Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Roots

Definition time... For me, "Roots" are vegetables in respect of which you eat the bit UNDER the soil as opposed to above it. Except that I would probably count Celeriac as a root, and the main bit of its root happens to grow above ground. And the same can be said for Kohlrabi and Swede Turnip, which are technically brassicas. It's just too complicated!

The Roots bed

The root veg that I regularly grow include beetroot, parsnip and carrot. I have also got a few celeriac plants, which I will describe in this blog post as well. Earlier in the year I had a few kohlrabi, which were excellent, but that was before I got the Blogging Bug, so I didn't photograph them. I have in the past tried Swedes (they occupied the ground for a long time; produced a modest yield of a product that is incredibly cheap to buy in the supermarket), and "ordinary" turnips too, such as "Golden Ball" (I found them very prone to pest damage and hard to grow well in my dry sandy soil -- and Jane doesn't like them anyway!)

CARROTS
In the past I have not had much success with carrots (which by rights ought to do well in my sandy soil), but this has been mainly because of carrot-fly infestation. I normally had to harvest the carrots very young, before the fly had had the opportunity to do much damage, but this inevitably meant very small yields (very young carrots are nice though, aren't they?). I did one year try Enviromesh for the barrier method of pest control, but I found that this restricted the amount of light and water the plants received. Even when watering by hand, most of the water ran off the mesh rather than penetrating it. Not a great success.

This year I decided to try some "fly-resistant" varieties. I had heard that these were perhaps a bit lacking in the flavour department, but actually this has not been the case. I bought seeds for "Resistafly" and "Flyaway", and sowed half a row of each. (My rows are only 2.4 metres long). After a hesitant start (the weather conditions in Spring were a bit wierd this year, and I had to re-sow part of the row in which practically no carrots germinated), they picked up and have gone on to produce my first-ever decent crop of proper full-size carrots. We have not eaten many of them yet, but those that we have had have been really good. Nice and tasty, a respectable size with few mis-shapes, and most importantly largely fly-free (though not entirely so). Here's some evidence...

Beetroot, Carrots and Endive
BEETROOT
Beetroot is a susprisingly versatile vegetable. We normally eat it boiled and then served cold as a salad ingredient, because it is just wonderful like that. Actually, beetroot is a bit like Marmite (in some respects) -- you either love it or hate it. I love the rich "earthy" flavour, which is unfortunately often masked in shop-bought products by the addition of vinegar. If you like vinegar, you can always splosh some on just before serving...

Beetroot can also be used as a hot vegetable. The other day Jane cooked a couple of partridge, and we had roasted beetroot to accompany them, cooked in a roasting-tin under foil, with the addition of some balsamic vinegar (and perhaps a splash of Port, was it?). We both liked the beetroot done this way, but significantly -- not as much as we like it the plain boiled way. I have heard that boiled beetroot served hot (presumably you rub the skins off after cooking?) is nice with a cheesy white sauce. Must give this a try some time.

Tonight we are having a vaguely Scandinavian dish that consists of pork meatballs with baked beetroot. (I'll report on this later...). Probably a good opportunity for an accompaniment of my cucumber-ribbon salad (see my blog post on Cucurbits).

The beetroot variety I am growing is called "Boltardy", which is fairly tolerant of hot, dry conditions, and as the name suggests, less prone to bolting (though not totally exempt!). I have tried other varieties, such as "Red Ace", but I always come back to Boltardy.


A fine batch of Boltardy
As well as the roots of beetroot, you can also use the younger leaves of the plant as a vegetable, and they are allegedly very like Swiss Chard, to which of course they are closely related. I must confess we have never tried eating the leaves (except some very tiny ones slipped into a salad), because we are usually focussing on the forthcoming treat represented by the roots! Anyway, here's a picture of some lovely succulent beetroot leaves...


Young beetroot leaves


PARSNIPS
First point to note: parsnip seeds can be very slow / hard to germinate. I have sometimes waited weeks and weeks for them to come through (I usually sow them quite early -- late March / early April time). I then tend to lose patience, conclude that they will NEVER germinate, sow again -- and then find the original seeds pop up the very next day! And another thing -- they say that parsnip seeds do not keep well, and you should use a fresh packet every year. I only recently realised this, and I had always kept my parsnip seeds for several years, with no noticeable difference in germination rates. Don't believe everything you hear...

At this moment, I have really only got parsnip foliage to show you. The actual roots are nowhere near ready yet. They will come into their own in the Autumn -- something to look forward to when the beans are finished!


Luxuriant Parsnip foliage!

CELERIAC
Celeriac is a close relative of celery, which you all know, I'm sure. However, in the case of celeriac, it is the swollen roots we eat, not the leaves. Though having said that, an occasional celeriac leaf thrown into a pot of home-made stock is not such a bad thing). The plant looks pretty much like celery until it begins to mature (late Summer), at which point (in theory at least) the portion of the root above ground level begins to swell and will eventually form a sort of "bulb" about the size of a swede. This root will be incredibly knobbly and removing the tough skin to get at the useable white flesh inside will be a challenge. Use a big knife, carefully.

In the past I had never been much attracted to using / growing celeriac, because it seemed too close to celery (I can;t stand the sensation of all those stringy bits in celery!). Then one year we visited a restaurant in which we ate venison with celeriac mash (i.e. mashed potato and celeriac in about 60/40 ratio). It was very good. Since then we have used this vegetable occasionally -- normally making that same celeriac mash dish, which goes well with strongly-flavoured meats such as game. However, Jane has made once or twice a celeriac remoulade from a recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, which is quite outstanding, especially when served with some good ham. The dish is a bit like coleslaw (it has a creamy, mustardy sauce like mayonnaise), and it is made with grated raw celeriac with the addition of some raw carrot to sweeten it.

I tried growing this crop for the first time last year, planting out 9 seedlings in one of my 2.4 metre rows. To be honest, the yield was very poor. I think two or three bolted without producing any root at all, and the others staggered on until about November, producing some very tiny roots that were barely worth having. I think I got the spacing wrong, and they were too crowded. This year I have only got 4 plants (focussing on quality rather than quantity, you'll note), and I have spaced them further apart -- sharing a bed with my salad crops. so maybe this time they will do better. At this present time, the plants look healthy enough, but the roots are still shall we say "embryonic"... I live in hope rather than expectation.


My four Celeriac plants (plus an Endive!)
Here's a closer view of a celeriac plant.

Celeriac
Growing tips for celeriac
1. Start them of in modules indoors. The seeds are very tiny, and they grow very slowly. Small seedlings are delicate.
2. Don't be tempted to plant them out too soon. The young plants don't like the cold.
3.Give them plenty of space. I would reckon on at least 30cm or so between plants.
4.Once they are well established in their final positions, ensure that they are kept well-watered. If the soil dries out too much the celeriac will bolt.
5. As the growing season progresses, the lower leaves around the swelling stem / root will split at the base, and should be removed to help the root develop. Also, remove any small shoots that appear on the sides of the root.
6. Be patient. Don't expect to harvest anything useable until the late Autumn. The plants are apparently quite hardy once mature.
7. If your celeriac does bolt, don't be in too much of a hurry to dig it up. Keep at least one plant. You can use some of its leaves as a "herb" for flavouring soups, stews and home-made stock.

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