Grow Your Own Groceries
THE SALAD BOWL
A bowl of mixed salad is one of the healthiest, easiest and tastiest meals you can prepare for you and your family. Kids don’t always appreciate green leafy vegetables, but chopped lettuce stirred into a bowl of colourful peppers and tomatoes always goes down a treat!
Growing salad ingredients couldn’t be easier and many can be grown indoors, in a conservatory or even a window box, as well as outside in a traditional garden. If you have a conservatory or greenhouse, salad can be grown almost all year round – although, as it’s eaten raw and often cold straight from the fridge, other veggies from the garden can take over during the cooler months of the year. Eating seasonally is a good rule of thumb when balancing a healthy diet.
This chapter covers five main ingredients of a nutritious and delicious salad bowl:
There are many other vegetables you can add as and when you have them available:
- carrots – grated or finely sliced
- garlic – crushed or finely chopped
- mange tout – whole or cut in half
- fresh peas or beans – cooked and then cooled
- herbs and edible flowers
- nuts and seeds.
Prepare your salad as close to meal time as possible. As soon as you start cutting vegetables, they begin to lose some of their vitamin content. However, picking your salad from the garden in the afternoon and eating it in the evening is a lot better than buying tired, old looking vegetables from the supermarket. And your garden fresh and (hopefully) organic salad will taste a whole lot better than anything you can possibly buy.
If your little darlings refuse to eat anything that doesn’t come out of a packet, you could try tipping the tomatoes into a freezer bag on the quiet and then make a big deal about getting them out of the fridge later. Or even better, get them involved in the garden.
There is evidence that the Incan civilization grew tomatoes as a food crop but over the centuries the tomato was grown as an ornamental plant as the fruits were thought to be poisonous.
By the early nineteenth century the tomato was once again considered a worthy food crop and businessmen used to eat tomatoes in public places to prove the fruit was in fact edible and could be safely consumed. The earliest recorded tomato ketchup recipe was developed in 1818.
Because tomato plants are self-pollinating, they tend not to change the components of their particular variety very much, which means we have many heirloom varieties available today, as well as many new hybrids in all sorts of shapes and colours.
Properties of tomatoes
Recent scientific experiments indicate that tomatoes, especially cooked ones, can help eliminate free radicals from the body, so reducing the risk of certain cancers.
Tomatoes contain significant amounts of vitamins A, B1, B2, B6 and vitamin C. They also contain fibre and a medium-sized tomato will only add around 20 calories to your daily calorie count.
Tomatoes are one of the few fruits that retain their goodness when cooked and it has been shown that the body absorbs the vitamins more easily when the tomato has been cooked first. So spaghetti sauces and soups are just as good for you as eating raw tomatoes.
Growing tomatoes is normally fairly straightforward even if you don’t have green fingers and have never grown any veggies before. Take it step by step and you can’t go wrong. Sometimes nature gets in the way, but there are a few tips to get around even the meanest of nature’s tricks!
First choose the tomatoes you want to grow. There are so many different varieties, you could be browsing the seed catalogues for hours. Go for a couple of easy types if you’ve never done this before. Choose a regular everyday garden tomato and maybe a cherry variety.
The larger beefsteak tomatoes take a little longer to mature and can sometimes be difficult to ripen later on in the year. However, if you have a long growing season, or if you just feel a little adventurous, go for it. The smaller tomatoes are wonderful for snacking and mixing into the salad bowl. Choose a yellow plum shape or a tiny red one. The larger varieties are good for making sauces and soups but can still be used in salads and sandwiches.
Once you’ve decided on your seeds, you need to prepare some growing trays. Fill trays or pots with seed compost and make sure they are well drained. Plants don’t like waterlogged soil. Sow seeds according to the instructions on your seed packet. Different varieties will have different growing instructions.
Generally tomato seed should be started off in early spring and kept warm and watered. Keep them warm in a greenhouse or conservatory, or simply on a sunny windowsill. As long as the compost is kept warm and moist, the seeds should germinate within a couple of weeks.
When your plants are a few inches (15–20 cm) tall, re-plant them into individual pots. Make sure the pots are well drained and keep the soil moist. Keep them inside until all danger of frost has passed.
When the ground has warmed up, normally during May in the UK, put out the pots of tomatoes during the day and bring them in again at night for a few days. This will get them used to outside conditions.
As soon as all danger of frost has passed, plant them out in the garden. They should be about 12 in (30 cm) or more by now. Place a stake firmly in the ground for each plant before planting. Tie the plant gently to the stake and water it well. Allow about 24 in (60 cm) between plants but check on your seed packet for variations.
It’s also a good idea to scatter your plants around the garden if you can. If a tomato plant gets blight or any other disease and is growing in a line with other tomato plants, the chances are you will lose the whole line. If they are scattered around the garden you’ll give each individual plant more chance of avoiding the viruses.
If the weather gets a little cold, cover the plants in plastic at night to keep them warm. Use a cloche or a similar structure with clear plastic sheets. A cloche is like a miniature polytunnel and can be bought from most garden centres – or you can make one. Find some strong bendy poles, plastic or any other material will do, as long as it has a smooth surface. Push one end of the pole into the ground and bend it over to form an arch. Push the other end in and then repeat this process leaving around 12 in (30 cm) of space between each pole. Make sure the arch is high enough to accommodate your plants. When the line of arches is in place, throw over a sheet of clear plastic and hold it down along each long edge with bricks or logs. The bricks will stop the plastic from flying away, but should be easy enough to move when you need to access your plants. The plastic sheet must be long enough to fold down to the ground at each end to protect the plants from the cold at night.
Keep your tomato plants free from weeds and water them regularly in dry weather. Never let them dry out. During the hot summer months, make sure you water your tomato plants every day, and look for signs of disease. Tomatoes can be fed with an organic fertilizer every couple of weeks during the growing period.
When your plants get a little bigger, they will start producing extra branches between the stem and the main branches. Pinch these out to encourage more fruit rather than foliage. Using your thumb and forefinger squeeze the bottom of the stems of the new branches and twist slightly to remove them from the main plant. A pair of garden scissors will do the job as well, although care should be taken not to damage the main plant.
Note that some people have allergies to tomato plants and gloves should be worn when pinching out the new growth. It’s wise to wear gloves anyway to avoid staining your skin.
Once the plants have four or five bunches or ‘sets’ of fruit/flowers, pinch out the top of the plant to stop it producing any more sets. If the plant keeps producing new sets of fruits, it is unlikely that any will fully develop.
As soon as your tomatoes are fully ripe, pick and eat them! At the end of the season, pull up and compost the plants.
Tomatoes are probably one of the most versatile foods available to us today. And the home grown tomato tastes like no other tomato can taste. Cooked tomatoes hold their vitamin content as well, which is even better!
Sliced tomatoes are great mixed into the salad bowl or cut small cherry varieties in half. Chop a large tomato into very small pieces and stir the flesh and seeds of the tomato into a green salad. The tomato will act as a dressing.
Slice medium to large tomatoes on to a serving dish and sprinkle over them a little chopped fennel or basil. Chill for half an hour before serving.
Chop spring onions or shallots and mix with chopped tomatoes. Garnish with a little finely chopped basil. Serve as a side dish.
Cooking with tomatoes
Use fresh tomatoes instead of tinned when making bolognese or chilli sauces. Choose tomatoes that are starting to go soft. Use in lasagne dishes, laying a few slices of a large tomato over the top of the dish when cooked. Grill for a couple of minutes before serving.
Chop a tomato and mix with beaten eggs and grated cheese to make a tasty summer omelette. Garnish with a couple of slices of tomato and serve with a green salad.
Partly cook a pastry case. Mix beaten eggs, grated cheese, a little grated onion and chopped tomatoes together in a bowl. Pour the mixture into the pastry case and cook for about 30 minutes in a preheated oven at Gas Mark 6, 400°F or 200°C until set. Arrange sliced tomatoes on top of the quiche. Grill under a medium heat for a few minutes to brown off.
Scoop out the inside of large beefsteak tomatoes leaving enough flesh so that the skin remains firm. Stuff with a mixture of cooked meat and vegetables or rice with finely chopped herbs such as fresh basil or coriander. This is a great way to use leftovers. Once filled, place the tomato cases on a baking tray and cook in the centre of a preheated oven, Gas Mark 4, 350°F or 180°C for about 20 minutes. Allow a little longer if you are using meat. When re-heating meat, always make sure it is piping hot right through before serving.
Chop an onion and a medium-sized potato and cook in a little butter or oil in a large pan. Don’t let it burn. When soft, add as many peeled tomatoes to the pan as possible.
Gently cook the soup until all the tomatoes are soft. Stir regularly. Add a little chopped basil 10 minutes before serving to bring out the tomato taste even more! The soup can be liquidised if you prefer a smooth and creamy texture but it is just as delicious straight out of the pot. Serve with warm crusty bread.
Tip: To make peeling easier, put a few tomatoes at a time in a bowl and carefully pour boiling water over them. Leave for a few minutes and then drain. Rub the skins off as soon as the tomatoes are cool enough to touch.
These are just a few ideas. Tomatoes can be used in so many dishes it’s always worth growing a few to show off your culinary skills!