There is so much to learn and remember about vegetable gardening – sowing times and distances, transplant times, successional sowing, water requirements, crop rotation, pests and diseases, optimum harvesting times, storage, seed saving, the list goes on. Each year with experience under the belt, I do feel more confident, but there are always new obstacles that throw themselves down as a challenge.
This spring the kitchen garden got off to a wobbly start. When we lifted the horticultural fleece we had put over the autumn sown broad beans we found they had been decimated by ground slugs, which had thrived in the shelter. An autumn sowing is usually perfectly hardy, but we had left it late last year and thought the fleece might encourage growth. However, it showed us that the blackbirds must help in keeping the slugs at bay, so we won’t be doing it again. The defeat continued with a second sowing made in early March falling prey to the vandalism of pheasants and collared doves. The third sowing has now been in flower for a week, but there are several more weeks before we harvest our first crop. It has been a similar story with the peas.
Sowings of landcress and mustard greens have been severely set back by flea beetle, as have our brassica seedlings. Fortunately we thought to protect the latter with enviromesh just in time and so, as long as we net from pigeons, we should be back on track. Happily, with a couple of weeks of warm weather, we are now self-sufficient in several different types of lettuce and salad leaf, but without a polytunnel or greenhouse to give us a head start, the ‘hungry gap’ is lasting longer than usual.
The gap between winter vegetables and the season’s first beetroot, chard, carrots and new potatoes is handsomely bridged by asparagus and the perennial artichokes. Before growing artichokes at Hillside my mental image and usual experience of them was plainly boiled with vinaigrette. Since having a dependable annual crop now that the garden is established, I have been surprised and happy to discover their unsuspected versatility. You can braise or stew them, roast or chargrill them, boil or deep fry them and their subtly resinous, nutty-grassy flavour works with everything from the simplest lemon and garlic to the richest onion, tomato, fennel and chilli slow braise.
Used raw here their greener flavour goes well with the sharp freshness of citrus and herbs, while the capers and parmesan accentuate their nuttiness. This salad can be varied in any number of ways depending on what’s available. Use mint in place of parsley, add wafer thin slices of chestnut mushroom, or small pieces of anchovy and green olive, or a handful of the tiniest raw, new garden peas and slivers of Parma ham. To take things up a level you can add shavings of white truffle and crushed, toasted hazelnuts. Quite plain it is delicious alongside some whipped ricotta, goat’s curd or burrata.
This salad must be made immediately before it is to be eaten, since the artichokes will discolour if left for too long. In fact they start to discolour as soon as the cut surface meets the air, so organise all of the other ingredients in advance of preparing the artichokes. These should be done as quickly as possible, before assembling and dressing the salad and taking it straight to the table.
12-16 very small artichokes, or 8 larger ones, no wider than 6cm
2 lemons, juiced
½ a preserved lemon
1 tablespoon small capers, rinsed and drained
4 tablespoons olive oil
A small handful of flat leaf parsley, the stalks removed
A small handful of small rocket leaves, about 30 leaves
20g Parmesan cheese, shaved
Serves 4 as a starter
Wash and dry the rocket. Remove the leaves from the parsley. Squeeze the lemons. Rinse and drain the capers. Remove the pulp from the preserved lemon. Cut the lemon half into quarters vertically, then slice finely. Shave the parmesan.
Put the juice of one lemon in a medium mixing bowl with a litre of cold water.
Prepare the artichokes using a very sharp, small knife. Trim the stalk leaving about a centimetre. Hold the artichoke on the chopping board with the stalk end pointing away from you. Visualise the interior structure of the artichoke and where the heart is. Holding the knife at an angle remove the tougher outer, dark green leaves and reveal the pale leaves and creamy heart beneath. To start with you may need to use trial and error to remove as little as possible of the paler leaves. If you are concerned that you may be leaving some tough leaves, chew one of the trimmings
Slice the artichokes lengthways as finely as possible and immediately put into the bowl of acidulated water. If your artichokes are larger you will firstly need to cut them in half lengthways to check if the choke is too developed to eat. If so remove it with a sharp spoon.
As soon as all of the artichokes have been prepared quickly drain them. Pat the artichoke slices dry on a clean tea towel. Put them into a mixing bowl and pour over the remaining lemon juice. Quickly toss the artichoke in the lemon juice so that all is coated. Add the olive oil and salt and toss again. Then add the capers, preserved lemon peel, parsley and rocket and mix together quickly with your hands. Arrange the salad on a serving plate. Scatter over the shaved Parmesan. Serve immediately.
Recipe and photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 1 June 2019