Vegetable Pakoras

One of my favourite Indian foods are pakoras. I love this crispy, spicy, snack. It’s perfect as part of a meal, but equally good as a savoury treat. Eaten all over the Indian subcontinent they are a great way of using up bits of different vegetables, working well with cauliflower, courgettes, onions, potatoes, spinach, chard, aubergine…the list goes on. An added bonus for our family is that they’re inherently gluten free, due to their use of gram flour.

Simple in method, they do however need a few different herbs and spices to achieve the perfect pakora. For some, this would require a trip to the supermarket, or local ethnic shop (or both) to stock up on the necessary ingredients. I love having a range of spices in my cupboard, but sometimes the convenience of a spice mix is a godsend.  When I was recently contacted by Hari Ghotra about her Pakora curry kit, I thought I’d check it out.

The kit comes with all the spices and gram flour combined, and instuctions to make both vegetable and paneer pakora. There’s also a link to a video showing the process involved, but the recipe on the card is clear and easy to follow.  As mentioned before, pakora are very versatile, so I chose to use up a glut of courgettes, as well as some potatoes and onions. I love growing courgettes at the allotment, but if you look away for a moment, they seem  to grow in seconds, so another way to use them up is always handy. The one thing with using courgettes is that they have a lot of liquid in them, so after grating them they need to be squeezed of excess water, before combining them with the rest of the mix. Once your mixture is combined, it needs to be used pretty quickly, dropping spoonfuls into hot oil and frying until golden brown.

For a recipe which includes the spices needed to recreate the mix, see Hari Ghotra’s website, where you’ll also find a rnage of different curry kits and recipes to try. As a handy store cupboard emergency pack, these are pretty good. They certainly make it easy to turn a glut into a tasty, spicy treat.

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Getting in and out of a Pickle

Of all the elements of a Japanese meal, the pickles are my favourite. I love the acidity and punch they give to any dish. Pickling is a great way to preserve vegetables at their freshest, making use of their youthful crunchiness to prepare a brilliant condiment to many dishes. Pickling, like fermentation and other food preservation techniques, has become more popular recently; and one of the reasons must be the way in which it allows you to stop wastage of different vegetables, extending their life.  This ability to use up vegetables you have in excess makes pickles the friend of the allotmenteer. Noone who has an allotment hasn’t encountered the courgette glut, or been overrun by runner beans. With the ability to pickle the excess, these gluts are more manageable. I’ve already got too many cucmber plants growing in (and out of) the greenhouse, so I started thinking about the plan to manage the situation.

Last week I received a hamper from the people at Farmers’ Choice, an online free-range butchers and grocers. They have the tagline ‘from Dirt to Doorstep’, and pride themselves on their high standard of animal welfare and local producers. The food box I received had a mix of meat (a free-range chicken, mince, pork chops), as well as a range of seasonal veg. Included in this were spring onions, radishes and cucumbers; the perfect vegetables to perfect my pickling.

Cucumber and Radish Japanese Pickle

You will need

3tbsp cider vinegar
1tbsp caster sugar
1tbsp mirin
1 cucumber
300g radishes
1 spring onion
1/2 tbsp fine sea salt

Start by preparing the pickling liquid, combining the vinegar and sugar and stirring until the sugar is disolved. Finely slice the radishes and spring onion, before halving the cucumber and scooping out the seeds. Finely slice the cucumber into half moon shapes. Sprinkle the vegetables with salt, mix together, then leave for half an hour or so. The salting will draw out moisture, increasing the crunch in the vegetables. Thoroughly rinse, then dry, the veg before placing in the pickling liquid. Place in the fridge, the pickle will be ready after an hour or so.

pickled veg

I served this pickle with some of the chicken made into a delicious kebab. Marinated in a lemon juice and mint, the meat had a great flavour and complimented the pickle brilliantly. The pickles would also make a super accompaniment to a burger, the acidity of the pickled radishes and cucumber cutting through the meatiness of the burger.

I’ll be saving some of my veg gluts to pickle later in the year, they’re a great way of extending the shelf life of vegetables and providing a zingy accompaniment to dishes.

How to train tomatoes

Whilst tomatoes should have been planted out by now, you can still get them from nurseries and garden centres, ready grown and ready to nurture to cropping. The smell of fresh tomatoes, let alone the unbeatable taste of fruits picked from the vine, makes growing them well worth it.


Once your tomato plants have grown to about a foot in height, support them with a cane or stick at their side which you can use to tie them into as they grow. It’s importance to tie the. plants to a cane before they have a chance to drop, as this encourages them to grow up and produce more fruiting spurs. As they grow, pinch out all side shoots of your cordon tomatoes, but you can leave the bush types well alone to fill out. Once cordons have formed six or so fruiting trusses you should pinch out the tops. In reality I tend to let them hit the roof of the greenhouse, then pinch out the tips.


I under-plant my tomatoes with basil, as basil and tomato go together. It makes it easy to make a basil and tomato salad, but also has a preventative effect on aphids. Companion planting with French marigolds – tagetes – also works as the aphids will be repelled by their smell. Watering is crucial for consistently good fruits. Before the flowers have formed, water once a week or so and feed once a fortnight. Once the flowers and fruit have formed, water twice a week and feed once a week. What tomatoes don’t like is inconsistent watering, this tends to lead to splits and problems with bottom rot. Like children, they appreciate a routine and will repay you when they are looked after in a consistent way.

Once ready ripe, keep picking, this will help to extend the harvest as long as possible. It also means you can use them in a range of delicious recipes. Check out some tomato recipes here.

Homemade Root Vegetable Crisps

Since my son’s diagnosis as coeliac we’ve had to take a look at everything we eat and see how it can fit in with a gluten free diet. With the sun showing a lot more of itself recently, the prospect of a picnic becomes a real one, and one which usually involves a bag of crisps. We don’t eat many crisps, but they kind of have to be involved in a picnic. The trouble is that many crisps seem to not be gluten free, due to different flavourings and being unable to guarantee that no cross-contamination occurs in the factory. As a result, we have a limited source of commercially available crisps (although PomBears are gluten free and were a favourite anyway). This, and the discovery of a rogue beetroot at the allotment when digging last week, led me to the decision to make our own. I can guarantee no cross-contamination; it’s my kitchen.

Vegetable crisps have been around for a while, probably since the mid-19th century when the potato crisp was also popularised, however they have never been a mass market snack. They are however, delicious. They’re also pretty simple to make.

root vegetables

You will need (for the equivalent of a large bag of crisps)
1 beetroot
1 large carrot
1 large parsnip
Oil for frying (I used rape-seed oil, but any mild flavoured oil is good)
Flaked sea salt

First, make sure the vegetables are clean and free of soil on the outside of the skin (they’re best with the skins left on I think). Using a speed peeler, peel thin slices of the vegetables to form the ‘crisps’. You’ll find that the initial peelings are usually a little too small, but as you get further into the vegetable they will become more of a suitable size. Once you’ve got a pile of shaved vegetables; it’s best to remove some of the moisture by placing them on a paper towel and pressing from above with another piece to absorb any liquid. This helps to give you a crisper crisp.

The next stage is to fry the crisps and to do this you need a saucepan of hot oil. I’ve never been a fan of deep frying things, but if you get the oil to a high temperature you don’t tend to get a greasy result; just a crispy one. So, heat some oil to 150ºC and fry the vegetable slices in batches (it’s probably best to leave the beetroot to last as it does give the oil a rosy hue) until lightly golden and crisp, 2 to 5 minutes per batch. When the crisps are crisp, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon, allowing excess oil to drain away before placing the chips on a paper towel covered baking tray. Salt the hot crisps immediately and start the next batch of vegetables. Once you’ve fried all the crisps, toss them in a bowl and you’re ready to devour these moreish snacks.

Obviously, this recipe is adaptable. You can use lots of different root vegetables. Celeriac works really well, both as a snack, but also a garnish for soup. Parsnip or Jerusalem artichoke crisps on their own would be an excellent accompaniment to a simply roasted guinea fowl, or a steak. But of course, a bag of these makes a great snack for a picnic.

root vegetable crisps

 

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Swiss Chard

Whenever I’m asked by people about what to grow when you take over an allotment, or start a veg bed at home, the answer is always the same. Potatoes and Swiss chard. Potatoes are great, as they do some of the soil improving work for you, not least when you have to dig your harvest in the summer. However, Swiss chard is the real star, it just keeps on giving. We got turned on to chard when we used to get a veg box from the fantastic Barcombe Nurseries. We’d get home from work to find a small box of vegetable and fruit delights; each week a different selection, but nearly always including Swiss chard. It’s just so versatile. It can be used as a spinach alternative, mixed with ricotta to fill cannelloni or ravioli for example; but its earthy, iron-rich flavours are robust enough to be an accompaniment to a piece of meat after only a wilting with some garlic and a dash of lemon juice and olive oil. Its stalks can be chopped and added to curries, or steamed, then made into a cheesy gratin.

I’ve found that Swiss chard is also pretty easy to grow and incredibly hardy, often lasting for over a whole season. Like spinach and beetroot (to which it is related) it has a seed cluster, and each cluster can produce three or four seedlings. I tend to grow mine in modules (a cluster to each section) and then prick out weaker plants, before transplanting out. This seems to allow the plants to establish before setting them in the path of the slugs that prowl my allotment; the plants larger size is defence enough from the potential mollusc attack. Once established the plants grow well, and if picked sparingly from the outer leaves, will give you a harvest for a significant season. The baby leaves are an excellent addition to a mixed salad, and if you sow the ruby or rainbow varieties, add colour too. Indeed, I would suggest rainbow chard is worth sowing for the vibrant colour of the leaves alone.

Last night we used this delicious leaf in a simple chard pilaf to accompany a range of curries which had been in the freezer in small portions.

You will need
400g Swiss chard
200g uncooked rice, pre-soaked for 10 minutes
50ml olive oil
75g chopped spring onions
1 lemon, squeezed
A handful of chopped fresh coriander

Wash the Swiss chard well. Remove the stalks and finely chop, then shred the leaves and set aside to drain. Heat the oil and soften the spring onions before seasoning with salt and a pinch of garam masala.  Add the rice and toss it in the onions for a few minutes, so that it is coated in the spicy oil. Then throw in the chard stalks, leaves, and coriander and cook for a minute or so.  Add 400ml boiling water (or better still stock) and bring to the boil. Cover, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for about 15-20 minutes or until the rice is just cooked. Allow the pilaf to stand for a few minutes before serving.
 

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Piccalilli from the Plot

The allotment is still producing large amounts of cucumbers and courgettes, and there are still the last few green beans too. This reminded me that some of this produce should be preserved in order to keep the plot providing into the autumn and winter. I’m a fan of chutneys and pickles. They are both a great way of using up a glut at the plot, and a delicious (and vital) component to any cheese and cold meat dish. The Festive Period is not the same without a chutney or pickle.

During a mini break in April, my wife and I stayed at the fantastic Bull Hotel in Bridport and enjoyed some amazing pigs head croquettes, accompanied by piccalilli. It was a delicious dish and I’d like to recreate some time. I can’t very easily get hold of a pigs head, but the crop of cucurbits at the allotment have provided me worth the ingredients for an allotment piccalilli.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word piccalilli to the middle of the 18th century when, in 1758, Hannah Glasse described how “to make Paco-Lilla, or India Pickle”. The use of spices like cumin, coriander and turmeric give the pickle an Indian feel and vibrant colour, but it is an archetypal English preserve.

As a fan of Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook: Preserves; I based my own piccalilli on her recipe, using a combination of courgettes, cucumbers and dwarf green beans as the vegetable content.

What you will need
1kg washed/peeled crunchy veg
50g fine salt
30g cornflour
10g ground turmeric
10g English mustard powder
15g mustard seeds
1tsp crushed cumin seeds
1tsp crushed coriander seeds
600ml cider vinegar
150g granulated sugar
50g honey

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Cut the vegetables into even bite sized pieces. As I said, I used courgettes, cucumber and dwarf beans (but you could use pretty much anything). Sprinkle with salt, mix well, cover and leave in a cool place for 24 hours. Rinse thoroughly with cold water and drain to remove as much water as possible.

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Blend spices and cornflour to a smooth pasted with some of the vinegar. Put the rest of the vinegar, sugar and honey in a pan and bring to the boil. Pour some of the hot vinegar over the spicy paste, stir well and return to the pan. Bring gently to the boil for 3-4 minutes to thicken and flavour the sauce.

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Remove the pan from the heat and carefully fold the vegetables into the hot, spicy sauce. Pack the pickle into warm, sterilised jars and seal immediately. Pam Corbin recommends leaving the piccalilli for 4-6 weeks before eating (to allow the flavours to mature), but that was too long to wait, so a week later I opened the deliciously fragrant and crunchy pickle to accompany a nice ham sandwich.

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