The Canny Gardener

how to grow, cook and use plants, plus some philosophy!


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A bitter sweet experience

Bitter gourd or karela (in India), is a unique vegetable-fruit that can be used as food or medicine.  As the edible part of the plant Momordica Charantia, it is considered the most bitter among all fruits and vegetables.  My children hate it but I’ve persuaded them to eat it. It has such a bitter taste which is difficult to acquire easily. So why would anyone eat such a vegetable?

In traditional Indian medicine, bitter gourd has used for a range of diseases, including colic, fever, burns, chronic cough, painful menstruation, skin conditions including wounds and assist childbirth.  In parts of Africa and Asia, the bitter gourd is used prevent or treat malaria and viral diseases such as measles and chicken pox. The plant grows well in the tropical climate and is found in Indian grocery stores in the West.  However, people are not aware of its amazing properties when they look at the strange warty surface of the gourd- indeed it is neither attractive to look at or to eat.

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Fresh bitter gourd which can sliced thinly and eaten with lemon and salt but don’t eat too much of it- mild abdominal pain or diarrhoea can result

But research has proved that it has amazing medicinal properties- including fighting Type-2 diabetes and cancer.  In January 2011, the results of a four-week clinical trial were published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology , which showed that a 2,000 mg daily dose of bitter melon significantly reduced blood glucose levels among patients with type 2 diabetes, although the hypoglycemic effect was less than a 1,000 mg/day dose of metformin.  The gourd contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties, including charanti, which has been confirmed to have a blood glucose-lowering effect, vicine, an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p and lectin. Lectin is an appetite suppressant that reduces food intake and consequently thought to be a major factor behind the hypoglycemic effect that develops after eating it. In clinical trials in the USA show that extracts from bitter gourd can kill breast cancer cells and prevent them from growing and spreading.

Bitter gourd can be taken in several forms- a fresh fruit (squeeze some lemon juice and sprinkle salt), juice, and the seeds can be added to food in a powdered form. In traditional Bengali foods, it is eaten fried with turmeric and salt- this makes it quite palatable.  It can also be boiled with the rice, then the gourd eaten with some salt.  Some of the bitterness is lost this way.  Fresh or dried and made into tea- the Japanese like it this way and the tea is actually not bad at all- much of the bitter taste is gone especially with a teaspoon of honey in it.

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Fried bitter gourd with turmeric, chillies and salt.

Alternatively, bitter melon extract can be bought as a herbal supplement in health food shops. But because the gourd reduces blood sugar, the dose will need to be watched carefully and it is best to start with a small amount.

But considering everything it is an amazingly versatile medicinal plant. I’m trying to grow some from the seeds I’ve saved when summer comes and let you know how that goes!

 


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Learning from traditional cuisines

This month of January is ‘Veganuary’.  People are being encouraged to eat vegan foods, or if they can’t bear that, at least vegetarian foods. A vegan diet involves cutting out animal products like meat, fish, dairy, cheese and eggs. According to the Vegan Society, conducted in 2018, there are around 600,000 vegans in Great Britain, most of whom are women.  There are also ‘life style’ vegans- people who won’t wear leather, or using cosmetics made from animal products even if these are organic or use eco-friendly methods of production. Being Vegan has been even declared a philosophical belief- this month a court in Norwich ruled that it had been a violation of the UK’s 2010 Equality Act after a worker said he was fired for raising concerns that his employer’s pension fund was being invested in companies involved in animal testing.

An environmental writer and campaigner, George Monbiot, says that ‘the protein content of beef  is just 25%. And beef generates more carbon dioxide per kg than a return flight from London to New York ( Beef creates 1250kg per kg of protein as opposed to 986kg of CO2 per air passenger)  There other environmental costs of beef such as livestock feed, packaging, transportation, disposal of waste, etc. So were the Indians on to something when they declared that the cow is ‘holy’ and that beef should not be eaten?  In fact, one third of Indians are vegetarians and most of the ones that eat meat, do not eat beef.  Did that belief have some practical consideration because livestock also need large areas for grazing?  Land management is a crucial issue for the 21st century- at present, most countries have more areas set aside for grazing than for forests. In Africa, this is causing havoc and on a planetary scale, it is causing desertification, climate change and changes in the water tables.

Eating meat is considered a move up the social and economic scale, so when people become rich they start eating meat.  But eating too much meat, especially red meat, is also creating health problems. In the Philippines, the social attraction of eating meat is so high that poor people will eat recycled meat- called Pag Pag, this is meat that has been thrown out from restaurants and homes, eaten by rats and contaminated by other waste. It is washed, cooked again and sold. Why should people eat such meat? Where is the desperation? Filipino food is actually quite healthy with a combination of meat and vegetables and combines the cuisine of the East with the West.  When I commented about this, I got so much abuse from people that I had to leave the facebook group.

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Another aspect of healthy eating is portion size. In my village, rice, legumes and other grains used to be measured out using this wooden cup. When I first saw it as a child, I thought it was a bit mean!  But now, having measured the container, I realise that a portion of that cup is the same size as the cupped palm. That is amazing! So again traditional wisdom knew that portion sizes needed be cut down and created this wooden cup for measuring exact amounts per person.

 

There must be other traditional wisdom in ancient cultures all around the world. If you know of other aspects, please write in the comments below.

PS: So considering their traditional diet, would Indians be more environmentally friendly than a European who is consuming beef and flying as well?


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Life after death

Recently at Kew Gardens, there was an exhibition called ‘Life in death’ which featured an installation made of dried flowers, itself inspired by garlands found with mummies in Egypt. There was a solemnity and dignity about the work, while reminding us about the fragility and beauty of life.  I was immensely touched by this exhibition by Rebecca Louise Law, an installation artist based in London.

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It also stirred up my childhood memories of working with seeds and pressed leaves and flowers.  Fresh flowers can be fleeting joy but correctly preserved, flowers can give pleasure for a long time as the garlands from the Egyptian tombs show.   I try to bring back flowers which are meant to be thrown out after just a few hours in an event- such a waste not just of the flowers but also the artistry that made that bouquet.  Recently, I was attending an event with a lovely bouquet at my table made of white or pale flowers. It reminded me of both life and death.

I brought the bouquet back home and after a couple of days, the flowers started to dry up. Normally I would have thrown the entire bunch in the compost but these struck me as having a touch of fragile beauty, a whiff of life with a whiff of death about them.  I photographed them before it went on for composting. Here are the results-

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I hope these two encounters with dried flowers will rekindle that spark I used to have for them!


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Energy garden project

Last year, I started a project with my charity, Charushila, for a concept called ‘Energy Gardens’. The Energy Garden project is a partnership project delivered by the NGO Repowering London and environmental charity, Groundwork Trust, with Transport for London. In time, 50 of London’s Overground stations will be transformed into community ‘Energy Gardens’ with thriving gardens that will incorporate food growing plots and solar panels providing on-site renewable energy for lighting, water pumps or other station amenities.  In addition to improving the daily commute of people going to work the creation of the gardens will also help people get into work through training opportunities and paid horticulture apprenticeships for young people.

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Charushila was a partner in facilitating the project at one of the stations, Acton Central.  The first year was spent in community engagement which provided a blue print for what the local community wanted and getting ideas for the project that people felt were of local importance.  The engagement was also about securing future commitment to the project in terms of maintenance and ownership.  In all, about 200 local people were consulted for this project- including residents, passengers, station staff, school children and local businesses.  The project has been taking shape slowly and many ideas are yet to be implemented. Some of the planters have already been adopted by local organisations, so if you’d like to adopt one, please let us know.  We are looking for volunteers to plant, water and weed, so please come along if you live nearby.  

But even though it is yet to be finished (these community projects involving gardens always take a long time!) , it is always heartening to get compliments from people getting in and out of the trains (a man said, “wonderful to see this work!”) and even better to eat the produce.  My two recent recipes involve spinach and pumpkin flowers (these flowers were about to be thrown away!)

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Spinach, Bangla style:

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This is about 500 gms of spinach but as you’ll see when it cooks, the volume reduces!

Heat couple of spoonfuls of cooking oil in a wok- I used organic sunflower oil. Throw in a teaspoonful each of mustard seeds, black onion seeds (Kalonji) and Fenugreek (Methi) seeds, one birds eye chilli pod, a tablespoon of turmeric and a small ball of jaggery/molasses or if you can’t find that, then a teaspoon of sugar will do.  I also added some chopped carrots.  Put in salt to taste- the spinach is slightly salty anyway, so put in less than you might do for other dishes.  Put on a lid and relax with a cup of tea while the spinach cooks.  In about 20 minutes, take off the lid and check- it should look like this- IMG_4168.JPG

Pumpkin flower fritters

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Wash the flowers carefully and and take out the hard stalks and petals at the bottom of the flower but make sure you keep the shape of the flower.  Dry them on a towel.

This is for three flowers- so if you have more or less, do adjust accordingly.  In a small bowl, mix a teaspoon of freshly crushed coriander and cumin seeds, add salt to taste (and paprika powder to taste if you like chilli taste).  Add three large heaped tablespoons of chickpea flour and carefully add water so that you get a runny consistency.  When you dip each flower into it, the paste should stick evenly to the whole of it, otherwise adjust the water so that it does.  If you make too much of it, you can always add chopped onions and make some bhajjis with the same paste!  These are now fried in hot oil and you can eat them with ketchup (like my son does!) or with tamarind chutney-

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Until death do we part

I have been very guilty of loving my houseplants too much- by overwatering, over-fertilising and doing every other over-the-top thing.  I have lost many plants and also money.  So now I have reduced what I buy- though I still love to have plants in the house.  Contrary to the view that houseplants hugely increase the amount of carbon dioxide during the evening and night and therefore it is not good to have them inside the house, it has now been calculated that they only increase it by a very small amount.  This amount of carbon dioxide does not have any health disadvantage and the benefits of having house plants outweighs everything else.

During the late 1980’s, NASA did some research on houseplants as a means of providing purer and cleaner air for space stations. The plants filter out certain harmful compounds in the air and make it much healthier to breathe. My top three maintenance free and double use houseplants are-

  • Spider plant (which can absorb 90 percent of the toxins inside the house by absorbing mold and other allergens, small traces of formaldehyde and carbon monoxide; and best of all, live on practically nothing and yet produce ‘little babies’ that can be detached and given away as gifts!)
  • Aloe vera (the juice of which can be used for burns and insect bites)
  • Peace Lily (which improves the indoor air quality by as much as 60 percent by reducing the levels of mold spores, keeping bathrooms free from mildew and absorbing harmful vapors from alcohol and acetone.  The peace lily also produces beautiful white or pale flowers- bonus! And after reducing my watering, it has finally produced a beautiful flower after many years of being flowerless.
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Over the years, I have drastically reduced the numbers of houseplants but I was still overpowering them with water.  But simply keeping water levels low or watering them every 2-3 weeks works well.  A tip I got about watering houseplants when going away was to leave an ice cube in the pot- this has also worked well.  This time was the first time I didn’t find my houseplants nearly dead from overwatering after I returned from a three-week holiday (previously I used to sit my houseplants knee deep in water!).  My nearly dead poinsettia has even come back to life with glorious red leaves as you see below. I am now working on the orchid on which I will report later.

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Easy pumpkin seed snack

It is autumn and pumpkins are readily available.  Use them for your Halloween pumpkin and then make pumpkin soup from that.  But don’t throw the seeds or the gooey stuff around the seeds.  That gooey stuff attached to the seeds can be taken out easily using water as this Youtube video shows.  The gooey stuff can be thrown into your compost and the water used for the plants (so don’t use running water to clean the seeds as the video shows but use a bowl of water instead)  The cleaned seeds can be used for snacks.  Many of the recipes use shelled seeds and some don’t- you can use what you prefer.  Due to some health issues, I can’t have the shells so I have used bought pumpkin seeds for this recipe but you can do the same with your seeds with shells. I have also let go of the olive oil used in many recipes because it is not good in the heat but used coconut oil instead. You need much less oil this way.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.  Put your oven tray in for a few minutes to warm it, get it out and then put a tiny (I used a teaspoon) of coconut oil. It will melt.  Spread the oil around the tray evenly and then put in a teaspoon of cajun spice or you can use garam masala.  Mix the oil and the spice and blend in the seeds so that you have a even one layer of seeds on the tray.  I also sprinkled some Himalayan sea salts on the mixture- again a small amount.

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Stick the tray back in the oven for about 10 minutes or so until the seeds have turned crispy and become a lighter colour.

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The finished seeds should have golden light colour- see the difference in the photos above and below.  Then they are done. They are so yummy, low fat, free (if you have the pumpkin) and so simple to make! Its great party food plus very healthy-with nutrients ranging from magnesium and manganese to copper, protein and zinc. They also contain plant compounds known as phytosterols and free-radical scavenging antioxidants.

Because these are high-fibre seeds, they’re able to boost your fibre intake, helping you reach the ideal amount of 50 grams per 1,000 calories consumed and keep your bowels clear.  You can also take them as snacks for work or to the park because pumpkin seeds are highly portable and require no refrigeration.

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Natural dyes

 

Having an Armenian link in my family, I decided this year to make traditional Armenian Easter eggs alongside a traditional meal. Making these Easter eggs involves using onion skins, turmeric and other natural dyes to colour eggs. Here are some of my efforts. I collected red onion skins- shopkeepers were happy to get rid of them. I also put in some chilli flakes that I was not using (these also make the water red). I boiled these for about twenty minutes and left it to cool overnight. In the morning, I pasted some leaves I found in the garden on the raw eggs using water. I used organic hens and duck eggs. Then I put the eggs inside cut up old stockings and boiled them further for about 20 minutes. After removing them from the stocking, I left them to cool. When they were cold to touch, I polished them with some olive oil to make them shine. Even though the duck eggs were less successful, the over all effect of mottled colour with silhouettes of leaves, was charming on both types of eggs.

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What about waste?  The skins were put in the compost and the leftover liquid was used to dye an old white silk blouse which is now a pretty pink colour. No waste- perfect!

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I will be trying out more natural dyes made from vegetable waste or origins such as blueberry juice, coffee, tea, etc. I have already used such colours in creating a portrait of person who likes spicy food (turmeric and onion skins), tea and coffee and more mineral colours.

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