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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Colourful winter vegetables

It is said that one must eat all colours of the rainbow for a healthy diet.  It may seem that in winter this is not possible but by visiting local shops, I’m discovering a variety of vegetables of all colours. Here are some- purple cauliflower and red carrots.

The great thing about these vegetables are that because they have so much flavour, they can cooked very simply- roasted with some olive oil, steamed, pulsed into soups or even eaten raw.  They don’t need much flavouring- just salt and pepper will do.  The photographs show the purple cauliflower and carrots roasted. Also, shown is a simple soup of broccoli with some stilton (left over from Christmas).  I also chopped up the leaves and stems from the cauliflower and made it into stir fry with rice- my zero waste effort.

Cauliflowers are good for a healthy heart, and purple ones, which get their colour from anthocyanins- flavonoid pigments that also give red cabbage, purple carrots, and many berries- give the same health benefits as these ‘super foods’.  It is said that anthocyanins can help with rheumatoid arthritis, due to their strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Cauliflowers contain 46 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 gram serving and they also contain Vitamin K and calcium- all good for warding off winter colds and aches and pains.

PS- I haven’t grown them but I’m supporting small farmers and buying locally- so that is really a canny thing to do!


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Cranberry sauce is not just for Christmas!

You may be wondering why I’m writing about cranberry sauce when Christmas is over!  There reason is that I made some this year and it was a huge hit.  I gave some away as a present too.  The best thing is that it is very simple to make and uses very few ingredients.  The only thing could be finding the fresh cranberries themselves but loads of grocery shops sell them as they are seasonal.  You can also use frozen cranberries.  If you find some on reduced price, buy them and make the sauce. It will keep in the freezer and I found it goes with a lot of foods, not just turkey.  For instance, it goes well with cheese, Indian and Mexican foods- the tanginess sets off the spicy flavours.

So here it goes-

100g/3½oz light brown sugar (cost 46p)
100ml/3½fl oz orange juice ( I used the cheap carton of orange juice but you can also use freshly squeezed orange juice and use the rind, as below to make the zest) 86p
250g/9oz fresh or frozen cranberries (80p for 300gm)
1 clementine or small orange, finely grated zest only (optional)

Bring the sugar and orange juice to the boil in a large saucepan. Stir in the cranberries and simmer for 5 minutes or until tender but holding their shape. Frozen cranberries will take longer than fresh. Refrigerate until needed, it will thicken as it cools.

I also added ginger powder and a clove into the mix and took out the clove after I finished making the sauce. I added the zest later.

Total cost of homemade sauce £2.12, i.e £ 0.70 per 100 gm

Shop bought cranberry sauce cost: £0.68 per 100 gm

So you see there isn’t much difference in the cost but the difference in taste (and the colour) is enormous. And since it is so simple to make, why compromise? Plus it can be a zero waste gift. I’m now thinking of using this recipe for other seasonal berries.

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Homemade shampoo

In the spirit of the wave against a throwaway culture and also of Konmari methods, I decided to use whatever I had in the house to make a homemade shampoo.  This also meant that I did not buy the spice/coffee grinder that I was going to get from Amazon. After having browsed the website for days, and even got a free gift card, so I wouldn’t have had to pay anyway.  I also looked into buying a manual grinder.  But I was conscious that I would buying something that needed manufacturing, transporting and packaging, not to mention maintenance and cleaning.  Some of the reviews were good and a few were bad but these days, one cannot trust online reviews either as many have turned out to be fake.  Thirdly, using the heavy mortar and pestle is actually good for my joints as I have osteoporosis. I’ve been recommended weight bearing exercises and this appears to be a two things for one!

So this morning, I dug out an old mortar and pestle that had been found lurking in our old house and I had cleaned it some time back- I wrote about how to remove rust then.  Then I found several things in my cupboard which I have substituted for the original recipe as some of the ingredients cannot be found in the a ‘Western’ country easily. Here is my recipe for a homemade shampoo, suitable for dark hair. But if you used dried hops or camomile, you can use this for blonde or lighter hair.   These are traditional herbs that have been used for thousands of years, so they are tried and tested on humans. However, I am not a herbalist and I suggest you try a small portion on your skin before you put this on your scalp.IMG_0853.JPG

Ingredients:

  1. Four tablespoons of reetha powder ( I used my old heavy mortar and pestle to pound up this powder from dried reetha fruits I already had, after removing the black podlike seed inside)
  2. One tablespoon fenugreek seeds
  3. One tablespoon chickpea flour (substituted for green gram flour in the original recipe)
  4. One tablespoon dried Tulsi powder (already had but now easily available in Western stores)
  5. One tablespoon dried rosemary (substituted for dried curry leaves)- this is good for dark hair

One teaspoon dried amla lying in the house (again pounded up using the mortar and pestle) but you can omit if you can’t find it.IMG_0848.jpgThis is what it looks like when ground up together. Don’t worry too much if you don’t seem to have a fine powder- it still works because you need to soak it in water for at least two hours before use.

One it has been soaked in a small amount of water, you can see the soapy liquid forming. Use a bit of rosewater for this if you have any- I used Nealsyard rosewater but ordinary water will do fine as well. Best of all it smells very sweet, can’t really describe it but so much better than any shampoo I’ve used so far, even if they claim to be organic and natural.

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Before use, massage your head with some coconut oil, said to encourage hair growth.  Leave it for about 20 minutes and then apply this paste to the head and wash off.  It is such a lovely Sunday treat! Best of all, it was free to make with what I had in the kitchen.

 


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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:

Wash the spinach carefully and chop.IMG_4128.JPG

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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when life gives you lemons…

Lemons, preserved or not, are really great for many types of foods from Western to Eastern, stopping by at Middle eastern, so really universal.  Lime is sweeter than lemon and is used more in Eastern dishes but you can interchange them as I discovered if you have one and not the other.  I have been experimenting with lemons and limes recently so here are some of my discoveries and money saving tips.

  1. To keep lemons and limes fresh for a long time, do not put them in dishes and display them on dining tables as they show in home improvement shows.  Instead, put them in a jar and fill it with water and keep in the fridge.  This way, they keep for a long time instead of becoming dried and unusable.  Lemons and limes are quite expensive, so this is a good money saving idea.IMG_0990.JPG
  2. Lemon rinds can be dried at home, before you use the juice for cooking, so try to buy unwaxed limes and lemons and make lemon peels instead of throwing the peels away.
  3. It is quite easy to make preserved lemons however, the cost and time required are not worth it, according to me.  So it is cheaper to buy organic preserved lemons than making them at home.  Plus you can buy these anytime of the year- if you choose to make them at home, lemons can be quite expensive in the summer, so you have to wait for winter to make them at home. However, one money saving tip I have discovered is not to throw the fleshy bits as many of the Moroccan recipes suggest and only using the rind. In fact, once you cut everything in bits and discard the inedible internal skins and bitter seeds, you can use everything up. I have so far used these in Moroccan style lamb and chicken; and Italian style pork.  I have used grape juice to sweeten the dish as the lemon bits can be quite sour.IMG_0985.JPGIMG_0996.JPG
  4. Both lemons and limes can be used to make lemonades. I prefer a quick version using squeezed lime and lemon juice and some sugar and a pinch of salt- then mixed with fizzy water and ice. You can thrown in the used rinds and some mint leaves if you have them.  A cheap cool drink for the summer.


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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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canny planting

An important part of being a canny gardener is thinking about how to do the most with least (thereby save money).  Some could be about buying perennials, some could be about plants that re-seed/re-grow  by themselves every year and some about plants that do two or three things. Here are some easy plants that have worked for me because they are easy, need little watering and resistant to common pests while attracting bees and good insects.

  • Eating and looking/smelling good– Edible Chrysanthemums, Chopsuey greens (extreme right), pansies and lavender.  Shown below (left) is the edible chrysanthemums and my thai rice noodle made with it.  I am going to use the flowers and the pansies, along with the nasturtiums to make a ‘flower salad’ later.

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  • Buy one and get many for free– Calla lilies, Hosta, Alpine sedum, mint (both mint and sedum work well as ground cover, saving time on weeding. Shown below is my Hosta plant which has had many babies and survived slug onslaughts (slugs love Hosta).  When the leaves are young, you can eat them as greens.

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  • Reseeding by themselves- Mexican Daisy, poppies and Marigold. White flowers spring through fall. All needs medium to low water.  With the daisies, you can also divide and get many from one small pot that you buy.

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  • Perennials– Clematis, Agapanthus, Lobellia Fan Scarlet, Canna (many of the South African flowering plants will also grow in the UK and Europe, needing only little watering and care and producing gorgeously vivid blooms) . Shown from left to right are the Californian poppy (that occasionally becomes perennial!, calla lily and agapanthus, Erysimum (Bowles Mauve) and Clematis.

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  • Useful weeds– Herb Robert, Dandelion, common geranium, nettles- I have got these free from the heavens- they are medicinal herbs, good for bees and grow with no problems! Shown below are nettles which I use for food, fertiliser and tea and also wild geraniums.

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Elderflower tests

Elderflower juice

This photo shows some of my elderflower cordial being sold at my son’s school fair- it was very popular and sold out soon, even though it was not the sort of weather for it, i.e. cold and rainy.  I made the cordial this year with a little added Chinese wine vinegar which appeared to have improved the taste.  Now the elderflowers on trees are slowly turning into elderberries, so soon it will be time for compotes.  This summer I tried some more experiments with elderflowers.  Here are couple-

1. Growing elderflowers in a pot

My previous potted elderflower died- they do not like containers but that is all I have, so I have to keep trying to grow them.  This year while getting the flowers for the cordial I made above, I managed to tear down an entire small branch. Racked with guilt, I didn’t want to throw it away.  So I thought, why not try to plant this in the pot. I kept it for a few days in some water and then using some rooting compound on the cut stem, I put it in a pot. It seemed to a be failure and I was about to throw it away yesterday but lo behold, it seems to be growing. Now I need to see what happens- will keep readers updated and if any of you have have success with growing elderflowers in a pot, please let me know.  Apparently they need severe pruning in early spring or late autumn and they may die after three years (as it happened with my last one)

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2. Elderflower tea

I did a taste test between dried and frozen elderflowers.  In samples tasted by four people who didn’t know which one was which, all concluded that the dried elderflower worked the best for tea. So next year, more dried elderflower tea (the good thing is it doesn’t need any kind of sweetener- it is lovely as it is) and has many health benefits.  Elderflower is rich in bioflavonoids, mostly flavones and flavonols. The most abundant flavonols in elderflower are quercetin, isoquercitrin and anthocyanins, which have antiviral properties as well. Elderflower also contains chlorogenic acids, such as cinnamic acid, which may help with allergies, regulate blood glucose levels and have a laxative effect on the body (so take in moderation!). Triterpenoids, especially β-amyrin, erythrodiol, and oleanolic acid, are also found in elderflower. These triterpenoids offer a variety of health benefits including analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.

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feeling summer

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I tried this winter to grow something but thanks to climate change, it was all very unpredictable.  I shall have to think of something to beat this chaotic weather for next year.  I am beginning on an exciting community garden project which I will report another time.

For now, I am using the summer harvest to good use in the chilly winter.  This is my chilli oil.  The ingredients consisted of a base of a neutral oil (I used 100 litres of organic sesame seed oil) which I heated for 30 seconds in the microwave.  Then I added four birds eye chillies, two sprigs of rosemary, a few sage leaves and four peppercorns.  You can adjust the chilli according to your needs- my children seemed to love the chilli taste.  Then leave to infuse in a jar for at least two weeks before using.

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