Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sweet almond (Prunus dulcis)

The sweet almond (Prunus dulcis) is a deciduous tree. These trees are one of the earliest in the year to produce blossom and so are a popular with bees and other beneficial insects. The almonds themselves will be ripe and ready for picking in the autumn. Almonds are often called a nut but they are actually a drupe consisting of an outer fleshy part called a shuck, a hard shell and an inner seed. Ripe almonds look like large green fruits and often split open by themselves exposing the hard shell covering the seed.

Almond blossom (Prunus dulcis)

Sweet almond trees are grown for their edible seed and bitter almonds are grown for the bitter almond oil. If you want to grow this tree ensure you buy a Sweet almond with a soft shell such as the self fertile Prunus x persicoides 'Robijn'. Hard shelled varieties produce a shell that cannot be broken using an ordinary nut cracker. You usually need a hammer or a vice and it is not an easy task. This might not be a problem for commercial growers who use machinery to shell their almonds, but it is hard work for the home grower!

Raw edible parts

The furry outer shuck, seed, gum and blossom are all edible raw. The almond can be sprouted. The blossom can also be used to make a tea. The gum is called badam pisin and is obtained in the autumn from the trunk of older trees. It should be soaked for 8 hours in twice the volume of water to make a jelly like substance. It can then be added to cool summer drinks. It is popular in Southern India. Badam pisin is also used as a substitute for gum tragacanth.

The outer green shuck covering the hard shell of the almond

Green (unripe) almonds are considered a delicacy and are popular in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Almonds are closely related to peaches and nectarines and the furry shuck can be eaten in exactly the same way. It tastes unripe similar to a hard unripe peach or nectarine. The inner unripe tangy seed is soft and white and also edible.

Almonds also have medicinal uses and the kernel of the bitter almond contains laetrile or B17. There is a huge amount of information online regarding this and we leave it to the reader to investigate.

Raw almond milk

1 part almonds
3 parts water
muslin fabric or nut milk bag

Soak the almonds overnight in water. In the morning discard the water and rinse well. Add 1 part Almonds and to 3 parts water to a blender and blend until really smooth. Filter the milk using muslin or a nylon nut milk bag. Squeeze tightly to remove all the liquid. The dry pulp can be used in raw cakes, crackers or muesli. Drink the milk as it is, add flavourings or use it on muesli or other breakfast cereals. A thicker creamier milk or cream can be made by reducing the amount of water used. If time is short, the milk can be made without soaking first.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is an herbaceous perennial shrub native to Paraguay and Brazil. It is also known as sweet leaf, candy leaf, sugar leaf and sweet herb. Today stevia is mostly grown for the leaves which are used as a sweetener but this plant is also an important medicinal herb.

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)

Natural sweetener
The sweetness in stevia is due to a glycoside called stevioside. The amount of stevioside (and therefore the sweetness) varies from plant to plant. The quantity is triggered by short day length and is at its highest immediately prior to flowering.

Stevia is usually sold as an extract (liquid or white powder) or powdered plant leaf (green powder). Beware the extracts as they may be highly processed and contain binders, fillers and additives. The green powder, on the other hand, is more natural since it usually just contains the dried leaf. Stevia is relatively easy to grow and home grown freshly picked stevia leaves are by far the healthiest way to use this plant.

Health benefits
Stevia also has important health benefits and was used for centuries by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay as a sweetener and medicinal plant. More information about this can be found at Raintree's Rainforest Plant Database.

Growing Stevia
Stevia can be grown from cuttings or seed. We grew several batches of stevia from seed last year and the germination rates were erratic and low. We found that starting them off in a heated propagator gives them the best chance. Once plants are a reasonable size they can be potted on. Plants should be grown in a sunny spot in free draining soil. We kept the shallow roots moist by mulching with home made compost and grass cuttings. Once established they can be used to take cuttings. Cuttings should be taken in between nodes and should contain three or four nodes. Be careful with the leaves and stems as they are quite fragile and can be damaged very easily.

Our plants have been raised in the polytunnel to protect them from the frosts, the birds and the slugs. According to some references, stevia is naturally resistant to most pests and one of the last plants that insects feed on. In our experience they are not one of the last plants that birds and slugs feed on!

Overwintering plants
Plants can be overwintered in the British Isles. They should be cut down to about 20cm in height and kept under cover. For optimum conditions the soil should not drop lower than 0°C. This plant is known as a weak perennial and some suggest replacing the plants every few years because they become less productive. Our plants have only come through their first winter with us so we don't know how weak they are! They may become very weak if their leaves are systematically harvested year after year.

Raw edible parts
The leaves, growing tips and young stems are edible raw. Leaves are good in salads. Fresh and dried leaves can be used to make a sweet green tea. We don't have any information about the roots or the flowers of this plant. It seems likely that they are also edible but we can't find any references to this.

nb. the leaves, growing tips and young stems can be cooked and eaten like other leaf vegetables.

Processing stevia leaves
To ensure as much sweetness in the leaves as possible harvest just before flowering. Cut down the branches to about 20cm from the base of the plant and the strip off the leaves and growing tips by hand. Stems are a bit woody and less sweet so can be composted. Dry quickly using a dehydrator at around 40°C until very crispy. If leaves are dried in under 8 hours, very little stevioside (and therefore sweetener) will be lost. Store in airtight containers out of the direct sunlight. The leaves can be ground down to a fine powder just before use.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Shallots (Allium cepa var aggregatum)

Shallots (Allium cepa var aggregatum) are perennial bulbs. They can be purchased as seeds but, like onions, are more commonly bought as sets or bulbs. They were probably introduced into Europe by the Crusaders returning from the Middle East. Shallots are easy to grow and are a really useful raw food staple.

Shallots 'Longor' growing in the spring

Growing shallots
There are a limited range of varieties available in bulb form so the more unusual plants must be grown from seed. The traditional date for planting old varieties was the shortest day of the year but most of the modern varieties can be planted out from late January to the end of March. They are traditionally grown in rows roughly 20cm apart. However, they can also be dotted about the garden and grown around the base of shrubs or trees, in flower beds or used as ground cover.

Use a small stick or 'dibber' to make a small hole just big enough to take the bulb and gently push the bulb into the ground (root side down and pointy side up). Press the earth gently around the bulb. Each bulb will grow and divide into five or six new shallots. Be careful when hoeing to avoid damaging the bulb. If they become dry they stop growing so make sure to keep them moist during the growing season.

Shallots 'Longor' in storage

Lifting and storing
The bulbs will be ready to lift from June to August. Once the top foliage starts to go yellow and flop over, they can be allowed to dry out and ripen. They can then be dug up (lifted) and stored. If the ground is very wet and damp all the time, they may start to rot, so keep an eye on them. The soil can be scraped away from the base of the bulbs once they are big enough. This allows the air to circulate and can prevent rot. Lift during a few dry warm sunny days and leave out to dry off properly in the sun. Bulbs can be stored in a cool dry airy place in nets, crates or tied with string and hung up in bunches.

The bulbs in the photograph were lifted last July and have been hanging in a net in a shed ever since. They are a variety called 'Longor' and sold by The Organic Gardening Catalogue. Bulbs can be saved for use the following year so always grow extra.

Raw edible parts
All parts of all Allium species are edible. All parts of all Allium species are probably edible raw although we cannot find a specific reference to this. This is no surprise since there are around 600 difference species. Only around 30 have been used regularly for food and even less have been cultivated. The most important of these being onion, chives, garlic, leeks and shallots.

Having said this, all parts of the shallot appears to be edible raw. The long green leaves can be used like spring onions. The leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads. The bulbs can be used in place of any onion. The bulbs are purportedly milder than the large onions. However, we find they are milder when cooked but not particularly mild when raw. The seeds can be sprouted. Enjoy!