m a bit reluctant to cut any off to use in cooking until there are more of them!

The pictures are a bit crap, but you get the idea:

Now I’ve potted it up, this plant doesn’t fit on the sunniest of my windowsills anymore, so I’ve had to move it to a slightly shadier spot. I’ve put it in a miniature greenhouse where I’ll keep it misted to try to replicate the humidity of its natural habitat and we’ll see how it goes.

Some time ago, I also managed to germinate some tamarind seeds from shop-bought tamarind pulp, and I now have two tamarind plants. I’m not expecting them to grow much bigger, but I’m glad they’ve made it this far. I also like the way their leaves fold together at night:

It seems quite apt to be writing about tropical plants when we’ve enjoyed the hottest days of the year so far this weekend (a sweltering, clammy 32⁰C). However, the chilly UK winter will soon be on its way and my lemongrass and tamarind will no doubt be shivering in their pots, clutching a mug of tea and a hot water bottle. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping on the factor 50 sun cream and will try to squeeze in as much beer gardening as possible while I still can.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

I first went to Kew Gardens sometime in the early Noughties. I went on my own as I couldn’t think of anyone who’d want to go with me, but still absolutely loved it and have wanted to go back ever since. So, we recently happened to have a day off together midweek and decided to go. Owen is used to being dragged round all sorts of horticultural visitor attractions in various parts of the country, so walking round Kew for five hours was par for the course. I actually saw a lot more this time round as we had all day and the weather was perfect too. Even Owen said he enjoyed it, which for someone who’s not that interested in plants is saying something.

I think my favourite part is still the iconic Palm House- an original Victorian glasshouse built from wrought iron and hand blown glass. You can walk up decorative spiral staircases inside it to the balcony, which gives you a view down over the enormous tropical plants and trees below. I’ve decided that my dream house would have a conservatory very similar to this- maybe slightly smaller. Only very slightly mind. I’d have twisted, woody vines climbing up inside it with orchids growing on the branches, and I’d spend hours in there, my hair gradually getting frizzier and frizzier in the humidity…

Anyway, we took about a bajillion photos, and here are some of them…

Hibiscus flower – possibly ‘White Kauai Rosemallow’, if my Googling serves me correctly.

Orchids growing on a branch.

Madagascar Periwinkle – extracts from this plant have been used in the effective treatment of leukaemia.

The Waterlily House – god it was hot in there. Beautiful though.